Musicians, fans come together to celebrate and support blueswoman and Waukon native Vicki Price following her successful cancer surgery


Vicki and Joe Price ... Submitted photo taken by Bradley Cook.

Benji Nichols ...

David Zollo ...

Mike McAbee ...

Rad Lorkovic ...

Mike Munson ...

‘Christmas at T-Bock’s’ virtual concert will feature several regional musicians, plus Joe and Vicki Price

by Julie Berg-Raymond

It would be difficult - indeed, it may be impossible - to adequately express the importance of music in all of our lives. Whether we’re celebrating, mourning, dancing or dreaming, music has always offered a way to punctuate the experience of living a fully human life.

In the great bluesman Willie Dixon’s estimation, music (particularly, for him, blues music) is also a way of “calling on God”; and the past year has seen many of us doing exactly that, as we have turned to musical artists of the past and present for what their work makes possible - an experience of the connection to something greater than and beyond ourselves. In the wail of a steel guitar, the sigh of a tenor sax, the moan of a perfectly turned blue note, we hear the echo of our own longings; we know we are not alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed upon us a sense of isolation unprecedented in modern times; certainly, it has made it virtually impossible for us to gather in ways we’ve always gathered, to share in the communal spirit of music. Tours have been canceled; music venues of all varieties and sizes have either closed or have had to drastically limit the number of patrons allowed inside at one time - and most musicians have found themselves, for nearly a year at this point, without work.

This is a story about several area musicians coming together to celebrate and support one of their own, through their music. It’s also a story about how we can give something back to the people whose work has given all of us so much, for so long.

A CALL GOES OUT
When Benji Nichols - who brings his experience in concert industry event and audio production to the business he owns with his wife, Aryn, Inspire(d) Media, LLC - learned that blueswoman and Waukon native Vicki Price had recently had cancer surgery, he wanted to do something to help. He created a GoFundMe page for her, with the goal of raising $20,000. (gofundme.com/f/vicki-price-kicks-the-blues)

“2020 has been a year of unthinkable circumstances for musicians and entertainers of every stripe - but to throw a medical emergency in the mix is even too much for the most honed blues-makers,” Nichols writes on the GoFundMe page. “Earlier in 2020, Vicki was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (Hashimoto disease, an immune disorder where your immune system attacks the thyroid, destroying it.) Time and luck were on her side, as the cancer was contained to her thyroid - which was removed November 23, in La Crosse, WI.

Funds raised will go directly to Vicki and her husband (legendary Iowa bluesman Joe Price), to help pay for  medical bills, extra expenses resulting from the surgery, and getting their van fixed - which, like a blues song might have it, broke down on their way home from the surgery.

This, Nichols notes, “on top of a year where they have lost the majority of their touring income.”

In an email interview about the project, Nichols described the situation facing musicians, in the wake of the pandemic. “It has been an incredibly difficult year for so many people, and likely the hardest couple months are yet to come in early 2021, for many,” he said. “For anyone who has been self-employed, and certainly in the music industry, the insecurities and uncertainties are always there; but a year like 2020 is just crushing. The live music portion of the entertainment world is a $10 billion industry annually, which only happens due to amazing, everyday people wanting to see and hear their favorite musicians in places large and small. That entire business ground to a halt in March and is yet to return. The losses for artists tiny to blockbuster are staggering, and there has been very little support for those folks. As many in the industry have said, it was one of the first to stop, and will be one of the last to return.”

Nichols said it’s important to realize that 90 percent of professional musicians have basically zero income. “Sure, the larger artists and those that have managed radio/online music services are still getting some income, but touring is really where artists have made money in the last few years; and those incomes supported everyone from the band members, to bus drivers, technicians, venue staff, and more.”

The most direct way to support artists at this critical time, Nichols said, is by purchasing their music and merchandise - directly from their websites, if possible. “It is also worth noting that many venues are offering great discounts and specials for things like gift cards that can be used in the future. If the places that working musicians play aren’t able to make it into 2021, it will be a loss for everyone involved.”

