River Music Experience Music Lab Celebrates 200th Episode, Among Other Out-of-the-Box Responses to Pandemic
Saturday In The Arts is a comprehensive weekly feature looking at a trend, personality, or major subject involving the Quad-Cities arts and entertainment scene.
This past week was an historic one for the nation, as well as for Davenport-based River Music Experience.
Five Americans died as a result of the massive Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as pro-Trump insurrectionists disrupted the certification of the Electoral College presidential results. That same Wednesday, RME postponed the planned celebration of the online Music Lab’s 200th episode that afternoon. The half-hour weekday program launched last March 19, as a result of shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, RME was back at it, posting on Facebook with its typical compassion and aim to unite us through the power of music:
“Times like this can be scary, confusing, stressful, and infuriating. We wanted to share some music with you today, in the hopes that it will give you some peace of mind and help us all focus on what matters.
“We’re thinking today about the way music can unite us, as it did when members of Congress from both parties stood on the Capitol steps on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 and sang ‘God Bless America.’
“We’re thinking about how music can soothe us and provide emotional release, as it did when President Obama led ‘Amazing Grace’ as he eulogized the victims of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015.
“And we’re thinking about how music can fight the injustice that still pervades our society, as it did when Joan Baez led ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the March on Washington in 1963.”
Music Lab co-hosts Bret Dale and Ben Schwind – the 17-year-old nonprofit’s education director and education coordinator, respectively — performed the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” on Thursday.
“There was an attack on our nation’s capital, and it just felt like we needed history to take its course,” Dale said in the episode. “The idea of Music Lab’s history getting to episode 200 was important, so we decided to wait. Today’s the day to celebrate with all of you.”
Dale said in the episode he was glad to be back with Schwind after a few months being separated by the rising area infection rates. They had done Music Lab for a while at the RME, 129 Main St., and Thursday, Schwind returned to Dale’s Moline home while wearing a mask.
The original theme song they always do sings, “We can talk about ABCs, we can learn about 123 – it’s all about you and me, having fun together.”
“What turned out to be an idea of, let’s give anything a shot, has turned out to be one of the most successful, fun and fulfilling programs I’ve ever been part of at the River Music Experience,” Dale, an 11-year RME veteran, said in the show – which since the start of the month airs
live on the RME Facebook page at 3:30 p.m.
“And 200 episodes, nothing to sneeze at,” Schwind said. “It’s ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘The Simpsons’ and Music Lab.”
“We can’t proceed without thanking you guys,” Dale said to his online audience – which has totaled over 40,000 viewers from 23 states, and even London. “We can’t run Music Lab without you guys. Your support, your involvement, your chats, mean so much. The feedback we get – whether we’re at the grocery store, we were able to be at Ricer Music Experience over the summer, out in public running the curbside concerts.
“There’s people we reach who otherwise would not have an opportunity to be face to face with anybody from River Music Experience,” Dale said. “It’s just really special.”
He added it was also special to be back playing with Schwind, since they often presented episodes on their own, from their homes. Dale is sometimes accompanied by his wife Kate, the RME director of entertainment (responsible for booking musicians to play at RME), who’s worked there since 2008.
“I’m not one of the more musically inclined staff members at RME currently, but it’s still fun to get in there and sing along with Bret and Ben,” Kate said recently. “I can hold my own on kazoo. I can do a pretty good kazoo solo from my sax days. We usually take an hour before the show, before we go live, picking out songs he wants to play, and he sometimes asks me to write some lyrics, for blues lyrics.”
Bret and Ben usually do original lyrics for a blues song every day, and talk about a certain musical genre or artist, and perform a few songs by them. They also include popular children’s songs and singalongs, and ask for suggestions – such as what animals to include in “Old MacDonald” (Thursday’s included elephant, mongoose and dolphin).
“One of the things that draws people to Bret is, he’s so personable and really charismatic,” Kate said. “I think also, having worked with kids for so long, with RME programs, he’s gotten a feel for what they react to, even though they’re not physically in front of them. He has the rhythm — how to speak to them, how to engage with them, Ben too. They’re both great at that; they both have that talent, which I think is great.”
