WILMINGTON — Last year, when musician Jordan Sutherland started a neighborhood music series, Porchella, at the height of the pandemic, he didn’t suspect it would be popular one year later. Who would have considered it a format bands would continue participating in after music venues began opening again?
Yet, this Sunday, Sutherland — who plays guitar and banjo in the local band Tumbleweed — will be bringing in L.A. musician Chase Johanson to perform three backyard concerts in the Carolina Place/Ardmore neighborhood.
“Chase went to school for music at UNC,” Sutherland said. “He’s gonna be in town since his girlfriend lives here, and so sometimes he’ll come in and play shows.”
Sutherland pairs up and plays with the Porchella musicians; they meander from house to house, posting up on front porches, backyards or on the sidewalk to perform two or three songs. He started the series last April after self-isolation kept him from playing in front of a live audience.
As a professional in the mental-health industry, Sutherland said he couldn’t ignore the amplified need arising to connect with others and even find solace during the shutdown. So he turned to what he knew would work best: music.
“I have that part as a social worker where I think it’s important to provide people with music and inspiration,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland didn’t have to go far to find an audience. He posted in his neighborhood association’s Facebook group, which has more than 1,000 followers, to ask if anyone would be supportive of a traveling show, so to speak. Basically, Sutherland would plan musical walkabouts up and down Pender, Metts, Creecy, and Wrightsville avenues.
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
With the neighborhood populated by so many local musicians, Sutherland also began receiving calls almost immediately.
“A neighbor of mine in the music scene reached out first,” Sutherland said. “Kevin Earl lives right down the street from me. I was like, ‘We [have] completely different styles.’ I mean, he plays more indie-garage, punk-rock stuff, but I love that kind of music. So we got together, did a little rehearsal and came up with an arrangement.”
It’s part of the drill: Sutherland will get together with musicians in the series for one session ahead of showtime — usually no more than 30 minutes. Together, they perform original tracks, as well as covers.
“I’ll be singing harmonies and playing solos with them,” he said. Once he surprised himself while playing with a local female vocalist who was performing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
“I had to do the high harmony with her, which she has middle- to high-range voice,” Sutherland explained. “And I hit it. I was so shocked I was able to do it.”
He’s also developed a bit of a stage persona during the series, acting as one-part musician, one-part host. “I make jokes,” Sutherland said.
He takes audience requests too. Reactions have been welcoming, even emotional for some, according to the musician.
“Once I played for someone’s mom that was visiting, and with it being Covid, she finally got to see her daughter; it had been a while,” he explained. “So I don’t know if it was that, but I played this one song that’s kind of sensitive — a Tumbleweed one called ‘Blue and Green.’ I guess she was moved by it because it’s like a little love letter. But she was crying and thanked me. Things like that, you know, they’ve been happening all the time.”
Shared creation and musical bonds
Throughout the course of the year, Sutherland has played with 25 local musicians as part of Porchella. Tres Altman (The Paper Stars), Mark Jackson (Caroliners), Randy McQuay, Jared Cline, Big Al Hall, Jones Smith, Sean Thomas Gerard, Mike Blair — the list deepens with various genres and talent.
Sutherland said he was cognizant of booking musicians whose livelihoods revolved around playing music. He understood how all their income dried up overnight, as venues were restricted to open. When some venues finally were able to book bands again, they were still tethered to capacity limits until Governor Roy Cooper lifted most not even a month ago.
Though the Porchella shows weren’t set up as traditional paying gigs, the neighborhood audience was generous along the way. He said one Porchella raked in $700 in gratuity, a competitive number on the local musician payscale.
“I’ve always tried to get, if you’re playing a two- to three-hour set, every musician at least $100. I mean, that’s if you got a six-piece band,” Sutherland said.
Solo artists tend to make more.
“But it’s not about that — it’s never been about that,” he clarified.
More than money, the series has culminated in shared creation and musical bonds, not to mention having the undivided attention of an audience. Sutherland remembers Mike Blair joining him last year. Their first stop had eight people, the second had 28, and it just continued growing.
“By the end of the night, Mike was, like, ‘Man, that’s really what I needed right now — that was the best experience I’ve had musically in forever.’”
