Before I began writing this annual music year in review article, I glanced back at last year’s reflections on 2019. It was mostly gripes. Music sales have dried up. Touring has become an expensive, money-losing proposition. And with the constant exodus of talent moving away from Omaha, who was going to play on all these stages (with even more planned in the coming years)? I even complained about the lack of quality touring indie bands coming through town.
Oh woe is us.
After the year we’ve just been through, you have to laugh at those comments. What spoiled, entitled, jaded brats we’d become. We didn’t know how good we had it. Well, we know now.
The Year of Our Lord 2020 — the Year of COVID-19 — needs no explanation to any of you. We each have our own pandemic story. You were lucky if you weren’t struggling to stay alive or to keep someone alive or to pay your rent or feed yourself and your family.
You were lucky if being bored was on top of your list of worries. That said, life without live music — for those us who love it — can be pretty boring.
I miss it. To the point where, when I watch concert footage online or on TV and see the shots of dark, crowded clubs or jam-packed arenas filled with maskless faces, I literally am in awe, and wonder if it will ever be like that again.
It will be. Eventually.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this it’s how much live music and the local music scene has become part of my personal identity — the music, the bands, the venues and, above all, the people. How strange it is to lose it, if only for a year. How much more strange it must be for those who make a living from it.
They could have sat home alone and pouted, but instead musicians and venue owners looked for ways out of the darkness, and will emerge from the pandemic stronger for it.
For the first time, live music entrepreneurs joined together — more than 2,900 independent music venues and promoters — to form the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). Their mission: To lobby Congress to pass legislation that provides recovery funds and tax credits to help venues survive the pandemic.
Their message throughout has been that independent venues were the first to close and will be the last to fully reopen. Their dire warning is that 90 percent of independent venues will close permanently over the course of the coming months without federal funding.
In fact, so far two Omaha venues have closed permanently at least in part due to necessary COVID-19 clampdowns — The Lookout Lounge on 72nd Street and The Barley Street Tavern in Benson — and more may be on the verge of falling off the financial cliff. Club owners from The Slowdown, The Waiting Room and O’Leaver’s have been among the most vocal local members of NIVA pushing since this summer for legislation and asking their patrons to write lawmakers and prod them to sign on to Save Our Stages legislation.
Meanwhile, artists found new ways to stay engaged with their audiences. Within months of the national shut-downs and tour cancellations, bands began to take to the internet for live-streamed performances. Suddenly Zoom sessions — as quiet and distant as they felt — became the new normal.
Without income from live performances, some artists turned to Patreon, an online platform that connects musicians with fans by offering membership tiers that provide perks such as premium content and early exclusive access to new work, all for a monthly fee. Among the artists with Patreon accounts are Ben Folds, Circa Survive and ’80s indie legend Lloyd Cole, whose offerings include everything from private-streamed concerts to online guitar lessons.
Despite being sidelined from performing, 2020 still ended up being another strong year for new releases from both a national and local indie perspective. Last month, The Reader published links to more than 40 Nebraska-based artists who released new music during the pandemic, all available on the usual streaming services as well as Bandcamp, the online digital music store that has become the central marketplace for new and independent bands.
Which brings us to my list of favorite albums of 2020. Here they are, in no particular order:
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud (Merge)
David Nance, Staunch Honey (Trouble in Mind)
Christian Lee Hutson, Beginners (Anti)
Nation of Language, Introduction, Presence (self release)
Porridge Radio, Every Bad (Secretly Canadian)
Criteria, Years (15 Passenger)
No Thanks, Submerger (Black Site)
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher (Dead Oceans)
Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty)
Disq, Collector (Saddle Creek)
HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia)
Digital Leather, New Wave Gold (No Coast)
Those Far Out Arrows, Fill Yer Cup (self release)
Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death (Partisan)
Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (Dead Oceans)
This is where I usually list my favorite live performances from the past year. It would be unfair to forget the concerts that took place before COVID-19, such as:
Susto at Slowdown Jr., Feb. 24 — A night of story-telling rock reminiscent of the late, great Jim Croce.
PUP and Screaming Females at The Waiting Room, March 4 — PUP’s Stefan Babcock remarked that the set was a disaster, but it sure sounded great from where I stood, and certainly the fist-pump-fueled crowd loved it.
PUP was the last live show I saw before the pandemic. I was all set to see Nap Eyes at The Waiting Room March 15, but it was cancelled along with everything else — including this year’s Maha Music Festival — as one by one venues closed down beginning in March.
Favorite livestream performances included Mike Schlesinger and Rebecca Lowry streamed from The Sydney March 27; No Thanks, Little Brazil and Noah’s Ark Was A Spaceship streamed live from The Slowdown May 21 and 23, and Glow in the Dark streamed live from Low End at the Bemis Nov. 12.
And there were a couple outdoor concerts — Petfest Aug. 15 behind Petshop in Benson, featuring killer socially distanced performances by And How and Those Far Out Arrows; and Slowdown’s 3-day outdoor festival held in the parking lot behind the club Oct. 1-3.
I even snuck into one indoor live club show when local bands Dead Letters and Las Cruxes played at the newly remodeled Reverb Lounge Sept. 19. But that was it. By the time fall came ’round, live indie rock shows evaporated as everyone hunkered down for the next wave of COVID-19.
As I write this, a second vaccine is being approved by the FDA, and shots are being fired into arms of healthcare professionals and first responders throughout the country. They’ll eventually get to your arm, too, and masks will become a thing of the past, but now I’m getting into 2021 predictions, and you’ll have to turn to Over the Edge for more of those.
Relive the year gone by with the Lazy-i Best of 2020 Playlist! The collection includes my favorite indie tunes I’ve come across throughout last year as part of my tireless work as a music critic for The Reader and Lazy-i.com. Among those represented: Waxahatchee, David Nance, Bright Eyes, Digital Leather, Sufjan Stevens, Run the Jewels, Fiona Apple, Nathan Ma, Criteria, McCarthy Trenching, HAIM, Future Islands, No Thanks and lots more.
Listen on Spotify. Simply click this link or search “Lazy-i Best of” in Spotify, go to the Playlists tab, and you’ll find the 2020 playlist along with a few from past years, too.