BERKELEY — On Feb. 27, the day before releasing its latest album, CYAN, Bay Area electric soul band The Seshen debuted some of the new material at a Noise Pop festival gig at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco in front of several hundred people. There was a tour on the way, and the sextet was getting excited to introduce even more people to the new songs. That never happened, of course, because of the coronavirus pandemic. The band’s manager, Courtney Fairchild, has rescheduled that tour four times—currently to the fall of 2021. But on Sunday, The Seshen finally got a wide release, of sorts, after playing and live-streaming an album review show at The UC Theatre.
The concert has been in the works since July, when the Berkeley venue pitched the band on a show that would hopefully bring some cash to the band members, many of whom haven’t gotten paid for work in months. Fairchild said the band has been offered numerous virtual gigs since March, mostly in support of organizations and venues that were struggling to stay afloat, and all on an unpaid basis. She turned them down because she wanted the band members and their crew to get paid.
“But this is a ticketed show,” Fairchild said of the offer from The UC Theatre. “What they’re doing here is pretty special.”
The concert was streamed live at 6 p.m. to a paying audience and will remain available to purchase for the next month. Several hours earlier, the band and a crew of about a dozen that included sound and visual engineers ran through a full dress rehearsal. The venue’s general manager, Matthew “Smitty” Smith, ran seven remote cameras that were positioned around the stage. The performance was streamed via virtual ticketing platform HowLive. Fans can also buy merch, including autographed vinyl records, through the streaming platform.
The sound, meanwhile, was programmed with a home audience in mind. The band members and crew mostly relied on a system of individual monitors rather than the house P.A. system. Vocalist Lalin St. Juste, for example, could be heard clearly heard online, but was drowned out by drummer Chris Thalmann and percussionist Mirza Kopelman inside the empty theater.
The “video village” was set up on the first tier up from the stage, with a series of feeds from which to select live shots. The lighting and sound stations were on the second tier from the stage. What “ticket-holders” saw on their monitors at home was delayed by 20 seconds; not to bleep cursing but simply to retain the quality of the stream. As of noon on Sunday, about 100 tickets had been sold for the performance, but Fairchild said that from studying other pandemic ticketed shows, 80 to 90 percent of purchasers wait until right before the start time to make a purchase—not unlike most live concerts when people show up close to showtime.
The Seshen were the second band to live-stream a performance from The UC Theatre, following fellow Bay Area band The Brothers Comatose. Lighting engineer Bobby Kirwan said that repetition makes the job easier.
“It’s a lot more different [than a traditional show],” Kirwan said. “Things are a lot more fluid.”
Sound engineer Ryan John, who typically works with pop artist Jessie J, was recruited for the live-streamed shows by Smith, and provided all of his own equipment to make it happen. He said that performing a show in an empty room affects the band more so than him. Performers typically get more energy from a large sound system, as well as fans, he said. Other than using smaller speakers for himself—closer to what people might be listening through at home—his job remained the same.
As for what can go wrong when staging such an elaborate broadcast? There are broken strings, faulty cables or microphones—all the usual problematic issues—as well as a couple of new ones.
“If the internet in this space isn’t consistent, who knows what people end up seeing at home?” said John, who compared the event to a cross between a concert and a TV show.
The Seshen, which also includes producer-bassist Akiyoshi Ehara, keyboardist Mahesh Rao and sequencer Kumar Butler, walked onto the stage a few minutes ahead of time and looked to stay loose as the clock began to tick down. The band did a physically distanced group hug and to get hyped up and stretch their voices, they emitted a THX-style vocal yelp.
As the countdown reached zero, the video team launched into the first of six personalized slick video vignettes, this one about St. Juste. The videos were spaced every few songs, during which time the band members had a few minutes to catch their breath and regroup. As St. Juste’s video ended, The Seshen gently launched into “Take It All Away,” CYAN’s opener. The band stuck to a predetermined runtime, which included only once directly addressing watchers at home.
“This is dedicated to Breonna [Taylor] and Black lives,” she said two-thirds of the way through.
The concert itself was highlighted by songs like the driving “Close Your Eyes” and the percussive and soulful “Head To Head,” which one could presume would have normally had a roomful of people moving together. “Faster Than Before” was a dark, ’80s-influenced pop jam highlighted by St. Juste’s passionate vocal delivery, while “Don’t Answer” was built upon a layering of acoustic fingerpicked guitars. The end of the performance was punctuated by the funky “Can’t Pretend” and glitchy “Still Dreaming.”
“It feels really good to get back on the stage and to hopefully be able to share the album release with a wide range of people,” St. Juste said a few minutes after the performance ended.
The Seshen had gone six months without seeing each other or practicing together and had only been able to do so a few weeks earlier in preparation for this show. The band has started working on some new music and are waiting for what 2021 brings.
“It’s a totally different animal,” St. Juste said of playing to cameras rather than people. “I definitely miss people in the room. But this is what we have to do for this period of time, so it’s an experiment. We’re happy to do it and try it out.”