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Music groups make do in uncertain times

Inside his Eden Prairie frozen yogurt shop these days, Mark Miller might just be plucking away at his guitar. These days, when Freeziac customers aren’t around, he sometimes gets a tune or two out of his system.

The guitar player for the Eden Prairie group Mark Miller Band said his fellow musicians haven’t been able to play together since early March.

“It's really just kind of everybody’s on their own and doing what they can do,” Miller said.

And he’s not alone.

Lily Govrik and Ava Levy’s Minneapolis band, Sapphire, canceled shows through the summer due to the virus.

Joe Rainey can’t meet in person with Prior Lake-based native drum circle Iron Boy, so Facebook powwows are the next-best thing.

The Minnesota Valley Community Band, with 60-some active members, has stopped rehearsals altogether.

'IT FEELS LIKE WASTED TIME'

It’s a common theme for groups near and far: They’re trying their best to make music, but the times? They are a changin’.

“We're really limited as to what we can work with, but we're doing as much as we can,” said Sam Swanson, keyboardist for Chaska-based band Distant Edge.

The five-member alternative rock band had a show lined up with musician Blackbear and hoped to play in New York this summer, but things are looking different these days.

Today the college-aged band can record tracks, though independently, and work with a remote sound mixer to put it all together. Still, a question on lots of musicians’ minds remains.

“How are we going to keep this band going when we’re away from each other?” said Nolan Litschewski, Distant Edge vocalist.

The band was in the final stages of a new album. They need drums on one track, bass on a few others. They planned to release it around this time, but postponed it until early fall.

“What we all have to do is, ‘OK, let’s figure out how we’re going to play it together as a band now,'” Litschewski said.

With most of the members away for college, they weren’t strangers to coming together while apart. But summer was always go-time, and this year they won’t have those in-person rehearsals or shows.

“It feels bad just sitting around. It feels like wasted time,” Swanson said.

LOGGING ON, WAITING IT OUT

Steve Grady, marketing vice president with the choral group Minneapolis Commodores, said some of its 100-plus singers log on to laptops or phones once per week. The men have weekly video rehearsals, muting their “womp” vocal exercises and singing along to recorded tracks.

“A big part of our organization is the community and it's just kind of great to see all of the guys,” said Grady, who lives in Chanhassen. “It’s just fun to get together again and make sure everyone’s doing well.”

For the first time in 33 years, the Minnesota Valley Community Band is canceling a concert. Per the state government’s stay-at-home order, groups — let alone music groups — are restricted, which applies to audiences and fans, too.

“It affects us, sort of psychologically. Music is a — they’ll say it’ll soothe you,” conductor Barry Fox said. “I miss it and the band misses it … It’s frustrating to not be able to play.”

Fox said some band members have taken alternative routes to filling that music hole. A trumpet player uses computer programs to play trios with himself. Some flautists have been practicing ensemble music in online groups.

For some, these online groups have been everything.

The Iron Boy drum circle competes frequently at powwows, which are Native American ceremonies, Rainey said. The group has around a dozen members.

“Thirteen, 14 on a good day,” he said with a laugh.

Now, singers, dancers and drummers are joining the virtual community with Facebook groups like Social Distance Powwow and Quarantine Dance Specials 2020.

It helps people stay in touch, Rainey said, and pass the time.

“We haven’t been able to go to those and everyone has been wanting to scratch that itch to go out and dance or go out and sing,” Rainey said. “We have yet to kind of master the singing together, like putting the video together type thing.”

On a personal level, he’s keeping busy working on projects for bigger artists like Bon Iver and collaborating with other bands virtually.

ADAPTING TO THE TIMES

Between arranging online concerts to not practicing together at all, area bands say life looks pretty different for musicians these days.

Miller said since Mark Miller Band can’t rehearse in his soundproofed basement, his drummer bought an electric drum kit for his own home.

“He’s sitting up, banging away on plastic pads all night long trying to work on stuff and not keep the babies up,” he said.

A far cry from their usual three-hour Monday night jam-and-beer session, the crew takes turns recording in their own homes. Then they’ll post a clip for the group.

“We’re just kind of trying to go with the flow and work with what comes,” said Levy, vocalist and guitarist with Sapphire.

She lives with Govrik, so they have about half the band together. But most of their shows are in the spring and summer. It’s prime time for performances, but there’s nothing they can do about it.

Still, they plan to release some music this summer and hope to get the band back together after the stay-at-home order is lifted.

“It’s really sad,” Levy said. “Our main thing as a band was playing shows and specifically like house shows…. It’s definitely going to change how we function.”

For the Minneapolis Commodores, they’ve got another challenge to think about: Spit.

“The ‘gotcha’ around singers is we’re super-spreaders,” Grady said.

Shoulder-to-shoulder singing poses a risk for members and the audience, so the group is waiting for an all-clear before coming together again.

