When New York venues were forced to close in March 2020, local musicians were forced to either adapt to a suddenly virtual world or hang up their instruments and look for a new income stream. This seemed like a tall order for Southold-based roots rocker Gene Casey, whose heart was largely in the vinyl era, but with support from his community, he was able to leap into the online realm with a successful virtual concert series and his first digital-exclusive single, “Here Come the Holidays.”
When the world halted last spring and all of Casey’s gigs were postponed or canceled, he was unsure what he could possibly do. Live shows were out of the question and virtual concerts seemed pointless – too strange and unfamiliar to try to navigate.
“Last year was really bizarre, surreal like a long Twilight Zone episode,” he says. “You always told yourself and other musicians would tell each other, ‘Don’t worry about the record business, there always will be live gigs so don’t worry about it.’ Who would’ve thought that would be in danger, too?”
Then Dawn Manwaring of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library contacted Casey to offer a proposition: Several East End libraries were looking to joint-sponsor a Facebook Live concert series, and it was his if he wanted it. He nervously agreed.
The first scheduled concert was a train wreck because, of course, he lost internet 20 minutes before showtime. This seemed to confirm his doubts, but his wife Heather helped him push through. With her technical support, the next show was a smashing success and opened Casey’s eyes to the fans and community who were still there – singing along, dancing and wishing him well. He was left “humbled, grateful and happy” reading the touching comments by hundreds of viewers.
“It took me awhile to get comfortable doing online shows,” Casey admits, noting that he often has to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to get onboard with the latest technology. “It’s weird, you’re speaking to a little camera or phone and trying to talk to how many people out there, but I got used to it and enjoyed it after a while.”
Once venues began to reopen, Casey, like many other artists, didn’t look back to virtual shows, as the call of live shows with his band, The Lone Sharks, was too great. However, he’s happy to have developed the skill in the case of closings and cancelations due to Omicron or other COVID-19 variants.
“There’s nothing like playing in front of people, and my music – even what I call my sensitive singer-songwriter stuff – is very accessible and meant to be heard and played live,” he says.
Casey’s venture into the digital world did more than hone his webcam crooning; it also helped him come to terms with the state of modern music listening habits. Physical albums are out, digital singles are in.
“I grew up in the album era – 12-inch vinyl, and, yeah, the single, but you got into albums and they had a theme or a vibe about them. And I still think that way, but in today’s market, I have to keep it simple,” he says, adding that the pandemic put a pause on his practice of printing 500 to 1,000 albums to sell at gigs for gas and other expenses.
With albums out of his mind, Casey turned his focus to digital singles, which presented a new challenge for the singer-songwriter. “Not every song is a natural single,” he says. “This is my two and a half minutes, and I really have to make sure it’s well-done. I feel like the discipline and restrictions placed on me as a writer make me think this has really got to be good because it’s a single.”
He decided to begin writing a holiday single around this time last year, which was a departure from the vibe of his other music at the time. “During the pandemic, most of the songs I’ve written have been kind of moody and introspective,” he says. “Here Come the Holidays,” in contrast, is “unpretentious and fun.”
Released on Spotify and other streaming services on November 11, 2021, “Here Come the Holidays” is a rocking good time with Casey’s smooth, lively vocals, jingling bells, a strong beat by Lone Sharks drummer Chris Ripley and accompanying bass by Nancy Atlas Project guitarist Johnny Blood, who also co-produced the festive single. Casey describes it as a “wall of sound production … with all the bells and whistles.”
“Here Come the Holidays” drew in near-immediate positive feedback on social media, in local newspapers and over the airwaves as more and more radio stations across the U.S. picked up the song. “I still like the fact that there’s a human being putting on a record or at least pressing a button,” Casey notes of his endearment to radio. “It’s an actual relationship you have with the person on the other end.”
Looking back on his initially reluctant entry into digital concerts and song releases, Casey can see the fruits of stepping out of his comfort zone and adapting to the post-pandemic world. “I’ve been encouraged that maybe it’s time I can let go of how I grew up with music,” he says. “Thinking outside my little box is actually paying off for me, and I’m enjoying it.”
Gene Casey performs at The Suffolk Theater on Friday, December 10 at 8 p.m. Visit suffolktheater.com for tickets. For updates on his music and upcoming shows, visit genecasey.com.