The numbers tell a story. On Saturday evening, Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco present their 1,000th livestream, a practice they launched in the days after the initial March, 2020, pandemic lockdown, which left the couple without their regular rotation of gigs. Performing nearly nightly from the kitchen of their North Beach apartment, they’ve delivered some 2,500 different songs, occasionally repeating pieces by request or inclination.
What the numbers can’t capture is the intense bond they’ve forged with their hardy cast of regular viewers. Transforming vintage American pop and novelty songs into bespoke musical garments cut for their capacious musical gifts, the couple has created an expansive archive, with almost every show available for viewing on their YouTube channel and Axelrod’s Facebook page. Thursday morning, Mayor London Breed will present them with a proclamation in recognition of the May 27 milestone, which starts at 8 p.m.
“I don’t know what we thought would happen, but we’ve developed a really sweet community who are still out there listening every night,” said Ventresco, a virtuosic guitarist and near-legendary figure amongst fellow devotees of ragtime and early jazz. “It seems like it’s still serving a purpose.”
“A lot of the people have gotten to know each other,” Axelrod added. “They check in with each other. There’s an email list. People sometimes meet before the show at eight, and chat with each other. It’s really a community.”
While their regular viewership dropped once live music (and the rest of life) started to return, they’ve cultivated a tight-knit virtual village that’s taken on a life of its own from the comments on the live Facebook feed. For Saturday’s concert, “we’re going to thank everybody and play everyone’s requests,” said Axelrod, a spectacular guitarist herself who handles most of the duo’s vocals with a sweet, crystalline soprano that would sound right at home amplified by a Victrola horn.
She also plays banjo, ukulele, cello, autoharp, glockenspiel, xylophone and mouth trumpet, buzzing her lips to sound like a muted or open horn. Ventresco sometimes picks up a mandolin or ukulele. But they wield guitars on the majority of the songs, often trading rhythm and lead in telepathic sync without exchanging a glance.
Playing at home means that they have their implements readily at hand, unlike at a gig, where bringing multiple instruments isn’t generally feasible. Their kitchen residency has also allowed (well, required) them to expand their working repertoire, researching, recovering and mastering a vast trove of tunes written between about 1895 and 1935. They’ve both memorized the lyrics to hundreds of old songs, but the necessity of keeping the nightly show fresh has led them again and again to Ventresco’s colossal collection of 78s.
“The whole thing about livestreaming, and I’m still learning about it, is that it allows us to really work on music,” he said, noting that the format enabled them to collect an audience from all corners of the country. “We’re happier playing online. It’s hard to get an audience together at a venue listening to ragtime from the turn of the century.”
Their nonpareil musicianship is one attraction for their regulars, but equally entertaining is their Gracie Allen/George Burns dynamic. Axelrod’s patter tends toward free association, with the occasional non sequitur followed by a Cheshire cat grin, while Ventresco responds with punning wordplay and poker-faced absurdisms framed by an utterly sincere appreciation for the community that has sustained them. Playing for intensely discerning listeners eager to offer a contribution via Paypal instead of providing background music at a café for $25 each and tips? Priceless.
Fans and supporters have shown their appreciation by sending food, flowers and particularly instruments. “Wyatt Wilke built and sent me a great guitar,” Axelrod said. “John DeLapp built and gave us a tenor guitar and two guitars. Todd Cambio built and sent Craig two guitars. Jim Moran sent us a banjo ukulele and multi-guitar stand. Leonard Pitt gave us a mandolin and a ukulele, and John Adams gave us the vibraphone, a gong and some laundry detergent. We are astonished by their generosity.”
As someone who tuned in often with my family during the months when we were stuck at home, I understand the intense bond Axelrod and Ventresco formed with their fans. For people whose lives haven’t returned to pre-pandemic patterns (or who already tended to stay home), their shows are a godsend.
“Each night, many of us tune in and revel in their music, their virtuosity, their humor, and their love of both the tunes and the people who have been loyal to them these three plus years,” Chuck Goldstone, a Boston-area writer, said in an email. “They have created a community of folks who have grown to like not only the music, but each other. The conversations in the chats are almost as engaging as the music.”
Ventresco started gaining notice in the early ‘90s as a member of the ragtime combo Bo Grumpus, which performed and recorded mostly as trio with bassist Marty Eggers and percussionist and washboard player Pete Devine (now a member of the popular Bay Area roots blues combo HowellDevine). His reputation spread exponentially when Terry Zwigoff featured his guitar work on the soundtrack for “Crumb,” the 1995 documentary about the underground comics legend R. Crumb (a fellow enthusiast of country blues, early jazz, and hokum, which Crumb performed on banjo with the Bay Area-based Cheap Suit Serenaders).
He’d be far better known if he weren’t allergic to self-promotion. Before the pandemic it was often difficult to track him down on any given night, though he was playing regularly with guitarist Dave Ricketts’ Gypsy swing-inspired band Gaucho, a band he’s rejoined. And if you didn’t live in the Bay Area, he was more of a mythical character, as there was precious little video or audio of him circulating on YouTube. Now, there are hundreds of hours of Ventresco readily available, a revelation for even longtime friends and admirers.
“I love it when Craig sings,” said New York guitarist Matt Munisteri, who has performed often in the Bay Area with vocalist Catherine Russell. “If some performer has two or three tunes in his book that are killers like that, wow, that’s a lot of work. He’s probably got a 100. It’s unbelievable the way he uses his fingers and the pick. He hears such ragtime harmony, all these little internal voices moving. And Meredith has great ears and hears all kinds of harmonies, too.”
Axelrod maintains an independent career, performing at folk festivals and working regularly with Jim Kweskin, a seminal figure from the 1960s folk revival. She’s been back on the road in recent months, which has provided fresh perspective on their livestreaming endeavor. It’s a lifestyle that struck her at first as “like joining a monastery,” she said.
“I had never been curious what it was like, but it’s been a fascinating window into how it could feel to be alive in a totally different way. Traveling and touring and gigging is so hectic. There are so many ups and downs, stress and relief. I missed all the excitement when I was home all the time. But when I travel now, I miss the equanimity.”