RME continues its mission in different ways
Tyson Danner has been RME’s executive director since April 2019, and had been interim boss since September 2018 through a partnership with Quad City Arts, where had been community arts director since 2016.
“Music Lab has been a joy for us to create,” he said recently, noting for 2020, it aired at 10 a.m. weekdays. “We started the program within a week of closing our doors to the public back in mid-March. At that time, we had no idea how long the shutdown would last, or how much virtual programming we’d actually end up doing.
“Our main goal was simply to find ways to keep doing our mission, despite all the obstacles that were placed in our path,” Danner said. “We were certainly not experts in producing a TV show, but we decided we definitely could not sit on our hands and go into hibernation. So we gave it a shot. And Music Lab wound up being way more popular, more well-received, and more fun than we ever expected.”
“The interactive element of the Facebook livestreams has been really rewarding, because kids and adults can chime in, ask questions, and share ideas in real time,” he said. “The majority of the viewing audience accesses Music Lab through our partnership with Mediacom, which airs it each afternoon.
“The past 10 months have been challenging, but the most important thing to us has always been ‘how do we keep bringing music to our community?’” Danner said. “Music Lab has been a great source of fun and entertainment for kids and families cooped up at home, but it has also been an important educational experience that’s filling a need in our community. Most schools have paid a great deal of attention to making sure kids keep up with core curricula like math and history, but we were insistent on making sure kids were still getting music education.
“In fact, when you think about it, kids who tune in to Music Lab each day are getting much more music education than they typically would during in-person school,” he said. “That’s really exciting for us, and we hear from a lot of parents that are very appreciative that their students can have this experience.”
While Music Lab is targeted toward kids 8 and under (and their families), people of all ages tune in pretty regularly, Danner noted. “We’ve done everything from making your own instruments, to learning about famous musicians, to sharing different musical genres, to sing-a-longs. ‘Old MacDonald’ is always a favorite, though the animal noise suggestions can get pretty strange! ‘Baby Shark’ was also pretty popular there for a while – for better or for worse!”
“We’re very thankful, too, for the sponsors who have stepped up to help support the program,” he said of Estes Construction and Quad City
Foot and Ankle Associates. Partial support for the program is being provided by the Moline Foundation, the Quad Cities Community Foundation, and the Hubbell Waterman Foundation.
Bret Dale said he wasn’t sure it was going to work at first.
“Once we first got started, I was excited for the opportunity, but I was worried about the reaction we would get,” he said. “Because of the unknown of running a new program, live in front of my computer, that goes out to such a broad audience.”
“At the beginning, I was worried the representation and quality of our programming was going to be me trying to run a live Facebook, interactive program,” he said. “I started to figure out my stride, my routine and the feedback of a lot of people who we work with, and next thing you know we were off and running. I realized, Music Lab just has a life of its own – compared to Ben or I going to schools and running specified musical programming.”
Dale quickly realized that many parents watched Music Lab with their children, of all ages – from toddlers through high school and college students.
“The biggest thing I could do with it was just have fun, and make sure that every day we have interaction along with a message of an opportunity to learn something,” he said about artists, musical genres and playing different songs.
For the first few weeks, Dale played recordings, but Facebook required him to stop that due to copyright laws. He then focused on playing a combination of original songs and songs he loves, along with children’s classics.
“It’s been an absolute joy to be able to perform Music Lab for 199 episodes to this point,” Dale said before his 200th.
Not having in-person interaction with students was very difficult in the beginning, he said.
“I soon realized that I noticed, there were more people watching after we recorded it and put it out there,” Dale said. “After a couple weeks of
getting feedback from students and adults of all ages, I realized the impact that Music Lab is making. The difference was, instead of trying to make perfect content that makes everybody happy, we decided just to have fun with it.”
