When the pandemic shut down live music, Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey began presenting great online gigs via Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts series. I remember the excitement I felt when the gallery made a last-minute, low-key announcement, mostly to friends and supporters, that the sixth of its Sequesterfest livestreaming events would also be open to a small in-person audience. Even more thrilling, the show would feature a duo of beyond-legendary Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, who’s been making challenging and devotional avant-garde sounds since the late 60s, and composer, improviser, teacher, cellist, and part-time Chicagoan Tomeka Reid, who’s played with heavies such as Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This wasn’t an experience I could pass up, even though the presence of an out-of-town musician seemed oddly foreign: I hadn’t been to a show in more than a year, and I was freshly vaccinated.
We’d soon learn never to imagine that COVID is really over, but at the time, that show seemed as safe as could be—everyone was at least my age and thus, I assumed, entirely vaccinated, just as the rest of the world surely soon would be. As I looked around at the friendly, unmasked faces, I naively thought, “We beat this! This is the new normal.” McPhee even commented on how amazing it was to have an actual audience, and mentioned his mixed feelings about playing online shows—the streaming setup at the gallery had developed a typical problem out of the gate, and tech issues had been a constant sore spot for him.
Gallery co-owner John Corbett seconded the intensity of feeling in the air—when I asked him about it, he said that the show “had the quality of a culminating event, to the point that Joe was overcome with emotion and was almost inconsolable afterwards.” (When the set was over, McPhee had to retreat to the gallery’s office for a bit to be alone.) The concert also fell on Juneteenth, which had just been recognized as a federal holiday for the first time, and according to Corbett that gave the day an extra charge—not just for McPhee but for everyone involved.
It was a life-changing set, and would’ve been amazing even considered on strictly musical terms. McPhee and Reid charged their playing with breathtaking dynamic extremes, from pin-drop minimalism to full-on glorious sax skronk and string scrape. The sacred and euphoric vibe had us all thinking we’d entered a new post-pandemic era of awareness and gratitude, and . . . well, I don’t have to belabor that point. But in difficult and seemingly hopeless times, I still hold onto that glorious moment to remind myself what things could be like.
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