Local musicians need all the support they can get these days.
The Shockoe Sessions started out as a private, invitation-only group of musicians, local business owners, entertainment professionals and educators with the goal of better connecting the arts and small-business community. Before the pandemic, the group had organized over 25 of the tremendously successful Shockoe Sessions gatherings.
In the pandemic, things changed.
“We decided to rework the idea to help promote local music and arts to anyone who might be interested,” explains Carlos Chafin, president of In Your Ear Studios where the sessions are held. “I've always wanted to produce a local streaming television show featuring the best of Richmond’s music scene, so Shockoe Sessions Live was born.”
Coming up Nov. 17 is triple threat Desiree Roots, a singer, actor and dancer for the past 35 years. According to Chafin, many Richmonders outside the jazz and theater scene have never heard her sing.
“That's exactly what we do, introduce Richmond's amazing music talent to a wider and influential audience,” Chafin says, mentioning how it had Sid Kingsley on Shockoe Sessions long before he wowed judges recently on NBC’s “The Voice.” “I'm sure he won’t be the last of our alumni to break out. People as talented as Sid or Desiree deserve a break.”
And while Roots hasn’t been singing in person to live audiences much lately, she has done enough virtual performances and videos to reach well over 20,000 people. A firm believer in the axiom “use it or lose it,” she’s gone from having an incredibly packed schedule to having everything canceled or postponed. As a result, she noticed her vocal range beginning to change.
“My upper register needed a little more oomph to make it up the hill and that truly caused me great concern,” she recalls. “So, I began doing vocal warmups daily, whether I had a performance or not, just to exercise my vocal cords and keep my chops in shape.”
Roots is especially excited about the Shockoe Sessions because of how it allows a performer to turn an intimate studio space into a window for anyone to virtually look in and jam with her and her band. “I have one hour to appeal to those tuning in and try to enlist likes, heart emojis or whatever they use to show how the music is making them feel,” she says.
When she knows she has a performance coming up, she solicits song requests from her social media followers. “I think people like knowing their requested song is being considered for such a performance.”
Because her parents were performers, Roots was always around music and singing, whether with her dad, at school or singing in church. “I finally realized I wanted to do it forever when I got my first standing ovation,” she says, laughing. “That’s a great feeling you just want to experience over and over again.”
Preparing for a virtual performance is a bit different. It begins when she sends the song list to the band and schedules a Zoom conference to discuss a set list and tempos. Performance day, though, remains the same. “Hair, makeup, clothes, change hair, change clothes, check scenery, warm up, sound check and action!”
Chafin sees music and entertainment as critical to keeping everyone in a healthy frame of mind, while acknowledging that the closing of live music venues has been devastating.
“That's why streaming has become such a popular outlet,” he says. But while audience response has been enthusiastic, he says response to the tip jar is another story. People love the music, but most aren’t used to paying for it. “If we're going to support local music during these tough times, money needs to come from somewhere and the audience and corporate sponsors need to step up.”
Shockoe Sessions Live has done more than 20 shows, but only two have been partially sponsored. Every cent of the tips goes to the band, leaving In Your Ear and volunteers to cover production costs.
For Roots, the sessions offer an opportunity to sing the music she grew up with: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams and Nina Simone. It was the storytelling, the phrasing of their songs and the smooth, lyrical sound of their voices that spoke to her musical soul.
“My all-time favorite music hero was, of course, my dad, the late Jimmy Roots, who had the smoothest of the smooth voices and a style like no other,” she says. “Every time I step in front of a microphone, whatever genre of music I'm about to perform, I have dad in my ear and in my heart.”
Shockoe Sessions Live with Desiree Roots will be held Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Visit youtube.com/user/inyourearstudios.