Even though COVID-19 may have brought the live music industry to a screeching halt, a number of musicians from around the world are still working in a number of different capacities.
Session artists such as local keyboardist/Nappie Award-winner Chris Spies has definitely been making the most of this tragic situation. In the past, Spies has brought his keys to beloved local music outfits such as Kung-Fu Mama, as well as New Orleans-based acts such as Russell Batiste, George Porter Jr. and Papa Mali.
Over the past year, this talented hired gun has busied himself with two different projects. Spies has been spending part of this time with the Matador! Soul Sounds. This group features guitarist Eddie Roberts (The New Mastersounds) and drummer Alan Evans collaborating with bassist Kevin Scott and vocalists Kimberly Dawson and Adryon De Léon. When he is not on the road with the Matador! Soul Sounds, Spies works with New Orleans’ Honey Island Swamp Band.
When the COVID-19 crisis began to cancel live music events nationwide, Spies was on the cusp of leaving for a South Florida gig with Honey Island Swamp Band.
“I had just played at Cedar Street on a Thursday night,” Spies said. “Then, right when everything was going down, I was about to catch a 6:30 flight from New Orleans on Friday. I was looking at the news that night and told everybody, ‘I don’t feel good about going.’ The gig was going to be cancelled anyway, but we would’ve had no way of knowing, because we were on a plane. I was about to fly out, and we decided not to go. We would’ve been stuck down in South Florida.”
With the COVID-19 crisis overwhelming the nation, Spies has been working on projects with the Denver-based record label Color Red, which is run by his Matador bandmate Eddie Roberts. Roberts has incorporated a philanthropic aspect of Color Red in the form of “The Payback.” Spies says Roberts’ original intention for the nonprofit was to create a charity that generated funds to help the homeless. When the pandemic limited the number of jobs for working musicians, Roberts shifted the focus.
“When he first started it, it was supposed to help the homeless,” Spies explained. “Since all this happened, he made it a musician’s relief fund. So, he’s been helping out there with that.”
With his connections to the New Orleans music scene, Spies has been witnessing some of the hardships many Big Easy musicians are facing. He notes that many singers and guitarists have been able to generate money through livestreams. However, Spies also recognizes that there are a number of working musicians who are not able to take advantage of this new method of performance. While he can play an impressive livestream featuring his keyboard work, Spies says musicians such as solo brass artists or drummers cannot necessarily hold an effective livestream of them playing solo for an extended time.
“I got on the phone with Eddie, and we’re doing a project with almost all New Orleans musicians such as the trumpet player for Dr. John and the drummer for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band,” Spies said.
According to Spies, this project will be an online collaboration that utilizes modern technology. The musicians involved will create tracks within the confines of self-isolation. These tracks will be traded back and forth between participating musicians. The end result of this collaboration will be a collection of songs that will be released through Roberts’ label. Proceeds from the sale of these tracks will go to the New Orleans musicians involved with this project.
Spies is also working with the electro-jam group Thievery Corporation on a very similar philanthropic project. However, this collaboration will send a part of its proceeds to the jam scene. “The Song Heard Around the World” will combine Spies keyboard talents with a number of Colorado jam scene notables, including members of Lettuce.
Everyone will construct their instrumental tracks from wherever they are in the world. The sonic goodness created from this combined effort will be sold and used to support out-of-work musicians.
When he is not online either performing or collaborating, Spies has found other ways to fill the potential boredom of self-isolation. The keyboardist has been experimenting with creating “weird guitar and synthesizer” effect pedals to generate income. Anyone who has experienced Spies in the live setting knows he is no stranger to using pedals to stretch the aural limits of his keyboard sound.
He is also in the process of adding more musical projects to his already impressive resumé. Those who follow Spies can expect to hear his keys flow through the funky sounds of the Brooklyn-based band Turkuaz. He is also making plans for a project with fellow Matador! Soul Sounds member Kim Dawson. When self-isolation is a thing of the past, locals will hopefully witness the power of Spies’ spontaneous live improv project, The Dents, as well as another great Pink Floyd tribute show, which featured a number of great Gulf Coast musicians. For Spies, this show and a number of others he had scheduled has now become a reminder of the world in which working musicians currently live.
“We were supposed to be doing that (Pink Floyd tribute) again next week in New Orleans with all these superstars coming to sit in with us in New Orleans,” Spies says. “I’m looking at my calendar and thinking, ‘Whoa! My life is completely different now!’”
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