Weekly jam sessions on Wednesdays at the Plum Bar in downtown Birmingham. Sunday services. Weekend festivals. Corporate gigs. Whatever the event or venue, Kenneth Rembert was always ready to “play keys” before packed crowds in Birmingham and beyond the Magic City.
COVID-19 changed all of that.
“There are many places where we play that just can’t operate,” Rembert said. “They can’t open churches, can’t open bars. (Venues) can’t hold events, have large gatherings like weddings or wedding receptions. Even funerals are limited to 10 people.”
What’s left for a working musician to do? Become innovative in his approach to continue doing what he loves.
Rembert, 25, is a full-time gospel music producer, studio musician and keyboardist for the band Precision Grooves and smooth jazz guitarist Nick Colionne. He’s musical director for several bands and lead musician for New Hope Baptist Church in West End.
With entertainment venues shut down, people on social media were talking about missing live entertainment, so he and his bandmates started doing live, in-home performances for their fans – online, of course.
“We decided we were going to use Facebook and Instagram Live, and some technical tools – video crews, cellphones – to do it,” Rembert said. “I don’t know who originated the idea, but we are able to entertain people at home who love us and have a connection with us.”
The ability to earn money by doing virtual jam sessions was “an added benefit,” the Ramsay High School grad said.
“When we found out people were willing to Cash App us for this, set up our Facebook Live performances on their televisions and computer screens, grab their own food and drinks and have their own parties at home, it turned into an ‘invention.’ They say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and that’s what it turned into,” Rembert said. (Cash App is a payment system that enables direct peer-to-peer payment via a mobile device.)
Rembert and his bandmates “weren’t driven by the desire to make money,” the Crestwood resident said. “It was more … ‘Since we’re bored, let’s get together and perform, because we’d be doing that when we rehearse, anyway.
“Some days, the profit is great. Some days, it’s not so much. We’ve just been taking donations. We pin our Cash App names to the Facebook or Instagram Live streams and ask (viewers) to give whatever they want. Some days, the donations have ranged from the middle to upper hundreds (of dollars); for some lead performers, a couple hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. But we just do it for the heck of it. That’s another positive – in this case, you simply revert back to loving what you do.”
The frequency with which band members assemble for live performances is organic.
“We want to keep the integrity and the excitement for the live videos there, so we spread them out,” Rembert said. “I am part of several different units, so for me it’s biweekly. We come together when we feel like it.”
Rembert and fellow musicians gather for performances at one of the band members’ homes or behind closed doors at the Plum Bar downtown or the Perfect Note in Hoover. Typically, four to six musicians and a singer are present for these virtual events but, due to social distancing regulations, there’s never a live audience.
Rembert does a lot of work for three different bands: Precision Grooves, the D.J. Wright Band and the Rubberband Effect. He works with solo R&B acts Halo Wheeler, Dennis Mitchell and Dominique Posey, as well as smooth jazz artist Ryon Schultz. Rembert sits in with Just A Few Cats, a popular local band organized by Grammy Award-nominated songwriter Alvin Garrett.
While the novel coronavirus pandemic poses a challenge, Rembert has not let it infect his collaborations with other artists.
“I have been frequenting the studio since COVID-19 struck,” he said. “I am blessed to have very goal-driven artists in my circle. A lot of those artists have decided to work on their projects, or have motivational projects based on COVID-19.”
There has been one more upside to the quarantine: “I’ve had more time to practice my craft, which is different from rehearsal and performance,” Rembert said. “I’ve become a better musician. It’s given me time to go back to the basics and the fundamentals.”
This is part of a series about Birmingham musicians in quarantine. Read a previous story about Cameron “DJ KC” Childress.
This story originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.