“That’s when everything changed, and we found our stride right away,” he said. “We hang out, we create blues lyrics. We share a band or an artist and we play a few of their songs. We add kids songs into the mix; that way, adults can get a couple songs they might recognize. Young kids can hang out and sing and dance to ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It.’ ‘Old MacDonald’ is a hit for some reason – it doesn’t matter if you’re 3 years old or 33 years old.”
Dale realized from feedback that the formula is based on fun. He’s impressed with the fact that viewers have come from across from the country, far beyond the impact RME has typically had in years past.
“It’s really wild – California to Maine to Texas to Arizona,” Dale said. “Being able to take the blanket of the greater Quad-Cities and add the whole country to that, that’s pretty special. It was a big shock, knowing that people would want to invest their time with us at the River Music Experience for 30 minutes a day.
“That really hit home with me and made me realize how special our mission at River Music Experience is,” he said. “It’s a perfect mix of
programming content, with people who are staffed at RME, from day one to now. It’s been almost 20 years, and the RME is always ever growing and it’s always getting stronger, with a bigger footprint.”
“The influence River Music Experience has is really important, all based around our mission,” Dale said. “From our Curbside Concert series we ran in the summertime, receiving calls from different large cities and them asking questions about our programs, because they want to initiate those programs in their cities.”
The RME staff are all extremely proud to be part of it, he noted.
“Even in the face of fear and uncertainty with the pandemic, the fear and uncertainty of, can the River Music Experience make it through such times? Finding out that the answer is yes, we can come out of this stronger, better than we were before something like the pandemic,” he said, noting that speaks volumes to what RME is about.
“Honestly, we’re just getting started, which is a great opportunity to be in,” Dale said.
Big fans nearby in Moline
Jennifer Meersman-Manis and her husband Geoff live near the Dales in Moline, are parents of an 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, and are among the biggest fans of Music Lab and RME.
“My husband and I fell in love going to local live music shows and the Redstone Room was a venue we frequented often,” she said Friday. “Music is a big part of our home and our life. We’ve had some fun with virtual things, and Music Lab has been a riot.”
“In the beginning what I liked about it was, it was something consistent,” Jen said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were floundering,
and my son does better when we’re in a routine, something we knew was consistent. Bret would show up, my 3-year-old knew the words, and it was really the only thing we had to look forward to we knew that was constant.”
She said moving the show to afternoons was smart, to serve students who have returned to school in person. Moline has been fully remote for a few months, and will return Jan. 19 to in-person part-time, Jen said.
“I feel like he always knows the right way to talk,” she said of Bret, who appeals to kids and adults. “When the Black Lives Matter movement was happening, all the injustices, police brutality, he kind of touched on it. He just went about it really great, provoked some questions for my son. And my 3-year-old loves Kate on kazoo.”
Jen (an elementary science teacher for East Moline) and her family try to see Music Lab every day, and they’ve also taken advantage of Curbside Concerts, which turned into Curbside Carols for the holiday season. For a donation split between musicians and RME, artists would perform outdoors in a yard, driveway, or cul-de-sac.
Jen’s parents live next door, and they booked one for her 40th birthday Aug. 30. RME also thanked the Manis family for their donations with a free caroling concert in December, including a bottle of Champagne, she said.
“It’s just a neat world of people,” she said of RME and the artists it supports. “There are so many people have no idea of RME or what it is.”
The Facebook regulars who tune into Music Lab have become a family, Jen said.
“I feel like I know them, because I’m on Music Lab with them,” she said. “Bret always says hi to them.”
A 39-year-old graduate of Davenport West High School (who has played guitar since he was 11), Dale started working at RME in 2010, after running restaurants in Chicago and working for a potato-chip company. He began at RME as cafe manager and Redstone Room manager, and became programming assistant to the late Ellis Kell – a legendary bluesman and longtime RME institution.
Dale married the former Kate Benson, RME’s director of entertainment, in February 2016. He has done programming and education for the past seven years and had to fill some big shoes when Kell died in December 2016 at 61 (from a blood clot in his lungs, likely related to chemotherapy he was undergoing for esophageal cancer).
