Back in October 2020, it felt like live music hadn’t been an option in ages, and its return seemed agonizingly far off. And if it was tough for fans, it was at least as hard for the musicians.
Adam Carter, a veteran of the Phoenix music scene, missed playing with his current band, The Great and Powerful Ogg. He’s a professional videographer by day, and he’s got a recording studio/workspace/hangout on the property of his central Phoenix home.
“I wanted to continue to play,” he says. “I had everything. So we decided that we would do livestreaming for my band. And when I started tossing the idea out to some friends, it quickly became apparent that that was a really selfish endeavor. [They] were like, this is such a valuable project that so many people can get in on that you should share it. And I went, ‘That’s a great idea,’ because who wants to sit and listen to my band every week?”
So began The Way Back Sessions, a weekly show that since January has been broadcast live on YouTube and produced by Carter, his wife, Kat, and his friend and Ogg bandmate Brian Pristelski. Each episode lasts about 90 to 120 minutes and has a different musical guest (so far, all the acts have been local), who alternate performing and talking to Carter. A live chat on YouTube allows viewers to comment and ask questions, and the bands are given a chance to promote what they’re working on — an upcoming gig, for instance, or a new album.
Over the course of 22 episodes, besides beaming hours of great music into people’s ears, WBS has become a way for viewers to go deeper into the local music scene — to discover bands they weren’t familiar with, learn about the people behind the instruments, and gain an appreciation for the depth and variety of talent in Phoenix.
And although concerts are back, WBS has no intention of closing up shop; to the contrary, Carter has stacked the second season, which begins August 19, with some of Phoenix’s biggest names in music, including Wyves and Paper Foxes.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to put together a YouTube show — unless you want to do it well.
Carter began planning for WBS by watching other music livestreams and identifying what did and didn’t work. He bought additional equipment for the show — a new soundboard and broadcast camera switcher — and restored a 1971 Fender Rhodes keyboard for use during the livestreams.
“It just took time and money and technology — and then more time and more money — and that’s what allowed us to be able to control everything extraordinarily well and get the audio quality that we knew we wanted to present, along with the video quality we wanted to present as well,” Carter says.
“We both agreed early on that there’s so many venues for people to play, especially online nowadays, so the idea was quality above everything else,” says Steven Moeckel, who lives across the street from the Carters in the historic F.Q. Story neighborhood and is also a violinist and the Phoenix Symphony concertmaster who’s been on the show both as a performer and a guest host.
Then, Carter had to find bands to participate.
The first guest act was The Sara Robinson Band, and until that debut show, Carter thought he could handle all the back-of-house stuff himself. “It became apparent within 60 seconds that I could not do it on my own,” he says. Fortunately, Pristelski had dropped by that night, and ended up taking care of the audio. Now, Carter is the host, Kat runs the video and keeps an eye on the YouTube chat, and Pristelski handles the sound.
Watch the shows in order (first season acts include Wurfmur, Banana Gun, The Woodworks, Big Finish, and The Deadbeat Cousins), and you can see the WBS crew hone their craft — transitions get smoother, sound issues are fewer and farther between, and Carter becomes more comfortable as a host.
For Pristelski, a long-time member of the Phoenix music scene, being at the WBS soundboard has been educational despite many years’ worth of audio experience.
“The hardest part of doing this show from an audio perspective is that you’re in a studio setting with a live band. You have all the aspects of what you want in a studio, which is trying to keep the volume down so you get a proper reading on every single instrument in the room so they’re not bleeding into each other. And that’s difficult in any room because sound travels and it bounces off of stuff. … Every single one of these bands that have come into the room has been a learning experience, and it’s just gotten better and better over time.”
Early Thursday evening, after the band is set up, everyone hangs out in the Carters’ backyard to have a drink and a chat before the show. It’s when Carter gives the band The Talk.
“Don’t run a train through my show.” (Meaning, keep things going — don’t let there be dead air.) “Don’t talk politics. Make sure you’ve got your drinks at your feet. Tune your guitars before you start. Eat your mic.” (Meaning, keep the microphone close to your face and talk directly into it.) And don’t talk about how weird it is to be performing live without an audience.
Kevin Michael Prier, vocalist and guitarist for The Real Fakes, says that being on WBS is “real easy.”
“You’d think it’s going to be hard to play to no crowd, but [Carter’s] enthusiasm makes up for the lack of crowd. It’s just playing to him while you’re there, but it really works.”
Even without the audience, Moeckel calls his time on WBS “as nerve-racking as being on stage. And [Carter] purposely created that. What was so universal during COVID was how much musicians needed to make music in order to communicate, how much we missed our audiences. It’s not really about the applause. It’s about connecting. And we were able to connect again. And so as a result for me personally, it felt very much like I was playing a recital.”
The show alternates blocks of songs with chat sessions, allowing Carter to help audiences get to know the bands. He has musicians shout out who they prefer, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. He has them talk about their former bands, or their side projects. And he does his research to unearth some interesting details, like Prier’s membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or Moons Birds & Monsters frontman Zackary O’Meara’s time in high school theater.
“Adam asks good questions. Some of them made me laugh and have to stop and think, which I always appreciate,” Prier says. “I don’t like stuff where I’m just like, ‘Oh yeah, our next show is Friday,’ or ‘We’re recording and working in the studio.’”
The end of the show’s first season has been a time of reflection for the WBS crew.
Carter talks about some of his personal favorite moments of the season: Daniel Thomas of Wurmfur killing it on the drums, The Real Fakes coming up with a WBS theme song on the spur of the moment, getting to sit in with The Woodworks during the season finale.
Season 2 will feature more popular local acts (see below for the schedule), and in the future, Carter and crew would like to bring in regional and national musicians.
Moeckel says WBS “is really trying to break down boundaries. Let’s get people who are in heavy metal bands to come to symphony concerts. And let’s get symphony musicians out of their straitjackets and talk about what it’s like to be an improvisational band and respond to the moment.
“I’m much more comfortable going to a concert than I would have been before this happened. And I think a lot of people feel that way. And that’s what the value really is, to the listeners but also to the musicians themselves, really: creating opportunities for people to expand their palates and appreciate so much more.”