Pat Donohue is perched at the top of the front steps with his acoustic guitar. At the bottom of the steps sits a small table, cluttered with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and a large flowerpot, filled with $5, $10 and $20 bills.
Welcome to the first performance of “Live From Lincoln Center of the Block,” a socially distanced, front-yard concert for 70 people on Lincoln Avenue in St. Paul.
There are no VIP seats or tickets, just donations in the flowerpot. The front row of listeners is a good 10 yards from the “stage.” People with camp chairs are spread across the lawn and in the street. Most everyone is wearing a mask. Across the street, people roost on the curb, several hang out on their own porch.
A man saunters by with his leashed dog. Two little girls ad-lib a pas de deux to a Donohue ditty. A 4-year-old boy, oblivious to the music, pushes his toy lawn mower in front of the singer/guitarist; thankfully, the mower’s “engine” is turned off.
With or without kids, formal stages or fancy lights, yard concerts have become a growing alternative during the coronavirus pandemic. From St. Paul to St. Louis Park, homeowners are drawing small audiences for live music on their porches, decks and lawns.
“We did this because we missed live music so much and our musician friends missed live performance almost more than we did,” said Dick Cohn, who organized “Live From Lincoln Center of the Block” with his wife, Val.
They chose their pal Donohue to be their inaugural act. For 80 minutes, he did some of the fancy fretwork that made him famous as a regular on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and winner of the 1983 National Fingerpicking Championship. In addition to several originals and nifty instrumentals, Donohue reimagined Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” as the timely “Home Bound” wherein he’s “home with the Netflix playing” and “where my love’s behaving silently toward me.”
The Cohns have lined up more concerts. A family down the block on Lincoln Avenue has been staging a weekly series including classical and world-music performers since May. A St. Louis Park couple built a deck last year specifically for yard concerts.
The performances are under the radar, usually word of mouth or maybe a controlled e-mail list, because the gatherings are limited, sometimes to just 25 people.
When Rick Graft’s 38-year-old son died unexpectedly in late April, two of Graft’s musical friends, Sarah Morris and Matt French, serenaded him with a handful of healing sounds in his yard. They agreed to come back and perform a full concert a few weeks later. Then the “Concerts at the Graft House” were born because “music heals,” Graft said.
In his front yard in the western suburbs, Graft created a listening room for 30 people with policies beyond social distancing.
“Don’t do all this filming and sharing on Facebook,” he said. “Just sit here and listen and enjoy the moment.”
Retirees Dorothea and Gordon Anderson also had a serendipitous start to their “Tiny Porch Concerts” series in St. Paul. They hatched the idea after Dorothea’s cello teacher played a few songs on the Andersons’ front porch in April and neighbors strolled by to listen.
Since then, the Andersons have presented classical, Brazilian, Irish and folk musicians. Some performers are well known like Jearlyn Steele and Tim Sparks. Drums aren’t allowed, but electric keyboards are OK.
“I didn’t set out to do this. It’s just grown,” said Dorothea Anderson of their weekly shows that usually draw about 70 people. “It’s a case of thinking what can we do right now rather than what we can’t do.”
The Andersons try to keep their concerts to an hour because they don’t offer restrooms or refreshments.
But they cordon off their section of the block during the performance and set up orange cones in the street so no one parks in front of their house or across the street.
In 2018, Scott and Laura Burns started presenting concerts in their St. Louis Park backyard. The next year they built a 10-by-25-foot deck for concerts. This year, they’ve organized a series at what they’ve dubbed the “Catybara Lounge,” capacity 35.
“We’re not concert promoters,” Scott Burns said. “I’m a failed guitarist and a music fan. The local musicians have so much gratitude for what we’re doing, giving them an outdoor listening room where people are respectful.”
Singer/songwriter Dan Israel got tired of presenting weekly livestreams during the pandemic. So, one night, he played his guitar at a park in St. Louis Park, a man approached and invited him to play a yard concert.
“It’s how music used to be before we got so formal — like you’re playing a hootenanny with amplification,” said Israel, who has done a handful of yard concerts. “People are rediscovering that some things can be done simply.”
He shows up with his own sound system, and he’ll play for more than two hours if that’s what the audience demands.
“There is a pent-up emotional need for connection,” Israel said. “People are really exuberant about how much they appreciate it.”
Guitarist/singer Donohue has performed with a band this summer in a tent at Crooners Supper Club in Fridley but appreciates porch gigs for several reasons.
“I like the spontaneity of it,” he said. “I like that people are able to space themselves so they feel comfortable. It’s hard to tell if everyone is with you when they’re scattered over 100 yards or so. But the atmosphere somehow makes up for it. And I haven’t had a single [official] gig that has paid as well for a while.”
Musicians are typically collecting $300 to $600 in donations at yard shows.
That doesn’t quite make up for the $10,000 that St. Paul recorder player Cléa Galhano missed out on during the pandemic as performances and workshops in San Francisco, St. Louis and France were canceled.
Still, she appreciates getting to perform with her group, Alma Brasileira, in Twin Cities neighborhoods.
“It’s wonderful to feel the community engaging in this initiative,” she said. “We need to play. They need to hear it. It’s a win-win situation. It’s very inspiring.”
However, Galhano gets frustrated with one aspect of porch performances during the pandemic.
“At the end, we want to hug everybody,” she said, “and we can’t.”
The music lovers
One spring evening, Bill Tilton was walking through his Crocus Hill neighborhood in St. Paul when he heard cellos at the “Tiny Porch Concerts.” He’s been back for a couple more performances there.
“This is magic,” Tilton said. “I’m an old live-music guy. I was at Woodstock. It’s the ambience as much as the music. I so miss live music. I’d go to Mears Park every Thursday night in the summer. This is so sweet.”
After the Donohue concert in his St. Paul neighborhood, Franklin Pineda and Josie Johnson, his fiancée, sported unerasable smiles. “I’m so happy in this moment,” Pineda said.
Even musicians enjoy attending yard concerts this summer.
“It’s great to see normalcy, to see people and listen to lyrics,” said drummer Noah Levy. “Plus, now we [musicians] have time to go to shows.”
Yard concerts have been a lifeline for avid fans like Mary Lundberg, who often saw live music two or three times a week pre-COVID.
“It was wonderful to sit next to flower beds in a beautiful yard and listen to music,” she said of “Live From Lincoln Center of the Block.” “I’m ready for more.”