Learning from a master
“Watching Ellis run a program, or running a program with him, was just special because it was effortless,” Bret said. “He believed in everything that he was doing. There’s nothing more he wanted to do than share his musical knowledge, his love of music, with kids and people of all ages. To be a part of that was a treat and an opportunity that I’ll never take for granted.”
After he passed away, his shadow and spirit is always at RME, he noted. “Here I am; what am I gonna do?” Bret said. “I just kept hearing Ellis’ voice say, just be yourself. If I try to be an ounce of Ellis, it wouldn’t work. And it’s still an ever-growing process.”
What’s great is, he and Kell had goals to grow the program, and Bret continues to do that.
“Within the first year of Ellis being gone, we reached the goals we wanted to do together,” he said. “That laid the foundation of how I wanted to approach our programming at River Music Experience for the rest of whatever my time will be here.”
Having Music Lab has been a blessing in disguise, to reach so many more people than RME ever imagined, Bret said, and will continue post-pandemic.
Bret also has led creating RME music education videos he sends to local schools, for them to put online.
“We’re talking about the history of music, certain genres and certain artists,” he said of the weekly videos, which also includes singalong songs.
Bret has a longstanding connection with the Black Hawk Area Special Education Center, where he’s performed in the auditorium.
“It’s one of the greatest things we do at the River Music Experience, and with that stopping, I wanted to make sure there was a way we could still connect with the students – whether they’re at home or at still at school,” he said. “The best way to do that was just have fun with music.”
Sending videos to that school led to RME sending videos out to more schools, and educational content for older students.
“I want to make sure all school districts know, even though the uncertainty of how students are gonna learn, that they still have the opportunity and full resources of the River Music Experience,” Bret said. “No matter what the future holds. That’s extremely important to me.
“It’s easy for us to sit on our hands and say this is hard,” he said. “I know it’s extremely difficult for the students and teachers to get the work they need done. However, the RME will always be a resource that can be tapped into, and I’m very excited for the opportunity to use all these resources during this time. Even though it might not be face-to-face, but video to student, and it’s working.”
Bret sometimes gets great suggestions for songs and artists from viewers.
He always has an improvisation section, with blues lyrics, not taking himself seriously and loosen up. He always has a kids song, usually something interactive. He delivers an educational content piece on a band, artist or genre, performing those songs, and another interactive, fun song.
Music Lab has aired on Mediacom almost since the beginning, after the cable company approached them the first week, Bret said.
“From young kids, to adults older than I am, say every time I see the notification that Music Lab is going live – whether I’m sitting at my computer at home or work – people are hitting it and watching it,” he said. “That came as a pretty big surprise, just because we realize this is an opportunity just to have fun, through the mission of River Music Experience. It’s an opportunity you just wouldn’t get otherwise.
“All of our programming at RME is based around education, but also fun,” Bret said. “I think everybody is in the same boat, of not knowing what tomorrow’s gonna bring. In the meantime, let’s just do the best we can. That goes from us running the program, to the viewer.”
They decided to switch to 3:30 p.m. with the New Year, since most kids are back in school in person.
“All of us at the RME wanted to give the opportunity to the viewers, to have that interaction,” Bret said. “We’re just gonna try that 3:30 time slot, to see how the viewership and interaction works. If for some reason, it’s harder for viewers to tune in during the afternoons, we’ll just go
back to morning. If definitely doesn’t hurt giving it a shot.”
He said there’s no way he could do this program without Kate (a frequent guest) and his RME education coordinator Ben Schwind – who he’s partnered with together and separately for episodes.
“They’re crucial to the integrity and development, and the execution of this program,” Bret said. “Kate was forced to be involved from day one, since we were running Music Lab in my living room next to my fireplace.”
Bret and Ben eventually filmed from RME, and for a while together over the summer.
“It was a good change of pace and broke me out of my routine,” Bret said. “Anytime I can have interaction and collaboration with Ben, I want to take it. He’s full of amazing ideas, and he’s 10 years younger than I am. His foundation and fundamental knowledge of music and music history is amazing. He also has that youthful inspiration that he can bring.”
