Chris Hoog . Photo: Dr. David S. Weiland

In the midst of a pandemic that makes gathering together in close quarters untenable, musicians have been cut off from an essential source of regular income. Namely, gigs. A birthday epiphany back in the spring led Berkeley saxophonist Chris Hoog to create House Call Soul, a collective that has found work for musicians in backyards, driveways, street corners and other outdoor locales where socially distanced audiences can get their groove on.

Hoog stumbled upon the idea in May when he decided to safely celebrate his birthday by inviting a few fellow players over to jam on his front lawn.

“It was a sunny day and my first time playing with other humans in months,” Hoog said. “It was an enormous release, and pretty soon some neighbors put out lawn chairs out. People biked over and started dancing in the streets. It became clear this was something we can do for the community and get back to work.”

Through the summer when air quality permitted and well into the glorious Indian summer House Call Soul has provided an R&B-laced soundtrack to dozens of gatherings, backyard birthday celebrations and block parties. With rising young talent like Oakland soul singer Cristen “Ten” Spencer and veteran masters like West Berkeley trombonist/arranger Mike Rinta, HCS can deliver combos of various sizes for any occasion.

HCS combos draw on a book of some five dozens tunes, encompassing 1960s soul jazz, uptempo funk, and celebratory blues, “music that I’ve wanted to play for years and never got a chance to,” Hoog said.

“Playing with the same crew three times a week has been so rewarding, and it’s gotten me thinking about what this looks like after quarantine. We’re playing for 90-year-olds who will put a lawn chair and four-year-olds who are running and dancing. I didn’t get to do that before COVID. There’s something pretty special about people paying me to play music that’s not for entertainment while they’re drinking.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact of these gigs for the players, emotionally and financially. Rinta had just returned from a tour of Australia with Texas blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan when the shelter-in-place order came down in mid-March. He’d been getting ready to head out again with Vaughan to Denmark and Norway and had numerous dates on the calendar with Pacific Mambo Orchestra, the Bay Area salsa band that shocked the Latin music world by winning the 2014 Grammy Award for best tropical Latin album.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of these gigs for the players, emotionally and financially.

Losing his livelihood and primary vehicle for connecting with friends and colleagues “put me in a really bad depression at first,” Rinta said. “I couldn’t touch my horn. There was fear about being able to pay my bills.”

In launching HCS Hoog knew he wanted a crew of dependable professionals, and he reached out to players like Rinta, guitarist AJ McKinley, and other top shelf players. But he also wanted to showcase younger artists, and he remembered a dynamic vocalist he’d met at a Thursday night Starry Plough funk jam session run by Anthony Ant.

“I’ve been playing with them since September and it’s has been a fantastic experience,” said Ten Spencer. “I didn’t realize I’d been missing it so much. I’m a people person who feeds off the energy of a crowd. Before the pandemic I was just getting into booking my own gigs and figuring out what is a reasonable price. This has given me a new perspective on what we’re worth.”

Playing up to four shows a week until tension starting mounting in the weeks before the election, House Call Soul has turned into primary commitment for many of the musicians involved. As suggested by Jazz In the Neighborhood, an organization both produces gigs and advocates for fair wages for musicians, HCS pays each player between $125-$250 for a 90-minute show. The combination of reasonable remuneration and truly appreciative listeners has provided a silver lining amidst the waves of Covid despair.

“Chris picked up on a market,” Rinta said. “These are some of the best crowds we’ve had. I’m used to playing in dive bars with inebriated people. But these House Call shows have been for people who really appreciate it, who are genuinely grateful we’re able to come to them and their families.”

Hoog is quick to note that the musicians are concerned first and foremost about safety, for themselves and their audiences. They’re not interested in playing events where people aren’t masked and taking care to keep an appropriate distance. Even with the advent of vaccines, he figures that music won’t return to indoor spaces until the summer, at best.

“Driveways and front yards are going to be what our stages look like for a while yet,” Hoog said. “I’m not trying to have a monopoly on outdoor shows. I’m hoping we can help spark a movement. Call your local favorite bands and hire them.”

Hoog’s determination to find a way to perform despite the pandemic might be partly due to the fact that it’s only in the past four or five years that he decided to answer the call of music full time. He moved from Boston to Berkeley in 2013 and worked at Raizlabs as a product manager. A dedicated saxophonist through high school and college, he put the horn down before he graduated when he started to focus on tech.

“Coming back to music brought me back to life.” Chris Hoog

“Coming back to music brought me back to life,” Hoog said. In fact, he had a close brush with death during major surgery to remove a tumor in his lung, an experience that led him to reevaluate his chosen path.

Over a period of two years he spent more and more time practicing, gradually reducing the number of hours he worked. He’d saved enough to try his luck at music for a few years, and figured he’d end up finding another tech job when his money ran out. But he landed a steady gig with the horn-driven dance music collective Afrolicious, playing his first regular gig with the band at High Sierra Music Festival.

He and trumpeter/DJ Will Magid (aka Balkan Bump) created their own collective Golden Bell, which provides music for parties and events, usually delivered by a DJ and one to three musicians. Music had turned into a steady vocation, until the pandemic struck. With House Call Soul, Hoog is helping keep players housed and fed, while buoying the spirits of listeners through these hard times.

“The Bay Area is rich with so many talented musicians,” he said. “But having a knack for entrepreneurship and a lot of time to practice presented opportunities I won’t ever take for granted.”

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....