Ceschi at The State House in downtown New Haven. It has been almost exactly a year since he launched his first pandemic livestream. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Ceschi was midway through “This Won’t Last Forever” when he looked out at the empty front row, and decided to try something new. Around him, the State House remained quiet, populated with as many cables, streaming devices, and lenses as people. He eyed a few members of Phat A$tronaut who were sitting in a back row, completely alone by design.
“Is it weird to ask people to sing the chorus on this?” he asked. “I’m not used to being around people.”
Like magic, members of the band lifted their voices in perfect harmony, singing out a chorus of Oh My Goddddd from the audience.
Thursday, a livestream of Ceschi Ramos and Phat A$tronaut gave listeners a glimpse into community building among musicians 13 months into the Covid-19 pandemic. Streamed live on YouTube from the State House in downtown New Haven, the concert allowed for the spontaneity and synergy of a live show, with the public health protocols to keep listeners safe from home. By the end of Thursday night, almost 300 had watched on YouTube.
It doubled as a benefit for the Semilla Collective, which provides food and direct financial assistance to families hit hard by Covid-19. Its food distribution efforts grew out of a migrant and worker justice collective last year.
“We’re not sure what the future holds for us, but we’re hopeful,” said Slate Liu-Ballard, co-owner of the space. “We still don’t know about live shows. It’s unclear what the future holds for this physical location. And we may not have a permanent physical home. But I think the State House will exist somewhere, somehow.”
Thursday’s show was part of that approach. Originally, the concert came out of a grant from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) that required one community-centered, pandemic-safe event as part of the funding. Liu-Ballard looked to Ceschi and Phat A$tronaut not only because they are local musical powerhouses, but also because they have a relationship with the space and with each other. In addition, he pulled in audio production from musician Pat Dalton, A&J Sound, and videography from Falconeer's Gil Morrison.
Having them back was bittersweet—but heavy on the sweet. The State House still has a chalkboard announcing 2020 shows, now half smudged out, that never happened. In April 2019, Ceschi released his album Sad, Fat Luck in a show that packed the venue with hundreds of people. Just a few months later, Phat A$tronaut performed as the headliner for the State House’s first birthday party. Last summer, the two appeared on a pandemic era double bill in Bridgeport, where both groups played outdoors and “the audience was like 100 feet away,” Ceschi said. Phat A$tronaut has been rehearsing at the space each week, because the stage is large enough to allow for social distancing.
The year has been a trying and teachable one for all of the musicians involved. When Covid-19 hit, Ceschi was living in Los Angeles and preparing for a tour that would take him across the country, and onto Canada and Europe. When those gigs disappeared one by one, he started applying for federal support. He tried to make peace with being stranded in L.A., where he sheltered in place until a cross-country road trip brought him back to New Haven last June. He had planned to move back to New Haven, to be closer to his mom and brother, who has young kids.
A chalkboard by the doorway of the venue still advertises acts that were supposed to come through last year.
“It was a real transition for me,” he said Thursday. “I have lived on the road for the most part since I started performing, and I figured that’s what you do to survive. In the DIY music world, we’re conditioned to think that you’re not working, you’re not grinding. In one week, all that was gone. I was sort of frozen.”
Slowly, he adapted. On April 4 of last year, he held a livestream for his record label, Fake Four, with a friend’s webcam and a hope that he could pay a few artists. Over 400 people tuned in, turning him on to a world of Twitch broadcasts that he still presents each Friday. He found that Bandcamp’s new policies, which give all proceeds directly to artists on the first Friday of every month, were incredibly good for Fake Four. After navigating an alphabet soup of federal relief, he scored an Economic Injury Disaster Relief (EIDL) loan through the U.S. Small Business Association.
He also said he’s discovering that he can be a musician without having to spend two-thirds of his year—about 230 days, he estimated—on the road. Instead, he’s focusing on the new music that both he and members of Fake Four have been making and releasing during this year. He’s gearing up for an album release in November, highly influenced by the twin pandemics of 2020 and now 2021.
That’s also true for members of Phat A$tronaut, many of whom have been writing new music despite—or maybe because of—the lack of live performance. Phat A$tronaut frontperson chad browne-springer (lowercase per the artist’s style) started Covid-19 by reminding listeners to breathe over Facebook Live, then churned out new music and set a soundtrack to social justice and self-care. Stephen “Gritz” King dropped an EP early in the pandemic, and a single in January of this year. Guitarist Mark Lyon has been writing and teaching, including classes for the School Of Rock in Fairfield. He said that this year, it has entailed teaching funk without a horn section, due to the threat of airborne droplets.
When they reunited Thursday, the artists brought that live show verve and jittery excitement to the stage—and to each other. From the moment Ceschi stepped up to the mic, something crackled in the air. Members of Phat A$tronaut, who had been milling around the space, turned their eyes to the stage, some settling into seats and others dancing by the doorway. Ceschi slipped into a pared down version of “Say No More,” his voice ringing New Haven into being. He made the performance intimate, speaking the lyrics to viewers as he might if they were on his living room couch, drinking beer and reminiscing about the Before Times.
Even with the audience watching over YouTube, he moved back into old performance habits, the lyrics moving through his whole body. When he slipped from “Say No More” into his recent “2020,” the lyrics spilled from the stage into the audience, snuggling into every crack and crevice. They pushed out through the livestream, clear as a bell as he sang “We were hiding our faces long before pandemics arrived.”