With the GoFundMe page in place, Nichols reached out to some area musicians  - friends, all, to Vicki and Joe Price. He asked them if they’d be willing to make a video performance to share in the “updates’ portion of the page, and they were happy to oblige.

VIRTUAL ‘CHRISTMAS AT T-BOCKS’
“We’re putting all of those videos together to make an extra special tribute for Vicki and Joe that will be out the week of Christmas,” Nichols said.

Vicki and Joe also are recording performances for the virtual concert.

“As many may remember, Vicki and Joe played ‘Christmas at T-Bock’s’ for years, each Christmas night. It was always a real ‘homecoming’ of people, a chance to reconnect, and get out of the house while getting to see some great music,” Nichols explained. “That tradition ended a couple years ago, but we thought a virtual version to celebrate Vicki and Joe would be a fun way to cap off the GoFundMe Campaign. Mike and Dominique Bockman from T-Bock’s in Decorah have been incredibly supportive over the years, so the show will be up on T-Bock’s Facebook page to stream, beginning Christmas Eve. We’ll have information up on the GoFundMe page for the online show, as well, for those who may not use Facebook.”

THE MUSICIANS
Dave Zollo (davezollo.com) is well known to music fans throughout the region. Beginning his career in 1992 when he was 21, he performed with Iowa City’s High and Lonesome. Since that time, the singer/songwriter/keyboardist has fronted his own bands and worked as a sideman for roots music performers like Todd Snider, William Elliott Whitmore, Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey and The Pines. He currently fronts his own band, Dave Zollo and the Body Electric.

“My father has been close friends with Joe and Vicki since I was quite young,” Zollo said in a recent email interview. “In fact, seeing Joe perform when I was a kid is one of the things that inspired me to become a performer. We were on a record label together, from roughly 1994-2006. It was called Trailer Records, and I started it as a way to help get the work of Iowa roots musicians out to a wider audience.”

For his contribution to the “Christmas at T-Bock’s” virtual concert, Zollo performed an original song called “Eye of the Needle.” “The song was inspired by the birth of my first and only child, a son named Rocco who has already started college at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, where we live. Next year he will be going away; and I suppose the weight of that, along with my feeling for what Vicki is going through, inspired me to play that particular song. It’s also a song about the importance of reaching out to one another and the ways in which that can be a healing act.”

Zollo said that being a part of a larger community is one of the most important parts of what he does, as a performing musician. “That community includes the people who support us by attending our shows and the people who work in other businesses that we rely on, as entertainers (photographers; record stores; journalists; etc.). The more ways we support each other, and recognize our interdependence, the more we can see that we’re all more alike than different, and that we all need each other in very fundamental ways. I think it adds to a more understanding, empathetic and connected life experience.”

Zollo is happy to be a part of the “Christmas at T-Bock’s” virtual concert, he said, because it allows him to give something back to people he has long admired. “Joe and Vicki are wonderful people and wonderful performers and artists,” he said. “Their contribution to our larger culture here in the state of Iowa, and the other places where they perform, is huge. We’re all enriched by their work, and by the people they are. Above all else, taking part in something like this gives us all the chance to recognize that, and to thank them for all they’ve done for us over the years, and for the things they may have sacrificed, personally, so that they could continue making music and inspiring others.”

Mike McAbee (mikemcabee.com), a self-described “one-man-band-singer-songwriter; devoted father; ceiling fan specialist,” has a devoted following on the area music scene. His shows typically combine comedy and music (often in the same song, if he’s performing an original), and frequently do employ ceiling fans.

