WILMINGTON—“Christmas seems to be the only saving grace to give anyone any kind of cheer this year,” local musician Randy McQuay said during a phone interview earlier in the week.
The blues musician, like most local players and bands, lost 75 performances in 2020. Though he was able to host a few livestreams through the pandemic, and sustain some income thanks to dedicated fans showing support, the last half of the year has picked up with more in-person, outdoor shows. Still, they look different: no hugging, no hand-shaking, no dancing with others. Instead, the shows have been outside, socially distanced, masked, smaller, some even mobile.
McQuay has been doing pandemic concerts on the Traveling Music Trailer — a mobile flatbed that can outfit musicians and bands in a safe manner during Covid-19, as it snakes around neighborhoods bringing music to the people. Audiences can enjoy a few tunes from the safety of their front lawns.
“Some even follow behind on their bikes,” McQuay said.
He did one in Carolina Beach last weekend for the Island Men’s Carolina Beach Golf Cart Extravaganza Parade. On Saturday he has another slated. Hosted by the Carolina Beach Parks and Recreation, Santa Sleigh Ride will travel down Lake Park Boulevard onto Carolina Beach Avenue, Canal Drive and along other side roads.
“It’s pretty much all acoustic,” McQuay said.
He performs all the classics: “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silent Night” (he even sings one refrain in German), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “White Christmas,” and maybe a few Elvis tracks.
“My favorite is ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,’” McQuay admitted. “It’s funny — and it is fun . . . they’re strange lyrics, something I would never write, but the lyrics flow.”
McQuay began playing on Wilmington’s music scene two decades ago with his band Root Soul Project. With founding guitarist Justin Johnson, and a rotation of musicians joining them throughout the years, including saxophone player Rich Zimmerman, guitarist Bret Johnson and drummer Brian Jones, they put out four releases. The band stopped playing in 2010, though they did a 20-show reunion tour in 2016.
Since then, McQuay’s played in bands like Casserole and Paper Stars, but he’s mostly been focused on his solo career. He won the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in 2015, before releasing his first solo album, appropriately titled “Solo.” In 2017 he released a followup, “My Kind of Blues.”
“This actually is the album that I should have released after winning IBC,” McQuay said.
“Solo” featured a variety of genres and highlighted only one traditional blues song. “‘My Kind of Blues’ was traditional blues through and through,” McQuay detailed.
It became a finalist for Best Self Produced CD of the year at IBC in 2017.
Through the pandemic, McQuay has been revisiting his book of unfinished tunes. Around six or seven tracks are ready to be recorded for a new album, hopefully sometime in 2021.
“Some of it’s real singer-songwriter based and then there’s some breezier material, but I wouldn’t say it’s gonna commit to any genre,” he said.
One stands out intensely to the musician, not only in meaning but also in the timing of its creation.
At the beginning of the pandemic, McQuay had contracted strep throat, along with his daughter. Because information on Covid-19 was so new, McQuay wasn’t so sure what was going on. He tested negative for strep, though doctors treated it as such.
“It was, like, the third week of March that this happens and we’re having to go to the hospital where people are in hazmat suits,” McQuay explained. “They didn’t really know enough about anything yet, so it was a creepy experience.”
At home he took careful precautions not to speak, not to overwork his instrument — not only because his voice is such an important tool to belting the blues but because he plays harmonica too.
”I’ve never had any kind of thing like that happen with my throat,” McQuay said, “and so there was this fear, through 10 days of just the worst pain I’ve ever felt, of me not being able to sing anymore. I went to a dark place.”
He decided to turn his fears into music. He picked up his phone and started typing the lyrics to “Better With a Song” (“you don’t miss the music till it’s gone / And you realize that life feels better with a song). He had written the chords on his guitar a few weeks prior and could imagine the tune already in full capacity.
“So I’m sitting on the couch and I’m writing,” he said, “and then I found out John Prine died. It was intense. I thought, ‘Man, I think this song is straight for John.’”
McQuay made a short video of “Better With a Song” and released it for fans during the pandemic. He also decided to do a livestream show at St. John’s Episcopal, playing old gospel tunes — an experience he says was wild, performing by himself in the church.
“I wanted to do it because I knew there were older folks that were like my grandparents, really looking for some hope,” McQuay said. “They hadn’t seen their families in a while and maybe were facing dark times; I knew I wasn’t the only person that felt that way.”
He played a couple of originals, as well as some traditional gospel tracks, like “In the Garden,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart,” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Shows continued picking up for McQuay as restrictions loosened. Then he found himself near the holidays with more opportunities to share his love of Christmas music.
“I always hoped to play more holiday shows,” he said, “but every year I found myself booked out ahead of time.”
On Friday McQuay will take over City Club’s dinner service — another “traveling” holiday show, if only by foot, as he serenades between rooms. He also will play brunch on Sunday at EAST Oceanfront at Blockade Runner.
He will perform songs from his 2016 Christmas album, “Home for Christmas” — a title steeped in heavy irony in 2020, as the CDC has asked folks to refrain from traveling to be with their families for fear of Covid-19 spread. McQuay’s CD features 13 holiday classics — some jazzy, others crooners, some blues and even a country waltz or two. McQuay hand-wraps each CD and addresses it like a favorite mixtape one friend gifts another.
At his holiday shows, he gives the Christmas CD for free when someone buys his two albums ($20 for all three). However, “Home for Christmas” is also available for $10 (plus $3 shipping) for someone to purchase outright and in turn support a musician this holiday.
“I can’t wait for this year to pass,” McQuay said. “I mean, it’s literally crushed the music industry — really any production and entertainment venue, the bars, the restaurants. I’m ready for things to get back to normal, ready to see people’s faces again — to hug people and shake their hands when you do business with them. Hugs and handshakes are pretty important to me.”
Fans can follow Randy McQuay, see his updated show dates and hear new music on his Facebook page.
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