Multi-genre folk musician Mendeleyev, Americana artist Leeann Skoda and soul singer-songwriter Nico Franc are all part of WAM’s inaugural online music festival

The Westchester Arts & Music Block Party brings virtual concerts to Instagram Live

Story by Christina Campodonico | Photos Courtesy of the Artists

For some musicians, Instagram is familiar territory. For others, it’s a brave new world of musical experimentation. For John Sharpe, the organizer of the annual Westchester Arts & Music Block Party (aka WAM), the platform is an opportunity to help local musicians maintain their livelihoods as COVID-19 ravages LA and much of the world’s live music scenes.

Since early April — following city orders shutting down bars, nightclubs and many restaurants where local musicians would normally gig — Sharpe has hosted solo acts that have played at WAM or his Westchester home for house shows on WAM’s Instagram (@wamblockparty). The online music festival leading up to (hopefully) WAM’s block party in the fall is called Friday Night Live.

The intimate, live-streamed shows, which start at 6 p.m. every Friday night, appear in the account’s Instagram Live feed and last only 24 hours before disappearing. For 50 minutes or so, a singer-songwriter croons into the camera of a smart-device connecting with audiences online through song. Viewers can actively comment throughout the set, sending hearts, clapping emojis — even song requests and questions — to the performer through the app. Sharpe also pins the handle for the musician’s Venmo or PayPal account to the live video feed — think of it like a virtual tip jar.

“We’re getting really strong donations. One out of three people is pitching in for talent,” says Sharpe, adding that so far each artist has walked away with a couple hundred dollars per show and that all donations go directly to the artist. “It’s not huge money, but if you do enough of those you can actually pay your rent.”

Americana artist Leeann Skoda, who did her first Friday Night Live show last weekend, misses being able to read a room during a gig and is still getting used to the technological aspects of doing a live show from her home — finding a nice backdrop for her set and making sure she’s close enough to the internet router for optimal connectivity — but appreciates being able to interact with audiences in a new way.

“It’s a way you can see your audience. You’re not seeing their faces, but you can see the emojis and the comments,” she says. “It’s really fun and encouraging.”

Venice multi-genre folk artist/producer Mendeleyev Galileo Einstein Pythagoras Darwin Euclid Leonardo Allan-Blitz, who goes simply by Mendeleyev or “Lev” for short, competed on season 17 of “The Voice” for Team John Legend and is “excited” to share his music with the WAM online community on Friday, May 1.

The multi-instrumentalist with a husky voice that Kelly Clarkson likened to “the best glass of pinot noir ever” has posted plenty of videos of his deep, sonorous vocals animated by talking animal heads, or animojis. But this is the first time he’ll be doing a live show on Instagram. He’s not sure what to expect from the experience, but plans to “improvise” a lot and maybe even bring in a percussionist or two — from a safe social distance of course.

While his touring gig as Ben Harper’s opener is on pause for now, he’s enjoyed the unfettered time to plunge into his creativity during self-isolation — and the limits it provides.

“I think the only way to stay sane in this wacky time is to stay creative,” says Mendeleyev. “It’s been an absolute blessing to be able to do it. Even though the computer is difficult and there’s other difficulties about being homebound, I’ve just been really stoked to be able to stay in that intense, hyper-creative space. … I have albums of recordings and so many videos. … Creativity can be really enhanced through limitations, and especially in a time like this of forced confinement.

“There are definitely ways in which I’m losing my sanity from being cooped up,” he continues. “But staying creative seems to be the only way right now.”

Pop artist Colton Avery headlines the April 24 Friday Night Live, followed by singer-songwriter Nico Franc on May 8.

Friday Night Live starts at 6 p.m. on Fridays and continues through May 15. Watch @wamblockparty on Instagram (instagram.com/wamblockparty) or visit wamblockparty.org/live-stream to learn more.

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