“Ben knocks it out of the park,” he said. “He’s so fun to work with. Kids, when we’re out in schools, gravitate towards Ben. He creates personal relationships so fast. When the River Music Experience first brought him on full-time, he was off and running. I didn’t have to show him much. He just has it.”
They filmed from RME between late summer and November, when they went back to their homes. They both are cautious about Covid and feel safe together inside.
“I know Ben exercises extreme caution, and Kate and I do as well,” Bret said. “There was absolutely no worries about hanging out. I knew I
was sitting next to one of the safest people in the Quad-Cities.”
There are some families still watching today who have watched since the start, he said.
“That’s extremely important to me,” Bret said. “That makes it really special.”
He performed at most of the curbside concerts in the spring and summer. Starting in April, including curbside caroling over the holidays, they did 348 concerts, reaching over 7,000 people.
“It was a great way for me and River Music Experience to get out of the house in a safe way, and bring music to people who desperately needed it,” Bret said.
In the summer, they got to so many requests, where they sometimes had three RME staff members play at three different locations at the same time. “Which is amazing,” he said. “The whole start of this pandemic, every business, organization or school sat down and had a meeting about, what are we going to do?”
For RME, “I was scared because, is this is the meeting where we just lost the River Music Experience, because of a pandemic?” Bret said. “Is this going to stop our programming, our education momentum, because those kids can’t be in school? The answer was ‘No.’ Within the first few minutes of that meeting, we had multiple ideas on the table and none of us said ‘no’ to any of them. They gave us all so much exposure, beyond what we usually would have gotten through our regular education programming, through our concert schedule with the Redstone
Room and our Friday Live@Five.”
“We’ve reached more people with our out-of-the-box thinking than we would have by just sitting on our hands and it’s been incredible,” he said.
Many people who saw curbside performers had never been to a Redstone Room show, Bret said. It’s been a great way to spread the message of RME and how they support live music and musicians in the Quad-Cities.
“It’s extremely important to the growth of the River Music Experience – having that opportunity to bang on brand new doors, without feeling like we’re intruding,” Bret said. “The RME sells itself. I’ve said it before – we have the greatest job in the world, we really do.”
The new programs feel extremely personal, he added.
“We’re all in this together, so when we show up on your front lawn and sing you Christmas carols, to a mother holding a newborn wrapped in a blanket – that hit me hard,” Bret said. “I realized how important and how special something like the Curbside Carols really was.”
“When you’re bringing artists from the Quad-Cities – and we have an unbelievable talent pool – to your doorstep, you have the best seat in the house every time,” he said.
The curbside performers included Alan Sweet, Jason Carl and Mo Carter. Dale and Sweet have played in The Candymakers for years, but haven’t been able to do live shows since the pandemic.
“We made a lot of friends everywhere we went, even if it was at a stranger’s house,” Bret said. “The reach is working, even in a pandemic. Who’d have thought?”
Cul-de-sacs were very popular for curbside concerts. “You’d be in the middle and surrounded by the whole street,” he said. “It was all families sitting together. It was great. I immediately felt safe, being able to deliver music to people during all of this. There wasn’t a moment I
realized, I have to get out of here.”
Kate was responsible for scheduling most all of the curbside appearances, and participated in some as well.
“I got to do quite a few of them, which was nice, since I got to see live music this summer,” she said, noting the Redstone Room remains closed to live shows.
New community engagement coordinator
The pandemic forced RME to temporarily downsize staff. Danner said there are currently eight employees working on programs and operations, compared to a normal 25 between full-time program staff and part-time event staff.
Jesse Ricke is in a new position, community engagement coordinator, since last February. She manages community relationships and fundraising efforts, strengthening RME’s ties with the community and developing resources to grow programs.
“She has been a fantastic addition to our team. She has done awesome work creating our recent campaigns and generating a lot of the fundraising success we’ve seen,” Danner said. “It’s a new position for RME that was created with help from the Hubbell-Waterman Foundation.”
