Two childhood friends have tried to do their part to keep the local music scene alive. Mike Berkey and Devin Russian have known each other since the 6th grade, which in their case is over 20 years. Their love of music has been one of the things that have been a common bond throughout the years. They are not alone during their COVID experiences. Like most people, their musical life experienced a radical change in the early days of 2020.
Like some, Mike’s passion for music is not only something he does outside of his day job, but is also his career. He is a music teacher and band director at the Penn Hills high school. As you would expect, part of your time in school as a student would be practicing your instruments or singing. But until I conducted this interview, I had never considered that doing something you love in school would be forbidden. Mike misses the days immediately before COVID when his band room had students practicing their craft. Now outside of his teaching about music theory, there is now silence replacing the music of 10 months ago. Where students once stood shoulder to shoulder gleefully performing, they are now quietly seated six feet apart reminiscent of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’.
Prior to the events of the last 10 months, Mike also spent his off work time performing with the Poor Souls. On March 14th, they played their last show which was the day immediately preceding the governor’s ordered shutdown. Several members of the Poor Souls are teachers so they have to be cautious interacting with others. So since the night of their last show, the Poor Souls have not played a single note together.
While Devin’s full time career is not in the music field, right before COVID he was recording a song, ‘Rivers of Pittsburgh’, and excited that it was soon to be released. He had already completed the accompanying video that was to be released with the recording. With all the challenges of life as it is post March 2020, doing what would have been much quicker before is now moving at a significantly slower pace. While he is still hoping to have it done sometime in the near future, it is past when he originally had hoped to have it completed.
Devin is also a huge fan of vinyl, so much so that before COVID his wife and he would have friends over to their house for evenings of hanging out and listening to music. You don’t realize how important things like this are until circumstances prevent them from being able to continue.
Just days before COVID shut down the music scene, Mike and Devin had paired up to do an acoustic show at Ketchup City Creative in Sharpsburg. This was the first time that they had performed together for this type of show. They had a great turnout and the show was a success. The venue owners were so happy that they had discussed with them doing additional shows in the months to come. Obviously anticipating this great opportunity was an exciting time that quickly turned to disappointment.
Another common bond between Mike and Devin was both of their love for the open mic hosted at the Starlite Lounge on Freeport road in Pittsburgh. In addition to their love of the open mic, they could not say enough about their love of the “best pierogis in Pittsburgh” on the menu. In fact their passion about this southwest PA staple has made me add it to my local food bucket list. But returning to the theme of my story, they told me how special playing at the open mic at the Starlight Lounge was to them. They have both played at other different open mics, but they felt that this one in particular felt like family. The musicians there supported each other, coached each other and in general lifted each other up.
As you can imagine, both artists experienced what a lot of others have been going through. Along with all else, they had seen a place they both loved to perform forced to stop their open mics. But instead of letting the COVID shutdown be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, these two were determined to not let that special environment become just one more casualty in a time of so many others.
They banded together to find a way to keep the camaraderie going on a weekly basis. Mike and Devin could possibly have one of the longest running COVID era virtual open mics anywhere since it will have its 47th weekly set tonight. I find it hard to dispute since this is also how many weeks it has been between the shutdown and today. Any other open mic at best would be tied for that honor. It’s pretty impressive when I think about all the logistics and technical difficulties of switching from a live event to an online one. They told me that it was challenging to find a way to make this work and went through some growing pains at first. But the way that this works now has made this continue when others have not been as successful. Each artist makes a video of up to three songs and submits them to be played at the open mic each Wednesday. They continue to have a good number of weekly participants averaging nine people a week. The best part to me is that they still are a group who virtually support each other each week, just like they did when they were still live. If you are interested in finding out more about the Starlite Lounge open mic and maybe even performing, you can check them out on Facebook. They also upload their videos to YouTube each week.
Even though they host the virtual open mic, they miss the in person connections with other artists you can only have when live. Devin mentioned that at Starlite artists would come up on stage if they knew the song you were playing and play or sing harmonies. He loved the fact that the people there were such a special group. As with everyone who loves music, they also miss listening to live music the way it was before. Obviously they are hoping that things will get back to normal in the not too distant future. They mentioned their sadness that some local venues like the Rex and Hambones couldn’t weather the COVID storm and will never open their doors again.
Mike and Devin have tried to search for the positive during the past year. One thing that may have never happened otherwise is that the virtual mic has given them both an opportunity to build up their collection of them performing. Before COVID their online recordings had been pretty much nonexistent. So now when things start to get back to normal, they have a place that they can share with venues and festivals when requesting to perform for them. Mike and the Poor Souls have recently started talking about performing again this summer. Both Devin and Mike have spent this time writing some original music. Devin hopes that he can start recording some of his music when things are back to normal.
These childhood friends have met the adversities of 2020 and figured out a way to keep their love of music alive during a challenging time. It has been difficult at times, but they found a way to make it work. They mentioned that they are happy that they are able to give back to the local music scene while it is struggling.
As we all know, everyone has reacted to 2020 differently. Last week I told you how COVID has impacted me personally. Over the next few weeks I will continue to interview people with different roles in the arts and entertainment industry to share with you their experiences during this time. I believe you’ll find some commonality each week with someone. If nothing else you’ll find that they are in a different place today than they would have imagined a year ago. So if you have a story to share to show people they are not alone, just reach out to me. Or if not, check back every Wednesday to read someone else’s story. It just may be what you need to hear.