By the time he reached a new song (“I’m a little nervous,” he confided to no one in particular), the stage was electric, alive. A voiceover boomed over the stage, deep and gravelly. Ceschi’s movements became frenetic, channeling a show that might have had hundreds of people belting along in the front row. He was fully recognizable as the Ceschi that New Haven has so missed: a force to be reckoned with, speaking truth to power in tight, flying bars and often at warp speed.
He rocked forward and back, fingers working quickly through the air. His lyrics hit clear and crisp—”Now there’s another funeral fundraiser for a rap child of 19/Bright eyed face tattoo with a brain full of pipe dreams”—each one a punch to the gut. Rapping right into the livestream, he drew a line from lives lost to prison abolition and the deep, human risk of a carceral state. He dedicated the song to his friend Bobby, who is serving time in federal prison. He kept that going later in the show, as “The Summer Of Our Discontent” transported listeners back to June 2020.
“Wish I could contribute to their GoFundMe,” he said, his voice earnest and soft at the edges with the lyrics of his newest piece. “Wish I could contribute to every mother’s GoFundMe.”
chad browne-springer. Brendan Wolfe is in the background on bass.
Members of Phat A$stronaut rode the musician’s wave, jammy and fresh from the moment they stepped onstage and dipped into “Dancer Girl.” Behind a medical mask, drummer Travis Hall unleashed a tight, rolling rhythm, his hands sailing between drums and cymbals. From the far side of the stage, Gritz sank into the keyboard, bouncing as a neon orange hat blinked out at the livestream. On bass and guitar, Brendan Wolfe and Mark Lyon made the song just fuzzy enough.
For a moment, it didn’t feel like the State House in the midst of a pandemic, but a roller rink in the 1980s. Saxophone wailed as Dylan Olimpi McDonnell shook his quarantine-long hair and rocked to the music. For a moment, it looked like he was davening.
Browne-springer did alchemy at their loop station, hands balletic. “I don’t have control of my body,” they sang, and suddenly it was okay to move, untethered, to the music. They clapped their hands and crooned, all butter and funk with the lyrics “ooh you are a/dancer babyyy/wicked and she knows it.” It didn’t matter if listeners were dancing onstage or dancing in their living rooms—it became impossible not to move. Even before an empty house, browne-springer did not lose their sense of humor.
“Brooklyn!,” they yelled at the top of the set, extending their arms. “I! Said! Brooklyn! Just kidding. New Haven!” I can’t hear you. I literally can’t hear you ‘cause you’re on the internet. But thank you for tuning in.”
They shifted into “Rare Fruit,” McDonnell switching out sax for flute. The sound warbled over the space, right on time as browne-springer slowed their vocals down and looped them over each other. They turned their vocals glitchy, flowing right into “Green Eyes” as the band grooved. In the absence of an audience, the band became its own system of call and response as browne-springer looped their voice into an echoing invitation.
“Internet humans! Fuck with me!” they sang as the band held down the track.
Stephen Gritz King on keys.
But nowhere, perhaps, were the artists stronger than when they were building off each other. During his set, Ceschi picked up momentum as Phat A$tronaut became the unexpected chorus to “This Won’t Last Forever.” It made the song feel different, intimate in a moment that once attracted hundreds of people to sing along, shoulder to shoulder in a droplet-filled space. Ceschi smiled, threw his head back, and started in on another verse.
“Beautiful!” he exclaimed in delight. A beat later into the chorus: “What?!”
Later in the evening, Phat A$tronaut invited the artist back on stage for “Summer’s Over,” a number that the groups learned together some six months ago. As browne-springer started off the song, the energy rippled through the stage, weaving from the far side over to where Ceschi waited in the wings. While reminders of the pandemic were everywhere—Ceschi kept his mask on right up until the moment he sang to a camera instead of an audience—the artists didn’t miss a beat.
“We rehearsed it the other night, and I was just hype to play it again, because I wanted to hear it again,” Ceschi said.
As Lyon played him in, he stepped up to the microphone and began, bending at the waist as he sank into the chords. The guitar swirled around him, soft in a song that caught in the musician’s throat for a moment. Just feet from each other, he and browne-springer became two sides of the same musical coin, voices overlapping and bending into harmony as saxophone soared over the stage. browne-springer loosed a hymn from their throat, and suddenly the piece was sublime.
“Suddenly summer was over/Barely noticed that someone had sewed my eyes shut,” Ceschi sang. “Doesn’t matter anyway/Everyone used to ask me to send them a postcard … of what? Of the palm trees? Hollywood sun? Photographs of action stars once alive? Devastation? Roller coasters? Overdoses? Better times in life?”
Dylan Olimpi McDonnell, who alternated between saxophone and flute throughout the night.
That propulsion lasted through the end of the night. In “Fuck My Life,” Browne-Springer addressed their own anxiety with something between a head banger and lullaby. Asked to do a second encore, the group went into its “Motherland,” off of its 2018 album The Fifth Dimension. Somewhere by the bar, Ceschi was already dancing, a white N95 mask fitted snugly around his face. On stage, members lifted off, in constant motion.
Feet tapped, and then went airborne. Knees bounced and bent with the music. Hips swayed for the sake of swaying. The group began to clap in time with the music; it turned into its own feedback section. From the back of the stage, Hall split right through a time signature and kept going. On flute, McDonnell knitted in a few lines of “Stand By Me.”
The stage lit up, equal parts birthday party, psychedelic concert and birdsong. In the front row, Liu-Ballard danced on his own, shoulders and head bobbing to the music. Sound filled the room, wrapping itself over the exposed pipes and ceiling beams. Then, just as quickly as it had filled with sound, the State House became quiet again.
“Take care of each other out there,” browne-springer said. “The world is crazy. And be careful in the rest of the apocalypse.”