McAbee, a long-time friend and admirer of the Prices, performed an original tune he wrote 10 years ago about Vicki, called “I Need a Vicki,” for the “Christmas at T-Bock’s” virtual concert. (“Joe Price shows up with his wife Vicki, he sits down in a chair, he plays the slide guitar, impresses everybody there/and when Joe Price gets tired Vicki takes out her guitar, kicks out the freakin’ jams while Joe Price hangs out at the bar…”)

“I know when you’re a musician there’s not much of a safety net,” McAbee said. “Fans have been great about buying merchandise from me as well as from other musicians. And I’ve got a few friends still doing online concerts that still make a buck or two. I just hope that people still find live music important when this is over. So many things seem to be disappearing at an accelerated rate; I hope going to your local bar to check out a band isn’t one of them.”

Rad Lorkovic (radoslavlorkovic.com) has a distinctive piano style that draws, his website notes, from influences ranging “from elegant classical and jazz styles to the rawest, most basic blues, country and soul … His 30-year touring career has led him from the taverns of the upper Mississippi River to the castles of Italy, The Canary Islands, The Yup’ik villages of Alaska, The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.”

For Lorkovic, who performs a Joe Price classic - “Chicago Northwestern Line” (“a fixture in my solo show”) - on his video contribution to the “Christmas at T-Bock’s” virtual concert, “(Joe and Vicki) are family.”

Lorkovic said he considers himself “very lucky. My spouse is in the tech industry. For me, this time has presented an opportunity to practice. It’s been mostly classical piano. Actual support, where needed, is critical. The moral support is very inspiring and keeps me wanting to deliver the goods. Music fans are the best people in the world. I am so fortunate to have them as friends.”

Jeff Mitchell’s (jeffmitchellmusic.com) website notes that he is “perhaps best known as collaborator with others. As a founding member of Field Report, he spent two years in the arranging, recording and subsequent intense touring behind the group’s debut album. Mitchell is also known for his live work with Duluth fingerpicker Charlie Parr, a decade-long and very deep relationship with a collective of rock and folk musicians in Oshkosh, WI, and formative work with a group of close friends in northeast Iowa.”

“Vicki and Joe have always been inspiring to me,” Mitchell said. “I’ve learned a lot by watching them work and when we get to talk, I feel like I always come away with some nugget of wisdom (after a lot of laughing). It feels good to give something back.”

Mitchell performs Joe’s song, ‘Gravel Road Blues,’ from his ‘Requests’ album. “I thought about doing something like ‘Iowa Crawl,’” he said; “but that’s just such pure Joe Price I didn’t feel like I could nail the feeling of it. ‘Gravel Road’ is slower and spooky and minor-key, which suits me and satisfies my misdirected urges to imitate Skip James. I’m sure I didn’t nail this any better than I would any other Price tune, but it was fun to try.”

Like Lorkovic, Mitchell has been spared some of the harshest effects of the pandemic. “I’ve got a full-time museum job in addition to playing music. I’ve been able to keep working that day job and feel very lucky,” he said. “Most full-time musicians are getting absolutely clobbered financially. In the Midwest, the cold weather has brought an end to what little was left of the reasonably safe, outdoor gigs.”

For those looking to aid professional musicians, Mitchell said “directing money at local/regional artists is huge if you’re able. Even buying a single song on Bandcamp can be a boost. Another big help is to ‘like’ and share social media posts from the musicians you respect. Many regional players don’t have a budget available for those ‘sponsored’ posts you see on Facebook. Your engagement gives lesser-known artists a fighting chance of getting their message past the algorithms that decide what gets seen in our feeds.”

Like the rest of the musicians coming together to celebrate and support Vicki, Mitchell said he feels very much a part of a community - “and it means the world to me. Some of my deepest and longest-lasting friendships have been built around music. Any opportunity we all have to lift each other up increases our chances to have more music to enjoy from the artists we love, once we get through this whole mess,” he said. “And don’t forget to support your music venues. Small venues are in a very tough spot right now.”

Mike Munson (mikemunson.net) is a slide guitar player whose mentor is Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, “owner of the oldest juke joint in North America, the Blue Front Cafe.” Munson considers Fred McDowell, Jack Owens and Jessie Mae Hemphill among his influences. He performs “Let Me Be Your Chauffeur,” by Memphis Minnie, as his contribution to the virtual concert. “She’s such a boss and I know Vicki loves her music,” he said.

