By Jan Mercker

For three months, Loudoun’s musicians have performed from their living rooms and back porches to thumbs-up emojis instead of applause. As the region moves into its second week of Phase One reopening, performers and venues are dipping their toes into the live music pool and getting ready to jump back in.

Longtime local, regional and national performer Don Chapman, was one of the first Loudoun musicians back on the scene. Chapman had gigs at two favorite winery venues, Doukenie Winery and The Barns at Hamilton Station, on reopening weekend May 30 and 31.

“It was joyful for me,” Chapman said. “Like I probably said 50 times at both gigs, ‘boy it’s nice to feel normal again.’ You felt like you did before all of this happened. … You’re back up there doing your thing and pacing your afternoon and having fun with people enjoying their leisure time.”

But things are definitely different, Chapman said, as physically distancing and smaller crowds create a different vibe. 

“People are going to still be cautious about going out. People are going to come back slowly,” Chapman said. “It’s not turning the spigot back on to full force in any way.”

Doukenie Winery started out slow, opening only for wine club members through at least June 21, said tasting room manager Bill Travis. The winery built a new outdoor pavilion for musicians near its beloved pond. 

“We’re being really cautious,” Travis said.

For Chapman and musicians around the region, coronavirus-related closures meant getting up close and personal with fans via online shows. For Chapman, there were ups and downs to the livestream model. Like many musicians, Chapman said getting his music to fans around the country was an unexpected perk of the new reality.

“It gives a lot of people out of the region the opportunity to see me play live,” he said.

Chapman was able to spend time in the studio with his frequent collaborator, percussionist Eric Selby, for Selby’s upcoming album. 

And while the gigs are slowly starting to return, Chapman thinks it’s going to remain challenging in the short term.

“The jobs are not coming back quickly. It’s going to remain tough for the rest of the year for both the venues and the musicians.”

For Susan Pratt, operations manager at the Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards, reopening has been auspicious, with gorgeous weather and friendly crowds on the first two weekends.

“It’s been going perfect,” Pratt said. Our message to everyone is just be kind. Our customers have been fantastic.”

Pratt said one performer was a little nervous about coming back and playing for a crowd, but the community-focused vibe set him at ease.

“He came in and he was beside himself with happiness,” she said.

The venue has set up a covered outdoor space for musicians and tips are flowing, she said. “I’m so happy to have these guys back. I’m a music lover.”

Pete Lapp was another of the first musicians back on the scene during the first days of Phase One, with shows at Doukenie and Bear Chase Brewing. 

For Lapp, the COVID shutdown coincided with his retirement from the FBI and a transition to a new job in the private sector, so it was good timing for a break from live shows. But, like Chapman, he found fun and connection in virtual shows and plans to keep the livestream in his toolbox moving forward. For Lapp and others, getting on the virtual concert bandwagon meant tackling new technology to create a high-quality stream.

“It was fun and challenging. I need to keep trying to do the virtual while I’m doing the live,” he said. “I’d like to keep people engaged.”

For Lapp, reaching out to faraway fans was another unexpected perk to the new virtual reality, including a couple stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

“They’re sitting in Paris sipping Champagne listening to me on my back deck,” Lapp said. 

But nothing takes the place of loyal fans and friendly venues, Lapp said.

“I joke that I don’t have groupies, I have friends. They’ve become friends of mine,” he said. “The venue owners and the venue management, too. I don’t work venues where there’s not going to be a relationship.”

Both Chapman and Lapp have professional day jobs and steady income amid the pandemic and both have been focused on helping friends who are full time musicians during the shutdown.

“This is how they put food on their table,” Lapp said. “We’re back to playing, but we’re not full time like we were before.”

For Jason Masi, another Loudoun winery circuit favorite, music is a full-time job. After initially hesitating, Masi became a master of the online show and the virtual tip jar. 

“I was resistant to that at first, but once I got the hang of Facebook Live, I realized that this is a way to keep in touch with fans and keep me playing,” he said. “People were generous as far as tips go.”

Masi’s fans tuned into 90-minute 5 p.m. musical happy hours every other day with an online donation option. The pandemic also led to some creative musical opportunities. Masi was hired by several companies to do Zoom shows for employees. He connected with his alma mater, Longwood University, for virtual alumni events, including opening virtually for the well-known singer songwriter Jason Mraz. 

But while Masi has been busy making lemons into lemonade, it hasn’t made up for the lost live shows. In addition to wineries and other gigs, Masi has also seen a dozen scheduled wedding performances canceled or postponed. 

“I’ve definitely found a way to keep busy, but it definitely is not the same as going out and playing five nights a week, especially during the busiest season of the year. I’ve certainly lost a lot,” Masi said. “I’m excited to get back and play some real gigs.”

Masi’s first Phase One live gig last weekend at 50 West Vineyards meant smaller crowds, physical distancing and a longer day. The venue hired him for two shifts with a break in between as they welcomed visitors in shifts by reservation.

“We want to make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t take us right back to where we started,” Masi said. 

He’s hoping to work up to three or four live gigs a week as Northern Virginia looks toward Phase Two of reopening. But he plans to keep the virtual shows going at least once or twice a week even as live shows return. 

“I miss the interaction with everybody,” he said. “I thrive on being able to go around to each table and talk to everybody and see their faces and their reactions, see them unwinding. There’s something to be said about person to person interaction that we’re missing.”

Jason Masi plays Bluemont’s Henway Hard Cider Saturday, June 13 from noon to 4 p.m. and Hillsboro’s Doukenie Winery Sunday, June 14 from 1 to 5 p.m. The Doukenie show is open to wine club members only. For details, go to facebook.com/jasonmasimusic.

To check in with Don Chapman about upcoming shows, look for Don Chapman (Côqayohômuwôk) on Facebook. 

For more information on Pete Lapp’s upcoming performances, go to facebook.com/petelappmusic.