During most of 2020, as the pandemic gave way to lockdowns, color-coded zones and various mandates, live music events essentially ceased to exist. An entire touring industry was decimated, leaving tens of thousands of musicians temporarily out of work and scrambling to come up with ways to perform for audiences. In addition to trying to make enough money to survive, many of them just wanted to find ways to lift people's spirits amidst such a grim, isolated period.
In Italy, people started singing pop songs from their balconies to boost morale; in Spain, pianists and sax players started harmonizing from across buildings. And in NYC, you had everything from people playing guitar solo tributes to Jimi Hendrix downtown to Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell serenading the Upper West Side from his apartment window to brass bands setting up on porches.
It was amidst this backdrop that 33-year-old saxophonist Connell Thompson started performing on his fire escape with one of his neighbors.
"I realized that there had become this thing of going on the fire escapes and making noise for the essential workers," he told Gothamist recently. "So I walk out the door and next thing I know, I hear this trumpet player—[Grammy Award-winning trumpeter] Ella Bric—playing along to tracks of Earth, Wind & Fire and doing this set from her balcony, and the whole block was going crazy and having a lot of fun. So the next day I went out with my horn and played from the streets to her, and we started doing that, just the two of us from time to time."
Those duets have now transformed into something much more: full-band performances across three sets of fire escapes of his Harlem apartment building. So far, there have been four "Live From The Balcony" concerts that have taken place on 110th Street, which has included benefits for the family of Elijah McClain, victims of Hurricane Ida, and For The Gworls, which supports transgender people of color.
The shows have taken the concept of socially-distanced music performances and given it an unforgettable, urban backdrop. Often times, people walking in the northern edge of Central Park stop in the tracks trying to figure out where the music is coming from. Drifting groups of passersby end up paying attention on the street below where the band is playing; other locals, including Thompson's girlfriend Jazmine Nieves, provide art on the ground, while others fly drones to take video or help with sound mixing. Others on the ground collect money to later donate to the aforementioned charities.
"The streets of New York have always been my home, and busking has been my bread and butter and also just a way to connect with people and build a fan base and keep playing and keep practicing," he said. "We started doing this for a good time, but I think everybody everywhere was trying to just connect with anybody as best as they could. Performers and New Yorkers alike were missing that connection of having live music."
Videos of the performances—particularly a show earlier in September in which Thompson's pickup band can be seen performing a soaring rendition of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" after dark while standing in front of lit windows—have gained some traction after being shared across Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms.
"Some girl had reached out on Instagram who was visiting the city from Kentucky, and she was like, 'Oh, I hope that you're having a concert. I saw you on TikToK and this is exactly what I would love to see when I'm in New York,'" Thompson said. "And [our latest gig] happened to coincide with the date that she was here, so she came. It was really cool to see that we're drawing some real life people from going viral on the internet."
Performing on the roof of a building is nothing new—just ask The Beatles or Jefferson Airplane, who were shut down by the NYPD while performing in 1968. But figuring out how to perform across three different floors, with little in the way of sightlines for band members to communicate, was a challenge.
First, Thompson had to get the blessing of his neighbors to use the fire escapes for the shows. The whole setup can take up to two hours—that includes dragging PAs and monitors up the stairs, and putting cardboard down to keep the drums steady—and they only have so much time for soundchecks.
Thompson's band has increased in size since last year—they performed as a four-piece in the summer of 2020, and now it includes at least five people playing sax, drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards. Because of the restrictions inherent in being situated on separate levels, none of it would work if the band didn't know the material really well: "The best thing is to have a well-rehearsed band so that everybody knows the arrangements and then you're just performing that way," he said.
There is the delicate balance of safely drawing a crowd (Thompson estimates he can see around 50-70 immediately below him watching at any moment) while not annoying anyone in the neighborhood, especially since New Yorkers are not shy about voicing their feelings on such matters.
"When you're playing at a club or you're playing at a private event, you know that everybody there is there to hear your music, whether they've paid money to be there or you've been hired," he said. "So immediately you know that the crowd is behind you, right? As opposed to getting up here where it's like, okay, we're going to make a bunch of noise, and I know that everybody around here has their own lives that they're living in their places of residence here. So I hope that nobody calls the cops and files a noise complaint or shouts from the window, 'Shut the hell up!' Luckily we haven't had that."
And then there is the matter of getting over the fear of heights: "I've been out on my fire escape a bunch of times just to hang out there, but I do have a little bit of a fear of heights, it's a little bit scary," Thompson said. "Depending on who's in the band, about half the people have their own kind of fear or discomfort. Normally I'm very physical, dancing around while performing, but having to lead the band with limited sightlines and a fear of heights, I definitely am much more stationary up there."
For the last two shows this summer, Thompson invited Olivia K and the Parkers to play as well. After the extreme isolation of 2020, Olivia K. said she was especially appreciative of any opportunity to perform again—so when her friend Thompson approached her about the balcony shows, she jumped at the chance.
"For a lot of us who are performers, when you're not able to be on stage, you realize how valuable, how special that relationship is," they said. "I livestreamed during the pandemic every week, because I didn't know what else to do. This is my purpose, I'm supposed to connect people, make people feel better. So getting to do that in person, getting to do that where you can really interact with people is really important to me."
For the first show, Olivia K. played solo—the performance ended a little after 9 p.m. when a woman in an adjacent building called out to her saying, "We have kids and they have school in the morning, please turn it off"—but she still brought her full seven-piece band with her for another show on September 26th.
"This time, from my perspective, I could see people stopping in the street, cars were honking, there were people clearly in the park watching," they said. "I [was told] people heard music while running in the park, and they were like, 'I don't know what this is but I gotta find out.' Someone said, 'We saw you two years ago, I can't believe we're seeing you again today, it's kismet.'"
Her musical partner in the group, pianist Jesse Featherstone, said this was one of the more unique shows he's ever been a part of (not quite as strange as playing solo piano for a polyamorous make-out party, but still very different). He noted that the band had received a grant through City Artist Corps, the city's recovery program aimed at hiring over 1,500 artists to create works throughout the five boroughs, so this gig was part of a series of outdoor and unique shows they have planned out to reach as wide an audience as possible.
"We wanted to hit both nice venues people want to come to, but also public venues where people who haven't been fully vaccinated yet have access to and can experience it while still being safe, and not being cut off from that," he said.
While their tight-knit band knew the songs well, Olivia K. and Featherstone also had to deal with the fact that some of their bandmates had a slight fear of heights.
"I ended up making the choice of being in the middle awning of the fire escape," Featherstone said. "I have a fear of heights, but I wanted to be able to look down at our drummer [for cues], and I'm very happy he has a very beautiful and handsome face, I could look right into his eyes and not look lower, and I could give him a look or mouth a word and he'd understand."
"I'm not afraid of heights, but I'm not super into them," added Olivia K. "It was funny because I decided to go down the stairs, I'm singing on the stairs of the fire escape instead of the landing, and Jesse was trying to get close to do background vocals on the mic and the wire got caught, so I said go back!"
"You can see my hands gripping the railing," Featherstone said, a moment you can see in the video below. "What was in my head essentially was this very loud slogan, 'FOR THE SHOW.'"