Levi Washington talks about The Phoenix CollectiveFeature
You probably haven't failed to notice that after a pretty much weekly review of the prolific Levi Washington, I haven't been able to do so now for many weeks: in fact he has "hundreds & hundreds" of songs in various stages of completion and "thousands" just waiting to be recorded.
You probably don't need telling about what he's been up to which has taken all his time, as so many of you are involved with or talking about his new company The Phoenix Collective.
I really wanted to catch up with him to get an overview of what they are up to and it's a mark of the intensity & scale of their activity that he arrived for our meeting literally running.. which is an apt visual metaphor for what he later described to me.
As I have said in previous articles, one of my fears through lockdown was that even if artists managed to keep going & emerge at the other end of the tunnel with the enthusiasm & confidence (let alone be financially in a place to do so) to keep making music, would there be opportunities for them to play live? Would venues still be around?
Not only has this to a large extent been answered (thankfully) but Levi is at the forefront not only of crafting a framework to put venues & artists together in our area which has never previously existed on such a professional scale, but he is also working organising a range of open mics within this, again breaking new ground in terms of creating a more robust network in an area where evenings came & went on often quite short time spans and addressing the notorious issues of consistency of quality associated with them.
Therefore, taken with the work of Joe Colombi with his Sink or Swim Promotions which I reported on recently I can tentatively suggest that the grassroots local live scene is potentially more diverse & robust than it was three years ago.
So: what about the Phoenix Collective? Well to gauge the trajectory they are currently on, Levi informed me that in the last three months alone, they have grown from a "fairly modest" set up dealing with "mainly local venues & local acts" which then hit a ceiling as far as being something one person could handle so Levi Took on a full time colleague (Becky) to handle operational matters while Levi concentrated on sales, new venues & expanding into areas such as Birmingham, Oxford , Banbury & Leicester, but keeping the same approach of offering venues "the best local talent" and growing the team.
At the same time as promoting all these gigs, Levi also brought his open mic work into the Phoenix fold, "almost by accident" at first, building on his "Levi's Live Lounge" with Jane Ward at the Cellar Club. This initiative to me is equally exciting as he very much sees this side of his work as a "training ground" for the less experienced performers with whom he works to develop their live craft, regardless of age and gives him the chance to carry direct work with them: to "discover, nurture, develop" to "constantly breed that next generation" and in time prepare them to take up paid work in the venues with whom he has built relationships.
To me, this structured mentoring is one of the highlights of the many things which The Phoenix Collective is doing which will bring long term benefits to the local music community: who'd have thought only a few months ago when everyone was casting around for short term immediate fixes for pressing problems that anyone could visualise let alone expedite such long term plans?
Drilling deeper, Levi talked next about some of the venues within the area covered by this magazine with whom he has particularly effective relationships, which included Leif Piano Bar (not just open mics on Tuesdays but five gigs a month), the White Horse ("a tremendous partner") which have done huge amounts to support a wide range of new & existing talent this year, the Urban Fox & The Cricketers.
He also has events every two months (but hoping to expand) at 1, Mill Street, Leamington where the evening is split between a set from himself, people turning up on the night & headline acts who are pre-booked.
Artists & venues are responding very positively to the stability which the Phoenix approach offers them: on the day we met, Levi had already had two meetings booking up events at venues for a year in advance: "dozens and dozens" of gigs for the artists in the Collective.
Since he has a very deliberate as well as broad overview of young emerging talent coming through, I asked him to give readers of "Hot Music Live" tips on whom they should be looking out for. He was really pleased to cite a few he is currently mentoring. One is the "very special" Ben Needle, a singer-songwriter, another is Charlie Blackwood, "with a conviction anyone would kill for". Then there is Nicole Wilson who is over here from Ireland for her education who has a very high opinion of, as he does of Caitlyn McCarthy.
We talked at length about Abi Rowberry whom Levi brought along to our "Hush!" event last month where she filled in for an ill member of T8PES at very little notice & to great effect. I mentioned how in advance of her years she seemed & he agreed, calling her "an old soul, which I think most of the best musicians are" and how excited he is to see her grow, expanding her range of styles (he suggested parallels to Janis Joplin) and who is now hosting her own nights. Given that Levi only started doing things like that when he was around 22, he has "so much respect" for younger people doing so.
On a more sombre note, Levi spoke eloquently of the financial disaster so many musicians experienced when COVID19 hit as we discussed how live music might be recovering. It has not been an easy job building his business as venues don't have as much money to speculate with on live music & cannot easily risk long term, high value commitments. He has had a lot of evangelising to do as well as slowly building trust & confidence that hosting music can bring profits again, and of course the heart of this is ensuring the musicians he sends venues are both reliable & high quality artistically. He is very aware how just a couple of no-shows or poor performances can wreck his relationship with a venue & shut the door on opportunities for others.
He believes that the local music economy is recovering, but is very aware of the overheads and constraints under which businesses are operating. Equally he feels that audiences are responding generally positively and he's been getting direct feedback at gigs from people delighted that live music is back: he feels that they are getting less shy about expressing their pleasure and indeed requesting songs.
Looking ahead, the great news is both that The Phoenix Collective is looking for new artists to work with and are developing from essentially working with solo artists as they have so far, to duos, trios & other sized bands for 2023: so if you are interested or know anyone, please do contact them by message via either https://www.facebook.com/thephoenixcollectiveagency or https://www.instagram.com/the_phoenix_collective_insta/ And of course if you are a venue or know of one, the same advice applies.
As for his own music, Levi is dedicating 2023 to continuing to build The Phoenix Collective (which he thinks will "grow ten fold"), but is hoping to "live in the studio" in 2024 to catch up with recording and focusing on playing mostly community gigs.
Bearing in mind that he considers the initiative to have really only taken off in the past three months, it's astounding not only what it is already doing & how it's not just impacting so beneficially on artists, venues & audiences, but its potential not only to bring more into its fold but sustain long term (which frankly has rarely been a feature of live music nights) is incredibly uplifting, not least considering the period of time we are still emerging from.