How ‘An Isolated Few’ Friends Recorded an Album on the Lake Erie Shore During the Pandemic
When blues player Dan Bode moved back to Cleveland in April 2020 after residing in Seattle for three years, his life as a gigging musician was effectively put on hold.
Bode said relocating back to his hometown in the middle of a pandemic was stressful. He left behind three bands he had played with in Washington.
Finding ways to keep the music alive while the entire country was on lockdown posed a challenge.
That summer, Bode began calling Northeast Ohio musicians he knew, asking if they wanted to jam in his backyard since booking gigs was halted indefinitely.
“And if we’re 10 feet apart, outdoors, we’re going to be pretty safe,” Bode said.
He decided to record these outdoor jam sessions for an album titled “How I Spent My 2020 Summer Vacation,” which was released in February 2021.
A decades-long stretch in the local music scene
Bode has been part of the Northeast Ohio music scene since the 1980s, cutting his teeth on harmonica at Youngstown State University in his college years.
He played in several bands and performed in local venues during the waning of the Akron Sound era in the early ‘80s.
In 1988, Bode began playing with MoKo BoVo, a group recognized for its emphasis on improvisation and obscure cover songs that introduce audiences to sounds they may not have heard before.
Bode moved to England five years after founding the band with Al Moses, John Stebal and Rick Kodramaz.
He returned to Ohio after a few years overseas and recorded a spoken word album with his bandmates and Contemporary Music Collective, which was released in 2000.
Throughout his travels and relocations, Bode has consistently joined or formed bands across the world, never missing a beat or putting his harmonica down for long.
That was until COVID-19 prevented the prolific musician from hitting the stage with other performers or getting in the studio to record new material.
Keeping the music alive during a challenging year
Bode lives on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland. In summer 2020, he called Moses and asked if he wanted to play music in his backyard—a 60-foot space with plenty of room to social distance.
Bode reached out to keyboardist Greg Humbert, who would sit in during shows Bode played back in the ‘80s, and soon Moses, Humbert and Bode began regularly playing outside as a trio.
“Everybody was desperate by June and chomping at the bit to play some music,” Bode said.
Moses suggested they get a bass player to join in, so Moses called up a friend, Bill Meyer, who played bass clarinet.
He said the collaborators played different styles of music, which made jamming fun.
“We started pulling together really different set lists,” he said.
Soon, Bode began recording these outdoor jam sessions. They evolved from having fun and playing loosely to Bode divvying up the players into small groups that would learn and play certain songs together.
The groups performed 15-20 jam sessions between June and November 2020.
The recorded sessions were a combination of his bandmates and other musician friends he knew—some were friends of friends or played music in other bands with his band mates, some were previous MoKo BoVo collaborators or fill-in musicians from years ago.
“There are four different groupings of musicians, and although we have played in some setting or another, none of those groups have ever rehearsed as a band,” Bode said.
“Everybody was desperate by June and chomping at the bit to play some music."
Recording a live album outdoors
Bode called the jam session players An Isolated Few—each performer was spaced at least 10 feet apart from the next to ensure their safety while collaborating on songs together.
He said his backyard offered plenty of room to set up with Moses on his left, 20 feet away, using a 25-foot microphone cord on an amplifier to get to the mixer.
Keyboards were set up on Bode’s right side, approximately 15 feet away. As a trio, they created a triangle where all three players were far apart but facing each other while they played and recorded.
When they had a bass player or drummer join, they’d create a square shape, keeping everyone distanced.
Bode said when they played songs with guitarist Kevin Richards, he complained that they were spaced so far apart it was throwing his timing off because the sound took so long to travel.
“You don’t have the same sense of immersion when you’re on a small stage together side by side,” Bode said.
Yet, Bode said the quality of the recordings—which he mixed and produced—ended up better than some studio sessions he’s done.
The musicians faced Lake Erie while recording, which can be seen on the album’s cover.
Sounds were carried in the direction of the water, so even though Bode lives in the city, there were no noise complaints from neighbors.