“This year has been crazy; none of us has ever gone through a year like this,” Ricke said Friday. “Literally, right after I started, it became
difficult to engage with anybody, let alone the community. So it’s been quite a challenge, but it’s been wonderful. It just forces everybody to think outside of the box and kind of take a step back and not be afraid of making any changes.
“Being a new staff member with that was awesome, because I was able to bring my knowledge and experience with other nonprofits, I was able to bring to RME and given a chance to implement it,” Ricke said. “It’s been pretty cool.”
The RME mission never changed, but the way she raised money and awareness changed with the pandemic, shifting online and focusing on social media, she said.
“Like a lot of other organizations, we still want to help our community; we still want to live out our mission – how can we do it if we can’t be in person?” Ricke asked. “That was how Music Lab was birthed.”
A 37-year-old East Moline native, she’s worked for area nonprofits the past 15 years, and fundraising for the past 10, including the Two Rivers YMCA. Ricke has five sons, ages 1 to 14.
“I’ve always said my passion is, helping connect other people with their passion,” she said. “Music has this year, really become a bigger part of our lives. I was always aware of the education aspect of RME, since that what I was interested in, having young children at home. I wasn’t into the concert scene of the Redstone Room, so I had a unique perspective when I came in here, looking to have a career here.”
“It’s a lot different than other people my age, what they knew,” Ricke said. “A lot of people come here for concerts, some drinks and camaraderie. Since I had children, I was always interested in education and community, to keep them interested.”
She personally suggested RME start Music Lab, since so many teachers and parents were struggling at the start of the pandemic, with teaching from home.
“Why don’t we engage that, since most schools are having to cut music and arts programs periodically?” Ricke said. “It was one of those outside-the-box things that, we are capable of doing this and it just fit perfectly. It’s one of those things, it will always stick with us. It will
never go away when the pandemic’s over. That’s something we can always do. Same thing with curbside concerts.”
“It brings so much joy to people,” she said of the outdoor concerts. “It’s so different and unique, I think that’s something that’s going to stick with us for years down the road too.”
“This is something that really touched people’s hearts at a time of need, it’s never gonna go away,” Ricke said.
“Our staff is constantly figuring out how to educate people, and provide this for kids who don’t have opportunities,” she said, noting their scholarships and the “Let’s Band Together” program – which loans instruments to students and schools in need.
The fall fundraising campaign was a challenge, not being able to have in-person events, Ricke said. “It was so natural to be online, because that’s where everyone went. It was kind of their comfort zone during this pandemic. Everything went online.”
“We utilized that and we took time to educate ourselves on the best process to do this, and the best process to reach our donor base,” she said. “It ended up being a really good success. And that’s something we’ll keep doing the same concept in the future as well.”
Having an online campaign and large matching donations – of $10,000 from Rusty and Doris Unterzuber, and KV Dahl of Dahl Ford – were key to exceeding their $30,000 goal (by over $2,000) during a very challenging economy, Ricke said.
“That’s obviously what tugged on people’s heartstrings, knowing that our nonprofit means so much to these people during this difficult time, they were able to match each individual donation that supported during our campaign.”
RME also has been hurt financially by not getting rent from Bad Boyz Pizza, which has not reopened its first-floor restaurant, which closed in mid-March.
The two-month fall campaign also was helpful since they didn’t have costs to put on a major dinner benefit, for example, Ricke said. Some curbside concerts were renamed “friendraisers,” where RME recruited some “rock star” supporters and asked them to host benefit curbside shows (about a dozen), where people were encouraged to donate more. Donations were split between RME and artists for all curbside concerts.
Those were held in September in October, and often Danner and Ricke went to speak about RME’s programs. “We were able to have local musicians; their work just stopped when the pandemic started, so they were able to go out and socially distance, play and live through their passion as well,” she said.
“Those worked really well for us. In fact, they were so successful that Kate Dale continued the program into the winter, called Curbside Carols,” Ricke said. “That was awesome too. Being new to the music industry, going with and going to sing with local musicians, and going to senior-living centers, where these people haven’t seen their family for months. It’s the holiday season, and I’m sure in their 90-plus years, this was a very difficult Christmas season.
