By Daren Berringer
In July 1985, and for almost a year prior, the nation and the world had been wrestling with images of famine and starvation coming out of Ethiopia. Songs such as “We Are The World,” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which were written and performed by some of the most famous pop musicians of the era, had been dominating the charts. These songs were orchestrated with the intent to raise awareness and money.
Then, there they were. Teenagers mostly, while it was a beautiful Summer day outside, waking up early, staying indoors, glued to MTV. But it was watched globally.
Live Aid, the birth child of Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats turned mega-activists, was about to begin. Two concert venues, London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium were packed to capacity. All for the relief effort.
Twenty Summers later, unfortunately the work was not done and the music needed to continue to play. And we weren’t just dealing with one country in Africa.
Eradicating global poverty was the mission now and Sir Bob Geldof created Live 8, taking part of its name from its predecessor concert while also calling out the G8 nations. Again, musicians were being called upon to help lift up the voices of those who could not get world leaders to listen. There were fourteen concerts around the globe and a solid 24 hours of performances. But there was one final performance to be had a few days later in Edinburgh, Scotland, site of the G8 Summit.
I had the honor of getting to work with Sir Bob on these events, and let me tell you, this guy was singularly focused and disciplined, even in his erratic behavior and tendencies to openly dole out sharply witted British ribbings toward U2 singer Bono for turning into a pop-star and leaving his rebel rock origins while we were on conference calls.
And before you ask, the answer is no. Geldof wouldn’t know me if I passed him on the street.
While standing in our gate area at Heathrow, Geldof appears out of nowhere. International media was everywhere and it was clear that the public relations team didn’t do their job in setting up a proper location for a press conference.
So Geldof, not missing a moment, hops up on a chair and begins to rail against the establishment for their neglect and their complicity. Reporters were trying to enter into the gate area through a security door that set off alarms each time one would open it.
And again, staying completely dedicated to the cause, Geldof finally pauses his well educated remarks and yells “Fxxk off! If one more of you twits opens that door you won’t be boarding the fxxking plane!”
He knew there was both a very self-therapeutic and overarching humanitarian purpose behind all the work that had gone into this effort and he didn’t care who he pissed off; even the media he needed in order to help him get out the word.
Now, thirty-five years later we see musical performances once again in this dual role of serving the cause as well as a form of coping. But we are living in very different times so there are no major packed concert venues.
Artists began performing right from their living rooms, backyards, the streets and even at the drive-ins.
Following the events of civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Jon Batiste and Stay Human did what they did best. It was time for what they call, “a love riot.”
This group of “social” musicians are most likely better known as the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The band includes drummer Joe Saylor, a.k.a. The Jazz Cowboy.
Marches had taken place but it was this band’s turn to put their stamp and stomp on it. And when his band leader called upon him, Joe knew he had to mask up and provide the driving rhythm.
He and the band are famous for encouraging entire audiences at shows to leave venues and take the music to the streets for all to hear. This is much in the historic vein to second line performances in New Orleans.
There was Stay Human, on what I believe was 10th Avenue, flooded with thousands of mask-wearing New Yorkers, marching not in anger, but in harmony.
When I interviewed Joe, his involvement was a calling grounded in his faith and his instrument, an expression of unity.
“Music can soften hearts, move people to hope and love, and be a vessel for truth,” Saylor said.
“Participating in the march deepened my conviction that things are not as they should be and motivated me to press in even more and contend for His kingdom on earth as in heaven. We have a lot of progress to make, but I am very hopeful,” Saylor concluded.
Another artist, Scott Blasey of the legendary Pittsburgh based rock band, The Clarks, stepped up to the mic, quite literally and virtually welcomed us into his basement. Scott decided that each Saturday night, while everyone was under stay-at-home orders, he would jump on Facebook and perform and discuss some of the back story about each song. Just like that, “Live from the Blasement” was born.
And like what everyone else was going through at home, he was surrounded by his family and got them involved. His daughters joined him on some songs.
His wife produced the show and helped field questions, requests and birthday shout outs that were coming in online. They introduced us to their family pets. They raised money for local charities and offered us something to just look forward to each week. We watched this family religiously each of those Saturday nights at our house.
“I quickly realized how important these shows were to our fans. Music is a healing force and I was happy to provide a couple hours of relief to them every Saturday night. I had many people comment about how much they looked forward to the shows, that the shows provided a little bit of normalcy during the pandemic,” said Blasey.
To Blasey, who has been in the music game for over three decades, it was also a lesson learning experience. He would go on to tell me that “[I]t was as therapeutic to me as it was to my audience. I need to perform. I gained an even greater appreciation for our fans. Their comments were food for my soul. They kept me going week to week and made me strive to give the best performance I could.”
But it wasn’t just the established artists who were getting involved. Truman Sinclair of the L.A. based Emo band, Frat Mouse took it to another level. Here he was, ending his high school days without being able to be with any of his friends, no prom, no traditions of handing down your black school shirt to a Junior, no pomp and circumstance graduation ceremony.
“Originally we felt shafted,” said Sinclair. “The band was just getting started with our live performances and they meant so much to us. Music is the most transparent art form because it is aggressively human with no filter between you and your audience.”
So to entertain and bring all his friends and fans together, even in just the virtual world, leave it to this 18 year old to figure out how to get different bands to perform from remote locations around the country without anyone having to switch platforms to watch them.
Full disclosure, Truman is my nephew so I already thought he was pretty cool.
“It was a success,” Sinclair added. “I not only saw the online reaction of teenagers just being excited to have something to look forward to, but then they all interacted during the performances. People from L.A., Chicago and the U.K. didn’t feel like they were alone in their bedrooms anymore. We helped to build a community, however small, but it was a more intimate setting.”
Beyond his performances for audiences on Instagram and Twitch, Truman also knew how much one little girl in particular missed him and loved his music.
So his cousin, Atlee would call him on Google Duo, make her requests, and he’d play just for her. She knows all the lyrics to his songs so she sang along with him while standing on a chair and strumming her little guitar. And so for the little girl who had to dramatically adjust her life for reasons of a pandemic she wasn’t able to understand, Truman brought her joy.
There will continue to be disasters, famine and sickness in the world. There will also exist people who are enveloped in so many demons burning within them that they confuse doing what is right with sadistic and puerile outbursts. But the sheer force of music is one that moves mountains of emotion and change.
Its historic role in transforming society far outweighs any speech, piece of legislation or executive order. Nothing compares to it. One song, one performance can not only heal us on the individual level, but holistically help the grander community evolve and reshape our priorities.
Priorities come in big and small. And finding comfort in lyrics tie together mutual feelings and provide the power and perspective for what we long to feel.
Daren Berringer is a national Democratic Party political strategist and media consultant based in Pennsylvania. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.