“Some of our neighbors said they could hear us. The woman across the street said she would sit out on her front porch and listen when she heard us play,” Bode said. “The neighbors on both sides would come out, and occasionally people who were walking, getting some exercise, would hear us, and they would come into the backyard.”
Bode said he had some seating spaced out in the far edge of his yard by the lake, so people could wander in, listen to them play for a while, then wander off.
"What the whole project was about was bringing people together and playing music."
He has hours-long recordings of the group, but some of it was unusable because of background noise due to the elements.
“The biggest problem was that we couldn’t stop people from mowing their lawns or using their leaf blowers … We had to contend with the power saws and the occasional motorboat or Ski-Doo on the lake,” he said.
He recorded more than 15 sessions, with two-to-four hours of music per session. He was able to cut these sessions down as needed to remove sounds from wind and neighbors, but otherwise, there was no overdubbing.
Bode said he listened through all of the recordings to make sure the takes reflect that the players were having fun.
“What the whole project was about was bringing people together and playing music,” he said.
Bode said an advantage of recording music played outdoors is that there are no room resonances that ruin the recordings. The disadvantage is that there is no reverb from the room occurring.
Aside from some timing challenges, spacing the musicians apart for safety wasn’t too difficult a task.
“I had to buy some extra cables and stitch cables together, and that sort of thing,” Bode said. “But I was really happy with everything I was getting.”
He said it was fun to see people get together to watch the musicians play. It was also a way to bring neighbors together who hadn’t seen each other in months during lockdown.
“They would mask up and get together and say hello to the children on the side next to me. It was really great,” Bode said.
He would invite one or two people to watch, but he said he couldn’t turn the sessions into large outdoor events.
“There wasn’t space for them,” he said. “So hopefully in the coming year, we’ll be playing more in front of people.”
Curating a cohesive release from hours-long jam sessions
Bode said the title of the album started out as the name of a working file on his computer when he began mixing the songs in June 2020.
“‘How I Spent my Summer Vacation’ is a pretty old trope, but I thought it just had more meaning for 2020 than any previous summer,” he said. “So I thought I would just stick with that.”
He said most people were isolated last year, which is why he called the group of players on the album An Isolated Few.
“A little tongue-in-cheek,” Bode said.
The jam sessions, which were recorded in the summer and on warmer days in the fall, resulted in 19 tracks on the album.
“‘How I Spent my Summer Vacation’ is a pretty old trope, but I thought it just had more meaning for 2020 than any previous summer."
Keeping in line with the spirit of his band MoKo BoVo, many of the songs are obscure covers that were meant to challenge the other players to explore different genres and learn something new.
“They were very much open jams, but what I tried to do was allow everybody, if somebody wanted to bring a song that wasn’t so straightforward that everybody would pick it up immediately, we would say ‘make a suggestion, we’re going to get together in three days’ time,’” Bode said.
They’d finish playing a song during their sessions, and someone would suggest another song they were reminded of as the musicians were playing.
This would result in at least one person playing a song they hadn’t heard or played before and having fun with it.
“They were very loose. We tried to warn people about more difficult songs,” Bode said.
The tracks range from blues to folk, roots, gospel and country. Bode said the players made a point to dive deeper into each song they played, rather than just scratch the surface and perform a traditional cover.
“That connection between blues and gospel and country, that’s sort of where rock ‘n’ roll evolved from, and it’s fun to explore where those things meet up,” he said.
Planning for the future
“How I Spent My 2020 Summer Vacation” is streaming on most platforms, and Bode said he hopes to get some physical copies of the album out on CD and do a release party, either outdoors or in a limited-capacity environment.
“As more and more people are getting vaccinated, I’m seeing some places opening up a bit,” Bode said. “I’m hoping to connect with at least outdoor venues to get my band MoKo BoVo playing again.”
Bode said the ensembles that made up An Isolated Few are discussing playing together this year—they pulled together more than an hour of material for each grouping and could easily fill out a setlist for a traditional show.
“Everybody is reaching out to me now saying, ‘It’s getting warm, are we going to do this again? When can we start playing?’” he said. “I’m really expecting that when it becomes safer to get people together, that a lot of music is going to happen, and that live music really comes back even bigger than it was.”