Merjos ’23: “How Student Bands Live on During COVID-19”

The following essay was written by Rose Merjos ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

It’s a Friday night in February 2019. People are rushing down the outdoor stairwell into the lower level of a dorm. The heavy bass drum and colorful strobe lights pulse through the windows of the basement into the courtyard of West College. More than a hundred people are piled into the WestCo Cafe, barely able to move. The crowd in front of the stage lurches across the room like a wave. The colorful lights illuminate the graffiti on the back walls of the cafe. The smell of sweat wafts through the dense air.

On stage, the student band Love, Grandma is playing an original. The guitarist, Liam Murray, is standing in front. His black painted nails move up and down the neck of his guitar. His messy ginger hair falls in front of his face. The audience dances to the beat of the drum, hollering at Liam and his three bandmates.

That was a typical Love, Grandma show before the coronavirus hit Wesleyan University and the rest of the country.

In February 2020, Wesleyan students resumed classes after a challenging fall semester. An additional 40 students enrolled in the university this spring, where 85% of the student population is studying in person and 15% are remote.

Although the U.S. infection rate is gradually declining and widespread vaccination is on the horizon, Wesleyan is still taking the necessary precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. On campus, students must wear masks in shared spaces, practice social distancing, and ensure they are tested for COVID-19 twice a week. Visitors are also restricted from campus and students residing in dorms can only have one guest over at a time.

President Michael Roth told The Wesleyan Argus that “after a successful reactivation of campus last fall, we are confident that we’ll be able to offer a vital Wesleyan experience to students this spring while limiting the spread of COVID-19 on campus.”

But cultivating an authentic Wesleyan experience under harsh safety guidelines can be challenging. On top of existing anxiety about the pandemic, students worry that life on campus is less worthwhile. Although Liam, a Wesleyan sophomore, shares this sentiment, he is adjusting to a new normal, creating new experiences along the way.

When Liam returned to campus last fall, he got Love, Grandma back together and started to organize rehearsals. The group wasn’t able to work on any music over the summer months, but they were ready to perform in any way they could.

WestCo Cafe became a regular rehearsal space for the band. People living nearby would occasionally stop by, sit on the couch opposite the stage and chat as Liam and his bandmates tried out new chord progressions.

This was one of the few indoor spaces where Love, Grandma could rehearse while following the university’s guidelines. To practice in the Cafe, the band had to reserve the space 72 hours in advance and abide by the COVID capacity of 10 people.

Liam sees a lot of positives in being a college musician during COVID-19. Using the Cafe as a new practice space provided opportunities for him and his friends to hang out while following safety guidelines. “It’s great to have a practice space close to where everyone lives,” he says. “You’re doing art that makes you feel good around people that make you feel even better.”

But practicing in front of his friends also evokes a longing for the past. “I experience a lot of nostalgia because I’m doing some of the same things I was doing last year. It is a brief moment of escape,” Liam says.

Practicing in the Cafe and producing music in his dorm room provided a sense of normalcy for Liam throughout the fall semester. He chased those moments that brought him back to the pre-COVID era, but also found new ways to express his passion for music.

He did this by organizing a show over Zoom where students performed from their rooms at Wesleyan and across the world. Liam and his band played a song they had written in 2019. The patterned tapestry and flickering string lights hung up in his room emulated a concert hall. In a tiny box adjacent to Liam’s on the Zoom screen, the band’s vocalist, Gib Bernath, sang into a mic in his room two doors down from Liam. After the performance, the applause bellowed out from his computer. “We love Love, Grandma!” two girls shouted.

“It felt strange to play alone in my room in front of 50 people on the computer screen,” Liam recalls. “But watching other student bands perform, I realized that we’re all experiencing a sense of frustration and we need to support each other.”

A lot of bands had been working on music all summer and were excited to share it in any forum. But Liam knew that a Zoom performance wasn’t enough. He wanted to feel the body heat and echoing cries of the audience. He wanted to feed off of the crowd’s energy the way he did on that Friday night in February 2019.

So Liam decided to plan an outdoor concert on a Saturday evening in November. He wanted to organize Duke Day, an annual fall gathering for West College students. By November, the infection rate on campus was low and the safety guidelines were easing up. “This could actually happen,” he thought. And that prospect was enough to meticulously plan out every detail.

Duke Day started in the late 80s as a music festival hosted by WestCo that revolved around drug experimentation. In the past decade, however, it has turned into a school-wide event where dozens of student bands perform on Foss Hill. While a large-scale event was out of the question, Liam had the idea of organizing a modest Duke Day to keep the tradition alive.

Liam made sure that every aspect of the concert was acceptable under the university’s COVID restrictions. Duke Day would take place on the outdoor walkway connecting the second floors of Foss 2 and 3, two of the four West College dorms. The balcony overlooks the West College courtyard, so the audience could watch Love, Grandma perform from above.

The COVID capacity of the courtyard is 25 people. But what distinguished Duke Day from any outdoor performance was the 15 rooms facing the courtyard. Liam envisioned those people dancing on the balconies, leaning over railings to feel closer to him and the band. He could almost hear his guitar reverberating off of the concrete walls. He dreamed about how euphoric it would feel to perform, even at a further distance from the crowd.

On the day of the concert, Liam hung up Duke Day posters on the WesCo bulletin boards and slid flyers under everyone’s doors. He sent out an email asking everyone to social distance and wear masks during the show. And he enlisted a few friends to ensure that the number of people in the courtyard did not exceed 25.

Liam and his bandmates carried amps, mics, a piano, a drum kit, two guitars, and a bass up three flights of stairs. They laid out a mat and plugged in extension cords. It was a brisk November afternoon. The sun was already starting to set, creating a pink hue in the sky.

Love, Grandma started to rehearse around 4:30 pm. Less than an hour later, they received an email from the area coordinator saying that Duke Day was canceled. As of that day, the university had enacted new COVID-19 guidelines, restricting outdoor gatherings to five people.

After he read the email, Liam felt the disappointment rush over him. He had dedicated himself to finding new ways to perform during COVID. But now he wondered if performing was a possibility at all. “That night, our momentum got halted,” says Liam. “We had no idea what we wanted to do or where we were headed.”

Later that evening, Liam and Love, Grandma still played some music. A few friends sat against the railing of the walkway and chatted the same way they did during the band’s rehearsals.

Four months later, Love, Grandma have just released a song, “Grace,” that Liam and his bandmates worked on during winter break. He doesn’t know when Wesleyan will hear it live.

Although the future for Love, Grandma is less than promising, Liam is holding onto his passion. In the absence of crowds, playing music isn’t what it used to be. “Rehearsing in front of my friends is great. But then I remember that all I want to do is perform to a bunch of sweaty people, all screaming,” says Liam. Yet, performance is not the sole reason why Liam appreciates music, and COVID-19 is allowing him to discover new ones every day.