“It was a no-brainer to participate,” Munson said of being asked to perform a piece for the virtual concert. “It’s a shame we don’t have a more just healthcare system here. Musicians, especially, have a precarious life without many of the benefits awarded to other lines of work.

There have been so many generous and kind people; but I believe we need help from the federal and state governments. So many musicians understand that most everyone needs help in some way. That’s why this was so great that Benji made all this happen for Joe and Vicki,” he said. “The pandemic has changed life for everyone, and we are all in this together.”

Tim Eddy (timeddymusic.com) is a poet, songwriter and music promoter who has long admired the work of Joe and Vicki Price. He performs an original song, “Promised Land,” in his contribution to the virtual concert.

“I’m not a full-time gigging musician; but for those who are, it has been like falling off a cliff,” Eddy said of the shutdowns caused by the pandemic. “As a fan and ambassador of many artists, I feel that deeply. I have seen the music community act selflessly, time after time, for the communities in which they live. These are people often of limited means who regularly give of their time and talent and heart. It is an honor to share something for Vicki. She and Joe are great examples of that giving community.”

The Avey-Grouws Band (aveygrouwsband.com), winners of the 2017 and 2019 Iowa Blues Challenges, and semi-finalists in the 2018 and 2020 International Blues Challenge, released its debut, Billboard-charting album, “The Devil May Care” in March, 2020 - in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Band members Chris Avey, Bryan West and Jeni Grouws perform “Dig What You Do,” a song from that album, in their contribution to the virtual concert.

“It’s been tough for so many,” Grouws said. “Small businesses across the country are hurting. Musicians are also small businesses. We work hard every day to book jobs, write new music, keep up on social media, track and make sales. We hire publicists and producers, other musicians and more. We are small businesses in our own right. But we simply can’t work right now. It isn’t safe, but it also isn’t allowed in most places across the country.”

The Avey-Grouws Band had plans to tour across the country and internationally after their album was released; but they had to cancel all of that - and, Grouws said, “find new ways to look at this year. We immediately moved online. The release date for ‘The Devil May Care’ was the day places started shutting in Iowa and Illinois. So we quickly moved the planned full band show into the apartment of Bryan West and Chris Avey, and just the three of us went live. You assess and react, and then reassess again.”

Since March 20, the band has been doing two live streams a week, Fridays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at noon. “Though the pay isn’t the same, we’ve been able to reach another goal - that of making new fans,” Grouws said. “People on our streams chat with each other during the show and they are making new friends. In a time when we are feeling so disconnected, these live streams have connected so many of us, and we’re truly grateful for that opportunity.”

Like other musicians trying to stay afloat during a time of unprecedented challenges, Grouws said the best way music fans can support them is by buying their music. “We have found that the best return for us as musicians is if you buy from us at aveygrouwsband.bandcamp.com.

We get a greater share of the revenue there, and that means so much.” The full band will perform a New Year’s Day concert January 1, 2021, from 5 to 7 p.m. “We want to celebrate the beginning of something new, so we’ve got a pro studio and the full band,” she said. Tickets are on sale at the band’s website.

“We’re all struggling, and it’s still unclear when we’ll be able to get back to ‘normal,’” Grouws said. “So we hang tough, get creative and hope that we can do what most of us are driven to do - tell the stories of the world, the joys and the sorrows, through our music.”

GRATITUDE AND GIVING
“We have learned in a big way how generous the music community is,” Vicki Price said in a recent email interview. “Both the musicians and the fans. The other day a man walked up to Joe at the gas station and handed him a hundred dollar bill. He said he enjoyed our music and wants us to keep playing. What do you say to these folks that have given you so much? Not just the money but their concern. The videos have given us such joy. We have so many talented friends. Their efforts to draw attention have been phenomenal and fun. 2020 has been hard for everyone. Joe and I have learned how good our friends and family are. We are very lucky to have them all in our lives and give them our love and gratitude.”
 

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