“Playing music in someone’s front yard is very intimate, which I think requires an intentional performance, but needing to go with the flow with whatever may happen,” Blair wrote to Port City Daily, “which I think grows a musician. There’s no hiding behind a microphone or ambient noise.”
Sutherland said the audience’s gratitude is palpable and immediately embracing. “Normally, we go to these bars and people are talking and not really listening to us,” he explained. “At Porchella, the audience cares and they love the music . . . and the musicians feel really appreciated.”
Blair explained that as he and Sutherland began their serenades, more people would come out of their houses and summon them over.
“[T]he crowd is much more receptive because they are hungry for entertainment,” Blair added.
The series, which hosts around two shows a month, has strengthened Sutherland’s interactions with his neighbors as well. He said one guy on the route always pulls out a top-notch pour of bourbon to share each time the musicians stop by. Another gal decided to learn guitar after watching a concert, and another neighbor — who happens to be a well-known guitar amp maker — wants to pair up for a different concert this summer.
“Michael Swart,” Sutherland said. “And his amps are, like, a huge deal. The Black Keys have them.”
Swart and Sutherland want to get three bands to plug in one afternoon at Swart’s house this June or July. “It depends on if I can get everyone in Tumbleweed together because we are just now starting to practice again and talk about recording and stuff like that,” Sutherland said.
From porches to parks
Over the last month, Porchella has shifted some. Sutherland has moved shows to a few nearby parks, Wallace and the Church and Nun Park. He also began booking out-of-town musicians, and hosted a pop-up show last week with two fiddlers, Dayne Shelor and Cassidy Quillen, from Boone, NC. The week before that, he brought in Ultrafaux — a Gypsy jazz band out of Baltimore.
“They’re the real deal,” Sutherland said.
One of its members, Michael Joseph, played a house party Sutherland attended. “I was blown away because I love jazz,” he said, “but Gypsy jazz is a whole other entity — and this guy’s just, he’s world-class.”
Joseph was planning a tour of the South, so Sutherland tapped him to make Wilmington a stop. Though his tour was originally planned solo, for the Wilmington show, Joseph called in two musicians from Raleigh with whom he had never performed.
“They just practiced for like 30 minutes and, you know, destroyed everyone,” Sutherland said. The band played at Nunn and Church streets before moving over to Wallace Park at 21st and Market streets. Sutherland said around 200 people ended up at Wallace.
“I had the band bring a couple amps, and we scrambled to try to get a plug-in from that distance,” he said. “So, we came together as a community to have the longest extension cord that’s ever been at a live show there.”
Aside from the show he wants to do with Swart, Sutherland said he and his neighbors have toyed with the idea of putting together a Wallace Park concert series. He envisions multiple bands slated for a fundraising opportunity for a local organization or need. “But the question is regarding permits and stuff like that,” Sutherland said.
For now, he will continue moving forward with Porchella in whatever capacity it can exist.
“Initially, I was thinking, ‘Well, once things start to open, I guess I’ll stop Porchella,’” Sutherland admitted. “But now it’s just become this whole other thing.”
Having the neighborhood series, he said, fulfills needs he didn’t necessarily consider pre-pandemic.
“It’s really fortunate to have something where if you have little kids and can’t really go out late at night, then you are able to enjoy music still,” Sutherland explained, “or people that are older or retired can enjoy it if they don’t want to go to a bar.”
The musicians who have performed also are willing to keep participating. Blair said he would happily accept a return invitation. “I think it’s a great opportunity to try new music,” he said
Sunday’s show begins at 4 p.m. and will make pit stops at three addresses in the neighborhood, the second starting at 5:30 p.m. The final leg begins at 7 p.m. and will go on until the host says no more.
Sutherland will play with Johanson, a singer-songwriter whose ballads are folksy, vocal-heavy and complementary to Sutherland’s own style. Johanson recently launched episode 13 as part of the ILM Music Outpost series.
“Chase has a beautiful voice and is an amazing instrumentalist,” Sutherland said. “We’re gonna get together on Saturday afternoon to practice, and I’m gonna see if I can keep up with him.”
Readers can follow the Porchella music series here to learn about the stops for Sunday’s show and to keep up with future concerts.
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