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Gainesville music scene bounces back after COVID-19

From left to right: Riley Sechrest, 24, Zach Rodriguez, 23, Bambii Lamb, 20, and Ben Cannon, 24, performing at Destination Okeechobee hosted at downtown Gainesville’s Vivid Music Hall. The group competed for a chance to play at the Okeechobee Music Festival held in March. (Luis-Alfredo Garcia/WUFT News)
From left to right: Riley Sechrest, 24, Zach Rodriguez, 23, Bambii Lamb, 20, and Ben Cannon, 24, performing at Destination Okeechobee hosted at downtown Gainesville’s Vivid Music Hall. The group competed for a chance to play at the Okeechobee Music Festival held in March. (Luis-Alfredo Garcia/WUFT News)

After three years of desolate discos and unfathomable changes, Gainesville has finally regained its soul.

Artists, venue owners and inspired individuals all fought to keep the music scene alive during the pandemic. And that created a resilient framework and set the stage for a comeback.

Brandon Telg, 33, co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to aiding independent Gainesville artists. He believes the talent in the city should be propped up through community cooperation.

“There’s something in the water in Gainesville that generates great musicians,” Telg said.

January began the first year in which COVID-19 restrictions were not required nor expected at local events. Gainesville’s perpetually growing music scene is looking to cement itself as the base of a recognized music town with revelations about unity made throughout the pandemic. The city rooted in Tom Petty ballads and punk rock garages enters a new age that will emphasize exposure, community and family, according to Telg.

When he is not engrossed in married life and two children, Gainesville native Telg helps artists. He co-founded the nonprofit MusicGNV in March 2020. Telg had planned to launch later in the year, but the pandemic forced him to adjust. With goals of bringing excellent shows and learning opportunities, Telg and MusicGNV continually bolster Gainesville’s ever-changing music world.

The nonprofit group provides ample opportunity for local artists to play at shows and offers a quarterly $2,000 recording grant, the first of its kind in Gainesville, to one artist out of a pool of applications. They partnered with the Gainesville’s Parks Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department to raise money for musicians and create free events. Telg developed a youth music vocational skills training program that is now being implemented.

He is prepping Gainesville for a falsetto future. Telg was a key player in bringing back the scene, but he faced his own band of problems surrounding his goals.

“I never want to live through that again, but in some ways I’m really grateful that I had a moment to stop and see what was really important,” he said.

Telg said the pandemic caused him to contemplate his previous community contributions. His prior project, Sofar Sounds Gainesville, would set up mystery concerts that did not reveal the event’s lineup until performance day. Although he enjoyed working with the program, he realized that Gainesville needed more than a niche concert series and improved social media presence. Shutdowns solidified that.

Life had abandoned him.

Telg then saw there was nobody specifically working with the independent music community. MusicGNV assisted in stabilizing both Telg and the music scene.

“Everything I felt like I had built was gone,” Telg said. “I just had to sit in the discomfort of it all and ended up finding myself.”

Other venues and organizations had to experience a rebirth rather than a premature one. Heartwood Soundstage is a part of Gainesville’s gaggle of great venues, and its owner, 42-year-old David Melosh, said his trek to survival hurdled through financial loss and an empty stage.

The studio lost an estimated $100,000 in both 2020 and 2021. Melosh remained in business through community support and a painting business with his wife. Grants totaling $161,018 from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operations Grant also helped him endure.

Heartwood Soundstage is set to break even this year according to Melosh. The space will host Heartwood Music Fest from Feb. 24-26, 2023, in what will be one of the first grandiose explorations of the evolved music scene collaborating with others on a large scope.

“Everyone who is still here, it makes us feel grateful to be able to do this,” he said. “We all feel like we need to have each other’s backs, whether it’s musicians, venues or audience members.”

Younger members of the collective also helped shape the scene through adversity. How Bazar is one of the most recent additions to Gainesville’s music universe. The space serves as a vintage market, music venue and bar, and its mission is to harmonize fashion, nightlife and inclusivity. Helmed by co-owner Laila Fakhoury, How Bazar moved from Gainesville’s Seagle Building to a prime downtown spot sandwiched between High Dive and Vivid Music Hall in late 2021. Fakhoury, 25, is still adjusting to the changes brought with the pandemic and move.

"All of the co-owners have a job outside of this,” she said. “We do this out of love and for the people, and it’s amazing to see the word spread.”

Fakhoury also co-owns Dion Dia, a record label dedicated to celebrating a diverse group of artists. The University of Florida graduate initially aided a plethora of people in creating music, from terminally ill adolescents to prisoners with life sentences. Now and through the pandemic, Fakhoury and the label shifted focus on working with artists that can spread social and musical change. Fakhoury emphasized building musicians a bigger physical following now that it is feasible.

“There’s a vibrancy that’s going to come,” Fakhoury said. “The beauty of Gainesville is that there’s so many things happening and it’s all so accessible. There’s not enough space in Gainesville to not be a family.”

Beyond Dion Dia, Gainesville hosts a slew of artists affected by the pandemic; artists who were both inspired and inhibited by the coronavirus.

Jarrell Daniels, who performs under the name Sky Luca$, utilized the pandemic to expand his impact. Daniels, 27, co-founded Night Before Media with Will Hinson to help artists tour and gain exposure.

Historically, Gainesville is known for its rock and soul acts; rock group Less Than Jake and soul singer Linda Lyndell are paragons of what the music scene has been. Daniels, however, poured his passion into hip-hop and R&B inspired work – two genres sometimes lost in the slurry of local music. For him, the goal is clear: make great art and make sure others can make better.

“It’s only going to get better,” he said. “Gainesville is five years behind Miami in terms of the scene, but you’re seeing a lot of people start to catch up and help others. The tragedy of the pandemic made us realize we had to be better together.”

Some artists take joy in strengthening the scene through their songs. Alternative rock band Driptones’ front man, Collin Fitzgerald, 22, said that he appreciated the innocence of being able to play again.

“We were riding this high, and it all just stopped. It was tough. I’m glad we’re back,” Fitzgerald said.

Grace Lamerson, who performs as Bambii Lamb, grew up in northwest Gainesville. She was swamped in a cavalcade of music during her youth, and she hopes to inspire others in the same way she was.

“It’s so good for the city and for the community that we have this back. I can’t wait to see what happens,” said Madison Chery, 20, an audience member at Vivid Music Hall who saw Bambii Lamb perform during Destination Okeechobee, a battle-of-the-bands event.

The 20-year-old experimental pop artist made her performance debut January 2022. She headlines a new generation of musicians devoted to building up a culture unseen before in the city.

As unnerving as it is, Lamerson explained that she would not be the musician she is today without the pandemic shutdowns.

“People are performing more because everybody missed it,” she said. “Music is what makes us human.”

Luis-Alfredo is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.