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For Newfoundlanders, gathering is our superpower; COVID-19 was our kryptonite

To be specific, today I am supposed to be leaving Denmark for The Netherlands, about to step on a river cruise as a featured performer and sing my way down the Rhine through the most spectacular cities of Germany and France and wind my way into Switzerland. In the days ahead, myself and my bandmates should be strumming beneath the majesty of Cathedral in Cologne or offering a shanty to the Alps. I should be revelling in the satisfaction that comes with hearing my own songs written in Petty Harbour or St. John’s, or songs from the Newfoundland and Labrador traditional music canon, ring off the stone walls of the some of the most amazing cities in the world.

I’s the b’y in Amsterdam. It should be awesome.

But, I am not in Europe.

I am not where I am supposed to be or doing what I am supposed to be doing. And just about the entire performing world, from bands to dancers to DJs to circus clowns, would say the same thing. Like so many in the gig and gathering industry, I am home in my basement, occupying myself as best I can while waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass and the green light to signal that our tour buses can roll once again.

As I write this on a Sunday morning in October, it marks seven months in a row for me without some kind of live performance. This is, without a doubt, my lengthiest consecutive streak at home since 1994 and offstage since 1982.

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think it is all been bad. In the earliest days of isolation, I started writing some humorous stories drawn from my most fortunate life. I wrote it in isolation to lift my spirits and so it did. In my imagination I was at my favourite pub at Happy Hour; just thinking of the camaraderie, feeling part of a group telling old stories and creating new memories.

Like that time, for example when I somehow managed to get cast in a Hollywood Blockbuster movie. I’ve talked about the Robin Hood film many times, but writing out the story of my first day on set made me feel so lucky to have had that experience, despite the steep learning curve and the many many mistakes I made. This led to my thinking about everything from surprising interactions with famous people, some tales from my childhood in a tiny fishing town, and a whole bunch of sad but true confessions of follies I have made over the years. There’s an intimacy to sharing stories on the page and trying to entertain, as well as the feeling of connection with the people I miss the most, the audience. Writing this made me feel closer to the people who have made mine the luckiest life. It’s now a book, “All Together Now: A Newfoundlander’s Light Tales For Heavy Times,” and I hope it brings some levity to these dark days.

I am enjoying the long-overdue extended family time and sleeping in my own bed.

Indeed, I tried to make the most of isolation, but, I am built for the road. Bandmates have commented that my Petty Harbour Hobbit DNA is genetically programmed to live out of a six-foot-long by thirty-inch-wide tour bus bunk and sleep soundly while a diesel engine pushes a forty-five-foot tube on rubber tires through the Canadian winter. Being in one place for this long is not what I am accustomed to, at all. I miss the gigs and the crowds and the physical and spiritual rush that comes with singing a song while others sing along with you. I miss looking across the stage to wink at a bandmate who’s just played something incredible, or giggling as one of them, or more likely I, play or sing a note so wrong that it almost derails the whole train.

I miss the concerts and all that comes with such a privileged life, but I also miss the gatherings. Not just on the road, but at home as well. I live in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a city with one of the few great pub cultures in North America. We Newfoundlanders are sociaholics, if you’ll forgive a generalization. Gathering is our superpower. We do it at home or abroad. We do it in good times and especially in bad. We find each other and congregate and talk and joke and complain and sing. I think this could be why COVID-19 hurt us so badly. It took away the one sure-fire defence we have used against so many hardships of history: We get together. We work it out. We get through it. We do what has to be done. Then, we celebrate. With the best of them.

In the earliest and darkest days of the winter, COVID-19 brought us our kryptonite. We couldn’t get together. Not to talk or joke. Not to complain or sing. Not to work it out and get through it.

Separating and retreating are not things that come easily for us out here in the middle of the ocean, but these are the very things we had to do when the earliest public health measures were announced back in March. So, what to do? How could we stay connected when being traditionally connected could potentially kill us? As for me and a few of my musician pals from around the Province, we used the internet and modern recording software and combined them with old fashioned songs as we wrote and produced a collaborative six-song EP almost entirely in isolation.

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I am lucky to have had a few other projects to work on over the past few months off the road. “Songs From Home” will be released in a few weeks. And along with The Once, Rachel Cousins, Ennis Sisters, and Fortunate Ones, I hope this new batch of Newfoundland music will lift a few spirits and show that while a song can save you or make you smile in a club or a theatre as ever, it can do all that in a Zoom call too.

Most who know me won’t need telling that I have always loved Atlantic Canada and feel very lucky to be from this part of the world. While I desperately long to travel across Canada and sing under the CN Tower, dance on the Prairies, or share a laugh by the other ocean, but I can’t help but be even more grateful than usual to have the Maritimes and Home available to me and my bandmates as we start a tour of small and safely distanced concerts around the region in a week or so.

Perhaps I am where I am supposed to be after all. For now, anyway.

Alan Doyle’s third book “All Together Now: A Newfoundlander’s Light Tales For Heavy Times” comes out in November from Doubleday Canada.
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