- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2020

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Years ago, Maple Leaf Bar owner Hank Staples had a brilliant idea: What if shows at the classic New Orleans music venue could be broadcast online? What if thousands of people around the world would pay $10 to, say, watch the Rebirth Brass Band’s weekly Tuesday night throwdown?

“You could potentially have a worldwide audience,” Staples said recently, recounting the idea. “It would have changed the whole world for us.”

Alas, Staples never got around to launching his online concert initiative. The start-up costs were too high and the technology was suspect.

But six months into the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Staples’ idea has become a reality.

“Maple Leaf Bar: The Viral Sessions, Season 1” kicked off with keyboardist Jon Cleary, who cut his teeth at the Leaf after arriving in New Orleans from England decades ago, and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen, augmented by keyboardist Nigel Hall, on Sept. 18.

The webcast series continues with new performances, taped at the Leaf, by the New Orleans Suspects on Friday; The Iceman Special on Oct. 2; Erica Falls on Oct. 9; Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove on Oct. 16; and the Honey Island Swamp Band on Oct. 23.

Two “bonus shows,” featuring Watson’s Theory and a trio consisting of Brad Walker, Joe Ashlar and Alfred Jordan, are also included in the series.

A subscription to the entire “Viral Sessions” series is $49.99 and allows the buyer to stream the shows anytime on iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast.

Individual shows can also be purchased once they have aired. Show time each Friday is 9 p.m.

The long, narrow, tin-walled, low-ceiling, dimly lit, charmingly ramshackle Maple Leaf is the classic New Orleans independent music venue, showcasing an almost exclusively local roster. During Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras and midsummer Mardi Gras, the party inside and outside the Leaf goes all night.

As musicians and music venues struggle to stay afloat more than six months into the COVID-19 shutdown, online webcasts, either live or taped, have become a popular option. Tipitina’s recently wrapped up its six-week Tipitina’s TV series. Rock ‘n’ Bowl regularly livestreams performances.

So did the world finally catch up to Staples’ brilliant idea?

“Maybe we were able to meet in the middle,” he said. The pandemic “made it necessary and feasible. It’s doable financially now and the technology has improved and become very affordable.”

Before the pandemic, the Maple Leaf generally presented two separate shows most nights, and three on Fridays and Saturdays, “employing 12 to 20 bands a week,” Staples said. “We’ve kept a lot of bands with gigs.

“Wednesday nights, as Bruce Springsteen can tell you” - The Boss once popped into the Leaf on a slow Wednesday night - “are not that big. But the bands have a place to play, to refine material, and can put it on their resume.”

Other than Joe Krown playing a piano in the bed of a pickup truck parked outside the Leaf one night in July, the 8300 block of Oak Street has been uncharacteristically quiet for the past six months. In recent years, Staples has sensed the city as a whole getting quieter.

“Live music has shrunk quite a bit in the last four years,” he said. “The number of venues available has shrunk considerably.”

The pandemic and ongoing shutdown may shrink the live music community even more.

So far, the Maple Leaf has managed to stay afloat. The bar received paycheck protection program money. Staffers have qualified for unemployment benefits, although Staples didn’t himself. He’s relied on cash he had squirreled away for emergencies.

“I might have three months left, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be open in three months. So now it’s a concern.

“The bank hasn’t suspended the mortgage payments. There’s the building insurance. And the utilities don’t go down that much when nobody’s here.

“Presenting live music is what we do. The big question is can we ride this out financially? I have to make it work. But it’s very worrying, the financial situation.”

He’s hoping something changes and the city relaxes its rules to allow bars and music venues to reopen.

“We’re ready the second they say it’s OK. The staff likes their jobs. They’re eager to go.”

One way or another, he promised, “we’ll be doing music until the bankruptcy sheriff knocks on the door.”

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