“Being able to sing to them through the window, and see their smiles, it was amazing,” she said. “That’s kind of what I thrive off of in my role in development, is seeing those meaningful interactions and passing them along, that people don’t see all the time.”
They were able to not only reach their fundraising goal, but connected with many new donors who never heard of RME before, Ricke said. “If they did, they had no idea the depth of our programs. Now we’re able to communicate with them and tell them what our nonprofit provides to the Quad-City area.”
She and RME staff will keep thinking of more ways to engage the community during the pandemic.
“Because they need us, and we need them,” Ricke said. “We enjoy these interactions as much as they do, whether it be through the computer or in person.”
What’s the future of RME live music?
The RME also has pivoted to offer new live-music programs, both outdoors and online. Popular free online series like Solitary Sessions and J.A.M. Sessions have reached more than 4,000 and generated financial support for local musicians.
The J.A.M. sessions started Sept. 4, 2020 with the Avey Grouws Band, with free, high-quality livestreamed shows, recorded from Dustin Cobb’s Joy Avenue Media studio in Bettendorf.
“We think the most value in the streaming shows is helping build support for the bands,” Danner said. “We try to encourage the virtual tip jar for the bands, and that seems to be going really well for the bands. They’ve got their regular fans and they’re meeting new people online.”
“People understand that bands are really in a bad spot right now,” he said in the fall. “Especially the bands that aren’t taking every gig they can find. There are bands that are doing a lot of bars, they’re comfortable with that, and that’s cool. There are plenty of bands that don’t want to take that level of risk, which is a tough decision to make when you’re making your living as a gigging musician and deciding not to take gigs.”
Kate Dale has helped coordinate the J.A.M. sessions, which average two to five a month. She looked into options for livestreaming from the Redstone Room, but the RME internet was not strong enough. It was fine for hosting half-hour Music Lab episodes, but not longer concerts, she said.
“We felt that for a full production concert, we’d really want it to be high quality, and we unfortunately don’t have the technology for that,” Kate said. “That’s on the back burner, because of expenses associated with it. And other programs kept us pretty busy.”
Though the RME online calendar have some rescheduled Redstone shows held for March, she said those spring shows are not likely to happen.
“It’s such an unknown for bands, we have to book so far out for their schedules to work,” she said. “It’s an ever changing game; everyone in this industry is gun shy to announce new tours. I’m not sure we’ll be in the same position six months from now.”
State of Iowa restrictions don’t stipulate a percentage capacity for indoor performances, but require six-foot-distancing between seats, and that would cut Redstone capacity from 300 to about 80, Kate said.
“Unfortunately, that’s not as cost effective for us to do, if we can only have 80 people in the room,” she said. “We’re probably losing money and the artist isn’t making much money. That’s one of the reasons we’ve held off.”
“The other down side to that I think is a huge loss, is we can’t have a dance floor either,” she said. “You have concerns with the singers, their droplets, you need 18 feet of barrier, which would be our entire dance floor if we had to block it off. We’d hate to bring in a funk band and tell people they can’t dance, so we just figured, looking at all the logistical hurdles, the financial hurdles, all things considered, let’s just wait until restrictions are lifted so can go back to normal.”
Since it was less risky to host outdoor shows, RME brought back the Live@Five series on a limited basis for August and September (it usually runs all summer) in the RME Courtyard on 2nd Street. With distanced and limited seating, that worked well for eight Fridays, Kate said.
“We checkerboarded off the courtyard with spray paint,” limiting capacity to 85 people, she said. “It was quite a different year, but people were pretty respectful of following the guidelines, staying in their zones. People still really appreciated we were doing it. It was kind of a trial to see how it worked. I think everybody was nervous to see, you never know how those things going to work out.”
“The bands, they loved it,” Kate added. “Most of them were happy to have a couple gigs that didn’t get canceled…There were one or two bands who opted not to do it for their own comfortability. It worked out; people were thankful for the opportunity to play and we were happy to give bands gigs.”