“You just get going and stuff’s flying everywhere, unfortunately,” Grady said. “You can’t just sing through a mask. There’s just no good way to do that.”

Many of the Commodores are over 60 years old, putting even more of them at risk. Barbershop groups within the organization appeal to older people, Grady said, so it’s especially important to wait this whole thing out.

In the coming year, he’s not sure what’s in store for the group.

“We may be out of luck for the entire rest of the year in terms of performing or sharing,” he said.

Again, they’re not alone.

Mark Miller Band members might get together at a distance later this summer, depending on how the world looks then.

“We could get together and play outside and stay away from each other but still play,” Miller said. “I don’t know. We’re not — we don't have any specific plan for that at the moment.”

Rainey said he sees his drum circle community doing the best they can, adjusting with their best feet forward.

“We’re just taking that time to hold the things we hold close, to just hold them a little closer (and) make sure that we're coming out of this better,” he said.


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Aiming for security, southwest metro residents stock up on ammunition and guns

Fleet Farm in Carver was fairly empty a couple weeks ago, as employees carted around large boxes of shipments to stock the shelves for the fresh week ahead, some wearing masks, others going without. The song “American Guns” was fittingly playing over the loudspeakers.

The aisles at the store were mostly stocked, save the candy aisle and the guns and ammunition section. The 9 mm bullets hadn’t been in stock for weeks, employees said.

Empty rows at this particular Fleet Farm, where once fully-stocked handguns adorned display cases, tell the story of a spike in the demand for guns — not just across the southwest metro, but across the country — as COVID-19 sweeps the nation and households grapple with fears about the economy and health care, and target shooters have more time to dedicate to their hobby.

SURGE

“People are going crazy,” Charles Davis, who makes custom AR-15 style rifles out of his Battle Creek Armory in Edina, told the Pioneer Press. “It’s sold out almost everywhere, like the Purell.”

Several Twin Cities firearms dealers and salespeople told the Pioneer Press in March they’re struggling to replenish 9 mm and 22-caliber rounds, the most common bullets for handguns and hunting rifles, respectively.

Asked if he was restocking at his Gun Stop shop in Minnetonka, Larry Duda said, “If the distributor had any, I’d order it.”

According to local gun rights activists and gun store employees, people who like to target shoot at outdoor ranges are buying guns and ammo because it’s a sport akin to golfing right now: one of the few hobbies people are able to do amid the shutdown. People who have never owned a gun are purchasing for the first time, perhaps to pick up on a new hobby, or perhaps because they fear the economic shutdown might affect gun store closures.

And the recipe for a spike in gun sales is prime, local police departments said.

Gun stores aren’t just noticing the spike. Some local police departments are seeing double — and in some cases triple — the amount of gun permit applications as normal. And those permits are time consuming.

Over time, Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate said, the department has seen predictable patterns in permit-to-purchase application surges: when there is an increased amount of uncertainty, or a specific change in public policy, people seem to flock to gun stores. When former President Barack Obama was elected, for example, there was a surge in permit to purchase applications due to the fear of a change in policy. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, people flocked to purchase firearms.

“I don’t recall it ever happening because of an alleged virus,” Duda said.

Throughout March and April 2019, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office issued 95 permits to purchase guns; in March and April 2020, permits to purchase guns had more than doubled to 211.

From March 1 to April 21, the Shakopee Police Department saw more than 130 permit to purchase applications. Normally, the department processes about 30 applications in a month. During the same time frame, Prior Lake processed more than 100 permit to purchase applications. And the Jordan Police Department received 21 gun permit applications, up from 13 during the same time period in 2019.

Permit to purchase applications take about three hours to process, Tate said. The police department looks into the applicant’s criminal history, court records, driver’s license and local contacts with law enforcement before approving a gun purchase.

“I couldn’t begin to assume or pontificate as to why we’ve seen the increase,” said Liam Duggan, an officer with the Prior Lake Police Department. “It could be as simple as people wondering if stores that sell would be closing if the state put a shelter-in-place order in.”

Tate said some police departments have taken a hard line on stay-at-home orders, and oftentimes, those orders will drive an individual to want to get a gun permit.

“But the gun control debate is typically when we see the most spikes,” Tate said.

SPIKE

Fleet Farm’s corporate spokesperson said it could not provide specific numbers regarding the gun and ammunition sales, but said that across the country they were seeing an increase in sales.

While most gun store owners in the southwest metro either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment, Tom Schroers, a Prior Lake resident who belongs to a Second Amendment rights group called Scott County Defenders, said he thinks the spike is due to citizens fearing that gun stores will shut down amid the pandemic.

“And people are probably becoming more aware that law enforcement might not be quite as willing to help them out, so if they don’t already own a firearm, they’re probably in a mad dash to do that,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people who already own guns are the ones buying them.”

Additional reporting by John Shipley of the Pioneer Press.