When COVID-19 hit Montana in March, live music venues were the first to shut down and will be the last businesses to fully reopen. The financial fallout has crushed both the venue owners and the artists they book. Without stages to play, local musicians like the popular Montana band El Wencho have had to adapt to find new ways to stay in front of their audience and earn a living.
The Bozeman-based duo known for their Americana songs released their new record "Ghosts Go West" on Tuesday. Band members John McLellan and Josh Keehr said recording and promoting a new project amid the pandemic was both a challenge and a blessing.
“That fear, that anxiety of what’s next all around a microbe. And the microbe is real. The health and hygiene conversation is real. But when you have a fear about your economic living being blasted, wow!” said singer-guitarist McLellan.
Keehr, a singer and percussionist, added: “Originally there was kind of a little bit of a panic. You know panic mode set in and things. It made us appreciate even more so what we do, our friends and our families and the venues that are in the same boat as us.”
The original plan was to release the new album in early summer, then play live shows in support of their new music. But when the pandemic made live music performances an impossibility, the plan changed, and maybe for the better.
Although initially panicked, Keehr said: “COVID actually helped us. It gave us more time to go through the songs.”
The introspective McLellan realized that while COVID changed their day-to-day lives, it also gave them time to refine the songs and direction of "Ghosts".
“It was really cool to be able to step back and say dude, let’s just take our time," he said. "No one is pressuring us. It’s just internal pressure that we’re men, we work hard, we take care of things. No, you’re not dude. You’re human. You’ve got to step back and rest like everybody else.”
Both musicians agree that the record is better than what it would have been had the pandemic not happened. Although the band was happy to have the extra time to write and do studio sessions, by their own admission, El Wencho is not a studio band. This duo is happiest when they are performing.
“Anyone who knows El Wencho knows that we want to play live. Period. We need people,” said McClellan.
The only way to reach those people was to turn to social media. After trying a few different platforms in March and April, they settled in performing live on Facebook with what they called Quarantine Cocktail Happy Hours, which included an online virtual tip jar.
Keehr said after dealing with the challenges of technology, the reward was being able to play, even in John’s empty garage.
“The first time we set up and played it was the two of us in his garage. We played to a piece of sheet rock on the wall. We were sweating. We were like so into it. We didn’t care if there were three people watching us. It was the most bizarre thing. We get done, we did like six songs in a row like a normal, complete El Wencho show. And we got done and we were like sweating and there was just silence. And I was like this is so bizarre, but it was so fun.”
Wanting to give back, the band split their virtual tip jar with the venues they would have been playing. Those venues then gave those funds to employees or paid it forward to community nonprofits. That fast-tracked the band’s CommUNITY initiative, which they hope to turn into a scholarship foundation.
“We’re going to take percentage of our net every show, merch sales, whatever it is and we’re going to put that aside. And what we want to do is, I don’t know the exact money amount it’s going to be, but we’re going to do a yearly scholarship.”
Keehr also added that they hope one day their fan-driven CommUNITY foundation could host a music festival to help a worthy cause.
El Wencho is finding a way to pay it forward while surviving and thriving during the pandemic. The band hopes that they are not only producing good tunes but setting a tone for their fans to follow.