She and the RME staff continue to brainstorm ideas to fulfill their mission, without bringing people indoors, and they’ll be announcing new things soon.
“The earliest touring artists are looking at is fall of this year, minus summer festivals,” Kate said. “We’re just not even making any plans until we can have a really good idea. This pushing game is not being conducive; musicians have to find other jobs right now.”
“It’s super disheartening for people that work in this type of industry,” she said. “You can’t get back to work. Most of us working in this industry are doing due diligence, we’re staying home, masking up, doing everything to get back to work, bring people the entertainment they desperately want.”
It’s also frustrating to see half the population who don’t want to follow federal health recommendations, Kate added.
“It’s safety and numbers and science; we have state restrictions that don’t allow us to do this,” she said. “It’s a major health issue. We don’t want to put our fans, clients at risk. I’m hoping it gets better, and it doesn’t. The vaccine is hopeful, but in the meantime, it’s not going away. It’s been a frustrating year.
“The great thing I think that’s come out of all this — those of us who are able to remain employed in the entertainment industry is all the crafty, creative ways we are getting music out to people. Seeing all sorts of livestream, virtual things people are doing, we’re thankful we’re
coming up with programs to keep us busy locally and we’re super thankful to have a community that supports us.”
“For us to still be here, going on 10 months, it’s because of the grants, the donors, people supporting us that we’re able to do it,” she said.
“There are some restaurants or bars that have acoustic acts going through, which is great. To each their own, the opportunity is there for people to make income,” Bret said. “But the whole music scene across the country and across the world is suffering.
“A lot of people and a lot of planning have gone into place to make sure that hopefully the majority of venues can survive. Crowdfunding of fans for bands they love has been incredible. The outpouring of support and funding is amazing, to keep their hopes and dreams alive of performing live music and creating their own albums.”
“It’s been very special to see the creativity of bands, how they still reach their audience through an online platform, like we do with Music Lab,” he said. “It’s been pretty inspiring. I’m taking a few pages out of some of these bands’ books, to reach people in an online platform.”
Bret also has continued hosting the weekly RME Radio Hour, which airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. on WVIK 90.3 FM, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, as well as WVIK – HD2 and 105.7 FM in the Quad-Cities. The station has been extremely safe, he said, since they ran a few repeat programs last spring.
“That opportunity, we’re extremely thankful for, because the partnership with WVIK is ever-growing and it’s really important.” Bret said. “And it’s an unbelievable way to get the message of the River Music Experience out to an audience we might not have an opportunity to on a
He’s been playing blues, soul and roots music on the hour-long show for four years, after Elis Kell ran it first for two years. Bret helped Ellis program the show.
Danner agreed that Music Lab and Curbside Concerts will continue post-pandemic.
“Even after the pandemic goes away, we think there is a great long-term future for the program as long as we can continue to develop sponsorships and support to keep it going,” he said of Music Lab.
You can see a playlist of past episodes at www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOenVAFfdhGIggy5ZwTJhIn61jbR7T2A3
The Redstone Room will host the Bix Lives Award Ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 16, limited to just 20 invited attendees due to current Covid projections.
Jazz drummer and educator Josh Duffee and Carol Schaefer — a lifelong Bix fan who was a key player in the creation of the Bix museum while serving on the board – will receive the Bix Lives award.
It’s been given each year since 2007 to people who exemplify what it means to keep Bix Beiderbecke’s legacy alive. Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903-1931) is a legendary Davenport native, cornetist and pianist for whom an annual jazz festival and three-and-a-half-year-old museum in Davenport are named.
“There are not two more deserving people to receive this honor than Mr. Duffee and Mr. Schaefer this year,” said Bix museum director Nathaniel Kraft. “Both are long-time stewards of Bix’s legacy, dedicating much of their time to keeping Bix alive, not only in the Quad-Cities, but across the globe.”
To contribute to RME, visit www.rivermusicexperience.org/donate.