Yesterday afternoon, I did something I haven’t done in more than a year: I went to a concert. Sure, there were only 40 or so people there—I’ve been to plenty of gigs with a lot fewer in the audience, frankly—and yeah, we all kept pretty far away from one another, as one does these days. (In fact, I had to show a negative COVID PCR test from within 72 hours of the set time to be admitted.) But an actual live show? People singing, playing guitars? Heaven.
Why—and how—was Patti Smith performing a handful of songs in the Beaux-Arts Court of the Brooklyn Museum (the audience was comprised of the museum’s staff)? She did it to honor her late friend and soul-mate Robert Mapplethorpe, who died on that day in 1989; to commemorate meeting her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, guitarist for the MC5, who she met on that day in 1976; and to celebrate performing live since a year ago on that date in San Francisco.
In more practical terms, she was there as part of NY PopsUp, an innovative, rolling statewide festival comprising hundreds of performances at scores of venues both traditional (The Shed, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, La MaMa, to name just a few) and somewhat unusual: “We’re going to be meeting people on their commutes and in parks and on street corners,” said Zach Winokur, who curated the selection of New York-based artists along with producers Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal. “We’ll be screeching off balconies and fire escapes, singing on stoops and staircases and museum lobbies. We want to make sure these performances are as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.”
Helping Winokur, Rudin, and Rosenthal choose the participating artists—and leveraging their connections to the city’s creative community to make everything happen—was a council of artistic advisors including musicians Jon Batiste and Wynton Marsalis, playwright Jeremy O. Harris, writer Claudia Rankine, and many more choreographers, directors, singers, actors, comedians, and more. “We asked them all to reach toward the edges of their networks to ask other creatives to be a part of this,” said Winokur. “It’s going to be an incredible mashup of every discipline—high and low, well-known and lesser-known—colliding together to remind the public what it is to connect with people, and with the vitality of art, in both expected and unexpected places. As we all regroup and rebuild, I think it’s important that we meet artists not as dazzling creatures but as members of our community; as real people.”
Due to social-distancing requirements and restrictions, capacity at indoor venues is extremely limited, and even the outdoor performances can’t be announced in advance—check @nypopsup for teasers and for livestreams of most performances—but if you’re lucky (the festival runs through Labor Day and culminates in the Tribeca Film Festival), you could see anyone from Renée Fleming to Amy Schumer, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Isabel Leonard, Nico Muhly, Mandy Patinkin, Raja Feather Kelly, J’Nai Bridges, Kenan Thompson, Gavin Creel, Garth Fagan, Larry Owens, Q-Tip, Billy Porter, or Rhiannon Giddens (and that’s a very, very partial list).
I asked Winokur if, as the central creative spoke in NY PopsUp, he’s seen all of the performances so far—and if that perhaps makes him the person who’s seen more performances in the past year than anybody, well… anywhere? He laughs. “I’ve been to all but one, and while I wouldn’t dare make that claim, it may well be true. In any case, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
For a brief moment yesterday, so did I. “We’re alive!” exclaimed Smith, raising a fist in the air at the end of her brief set.