Anyone walking near the 1200 block of Wertland Street on Friday evening would’ve been privy to a rare instance of live music during the pandemic, courtesy of the Wertland Street Band. Fourth-year Batten Student Nikki Gerszten, fourth-year Commerce student Chris Benedetti, second-year Engineering student Alex Hails and fourth-year College student Caroline Strickland have been playing pop-up concerts on the front porch of Gerszten’s Wertland Street home to a socially distanced crowd since the beginning of the semester. Often announced with little notice on the band’s Instagram, they have given their neighbors and the University community something to look forward to in a time when live music is hard to come by.
“It just means a lot that we can play music,” Strickland said. “And it means a lot to me that people still want to listen.”
The Wertland Street Band grew out of first-year jam sessions between Strickland and Gerszten, adding Benedetti and Hails over the course of two years to form a full band. They started playing at functions for Gerzsten’s fraternity in the fall of 2019 before graduating to the Corner bar scene. By the time the spring semester of 2020 came around, they were playing almost every weekend at bars like Coupes and Crozet. When students were sent home after Spring Break, the band was devastated. They were planning shows after Spring Break that they were really excited about, and weren’t sure how quarantine would impact live shows for Gerszten, Strickland and Benedetti’s fourth year. Their pop-up concerts on Wertland Street, and their band name, grew out of this frustration.
This Friday’s concert was scheduled to start at five, but — like any good show — the band came on late and gave people time to get excited. By the time the soundcheck started, people had brought out blankets to sit along the curb and neighbors dotted the roofs and patios all along Wertland Street.
“It's fun because with the pandemic going on, a lot of our social activities have been restricted,” said Benedetti, who plays guitar for the band, in a brief interview before the concert. “I know the whole band has a lot of fun playing at Coupes and Crozet and stuff. So this is an opportunity to still play together and have people watch us and, hopefully, entertain some people.”
If the goal was simply to entertain, then the Wertland Street Band accomplished their mission. Many people camped to watch the whole show, but many more passersby also stopped to enjoy just a part of the 39-song set before getting on with their night. The crowd, though imperfect, largely stuck to the band’s request to observe the social-distancing guidelines set forth by the school. With frequent urgings on Instagram to “mask up,” the crowd did their best to get involved. Songs like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Børns’s “Electric Love” kept the audience on their feet, and a slowed down cover of Kanye West’s “Runaway” was met with great enthusiasm as a friend of the band stepped in on Kanye’s rap verse. The two untitled Wertland Street Band originals were a surprise to the crowd and were met with genuine interest, despite being sandwiched between covers.
This was among the first few pop-up shows the Wertland Street Band has done, and the first after a nearly month-long hiatus due to the five-person limit imposed for parts of September and October. It was also the first show they have actively advertised, having a fellow fourth-year College student, Blythe Engel, create a graphic to spread the word. As they begin sharing some of their own original music, as well as sticking to the covers the audience loved, the band hopes to continue playing spontaneous shows on Gerszten’s front porch.
“[If] people keep showing up, we’ll keep doing it,” drummer Hails said just before the show.
Live music has long been a part of the U.Va. social scene, with bars and local venues drawing large crowds of students every weekend. Despite many of these spaces being unsafe during the pandemic, the Wertland Street Band threw a great show. Live music is a rare commodity this semester, and so long as the crowd remains safe, the band is excited to continue giving the University community free concerts.
“Hopefully, we can keep doing it,” pianist Gerszten said. “But that's mostly up to the people watching.”
As this semester begins to wrap up and the pandemic continues, it’s refreshing to see the creative ways students like the members of the Wertland Street Band adapt to these unusual times and bring joy to others.