Who's that guy singing up there? The story behind David Downing's "Balcony Live"
On the second floor balcony, there’s a man at his piano.
He croons “Moon River” in a breathy baritone while accompanying himself on the keyboard. The sun is setting. People are arrayed on the lawn of the condo building across the street, safely distanced in couples or small groups. Folks out for a walk in the North Shore neighborhood of St. Pete stop for a song or two. It’s a Friday night during the pandemic, and the show is offering some relief, a few laughs and 90 minutes of delightful music.
The bigger audience, however, is watching from home — in other parts of the Bay area, in Maine, in Los Angeles, in New York, Hawaii, Hong Kong and elsewhere. They’ve tuned into the YouTube stream of Balcony Live, the brainchild of David Downing, a marketing/advertising executive.
Each Friday since March 20 he has planted himself at his Casio digital piano and played an impromptu set of tunes. They come from the Great American Songbook — chestnuts like “It Had to Be You,” “All of Me” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Songs of more recent vintage such as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Angel From Montgomery” and a mashup of “Rocket Man” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There’s kitsch, too — a nasty blues version of “Margaritaville,” a tongue-in-cheek “I Write the Songs,” “White Wedding” samba-style.
Downing, who doesn’t use sheet music during his Balcony Live sets, reckons he has about a hundred songs at his fingertips. Which is impressive, because this current, virus-inspired musical endeavor is the first time he’s performed solo for an audience. His preferred format is a piano/bass/drums trio.
“I want it to seem like you’re over at my house, having some drinks and some fun,” he says.
On April 24, his peak online audience neared 500.
Downing — who grew up in St. Pete as part of a big, musical family — first started performing balcony sets at the behest of his neighbors in his condominium building on North Shore Drive a few blocks north of downtown. “I have an open door policy,” he says. “If there’s piano music in my place, they’re allowed to come on in. Several of them let me know they missed my playing.”
Downing also started the program as a gift to his 94-year-old father Mel, who lives in South Pasadena (and plays along on his harmonica), and other family members. “I’d never streamed anything before, but I said, ‘Let’s figure this out,’” he says. “Each iteration is getting better in terms of the quality of the sound and presentation. There are a lot of moving parts to it.”
It’s an imposing exercise in artistic multi-tasking. Downing has to play to both the outside and online audiences while making sure that the technical part is running smoothly. He takes calls and requests online (and shouted from the lawn), pimps made-up sponsors, reads the screen for requests. His sister, Carol Downing, a college professor whom he calls his executive producer and “co-quarantor” — they live in the same building — helps out (and even sings along, more than ably, if pestered enough).
Balcony Live — he purchased the domain name for $8 — exists amid a deluge of live streaming performances. Most of them are delivered by out-of-work musicians in dire need of money. Downing does not fit that bill, which is one reason he won’t put up a tip jar or pay portal.
“There are so many great causes out there that are in need of support,” he says. “I just want this to be ephemera, just an escape, so people can enjoy some music without being reminded of the unusual time we’re in.”
Downing, who is president of brand at United Landmark Associates, a Tampa-based ad agency, took the opportunity to sharpen his chops in quarantine as business fell into a remote-work holding pattern during the coronavirus economic downturn. But with the agency planning a phased re-opening of its brick-and-mortar offices in the coming weeks, and client work coming back online, he’s not sure how many more Balcony Live performances remain.
Regardless of how long the project lasts, it’s an experience Downing will always cherish. ”I didn’t start off thinking of this as my way of contributing to a larger cause,” he says. “I was just entertaining some friends and neighbors. But there came a point that I realized it was having a greater effect than was originally intended. Still, there are people out there doing truly yeoman’s work every day, the Publix cashiers, the medical workers, all of them. I’m just a guy on the balcony with a piano.”
David Downing presents Balcony Live on Fridays from 7:30-9 p.m.