WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

The Angels in the Rafters, just when we needed them

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 8:30 am

Monday morning, Facebook greeted me with this message:

You have seven events coming up this week.

Seven. That list used to run into the hundreds.

We don't know what to do with ourselves. Have we forgotten what the arts can do for us?

Yet by Monday afternoon, this message had crept into my email inbox: A Rochester tribute to the nation's first responders, "Angels in the Rafters." A song, and a video, created by Rochester musicians Tommy Brunett and Elvio Fernandes, acknowledging those who are on the front lines of this coronavirus crisis.

That front line is tough to track. Many of us are taking shelter in our homes, working from our homes, fearful of the deadly virus. The doorbell rings: It's the pizza delivery guy. We go to the grocery store, someone's stocking the shelves. Working on the front lines, for minimum wage.

And what of the EMTs and doctors and nurses? Working on the front lines, without the proper equipment to protect themselves.

The disparity in who's doing the work, and the difficult position we've put them in, is hitting us now. Maybe we just haven't noticed before.

In fact, Brunett says he first came up with the concept of "Angels in the Rafters" 12 or 15 years ago, when he was living in New York City. It was after a Mary Gauthier concert, at a drinking session with Felix McTeigue, who would go on to produce Brunett's debut album, "Hell or High Water."

"It wasn't even a song, it was an idea," Brunett says of "Angels in the Rafters."

"I kind of forgot about it."

Brunett has been on the local rock scene for years. He's still on it. But a few years ago, he opened Iron Smoke Distillery in Fairport. It's blowing up; the whiskey is in high demand. And there's a stage, too, although it's been silent since the coronavirus hit. 

But Brunett hasn't been idle. He launched a website for out-of-work bartenders to offer drink recipes and collect virtual tips. And distilleries have discovered that their equipment is perfect for manufacturing sanitizers, so Iron Smoke has jumped on that as well.

"I haven't had the time to pick up a guitar," Brunett says.

Fernandes spent years in one of the most popular bands in Rochester, Uncle Plum. Then he hooked up with the pop star Daughtry, playing keyboards and guitar, and singing backing vocals.

And that's how he started out this year as well. "We played some UK shows, we headlined at Royal Albert Hall," Fernandes says. "In March, we played two shows in Idaho.

"Then they sent us home."

Fernandes isn't fooling himself into thinking the coronavirus pandemic will soon pass.

"My summer's shot," he admits. "It was financially scary. But I had been gone eight years touring, so this has been an opportunity to reconnect with my family, make up for lost time. Learn. I've been practicing piano."

And he's spent time with Camp ROC Star, the music academy that he owns. "We've been transitioning to online," he says. "With Brady Bunch-style videos, where each kid gets a square where they track their own instruments."

When the coronavirus hit, the words Brunett had written 12 or 15 years ago had a new purpose. McTeigue got back in touch. "Felix said, 'You've gotta finish the song,' " Brunett says.

He did, and on Feb. 1, he dropped it off at Fernandes' house in Webster, asking him to create a simple piano track.

"It was just a voice memo on an iPhone," Fernandes says. "Raw, just verse and chorus. I just took it upon myself to do a full production.

"I went a little nuts. I did the whole thing. I did piano, a drum-groove base. I wanted it to be ethereal, set the mood for angels. Some spacy guitar, like Pink Floyd and Radiohead."

"He kind of captured the moment in his home studio," Brunett says. "I said it's gotta sound like something in your living room, like your grandfather's piano, maybe a little out of tune."

"Angels in the Rafters" opens as a piano ballad, with Brunett's world-weary voice. "It's all vibe," Fernandes says. "It's honest, it's perfect for the song."

There's angels in the rafters, like smoke off cigarettes.

And the years are passing by, and the angels multiply.

Then Fernandes' guitar and drum track kick in, an emotional swell that pulls in the listener.

Brunett sent the recording to McTeigue in Nashville. He's a Grammy-nominated producer who wrote the hit "Anything Goes" for the country duo Florida Georgia Line. The response to "Angels in the Rafters" from various movers and shakers was good. But that doesn't mean anything.

So this past Sunday afternoon, Brunett used a free app to assemble the images that make up the video. He worked on it until midnight. "Then I fell asleep in a chair," he says. "I don't remember anything, but I must have told Jen to go ahead and put it online."

Jen, his wife, did so. "The next morning she was standing over me and said, 'Your video is doing pretty good online.'"

"I said, 'What video?' "

The images are unrelenting. The video opens with a shot of the cover of The New York Post: A photo illustration, with a "Sorry We're Closed" sign hanging off the top of the Empire State Building. We see people in masks, doing their jobs. Assembling hospital beds. Church pews moved aside to make room for coffins. Doctors in surgical garb and angel wings. A map of the world, showing the countries that are partially closed to travel by non-citizens and non-residents, and the countries that are fully closed. There seems to be no pattern; the world hasn't reached an agreement on how to handle this disaster.

It's been a music recharge for Brunett. "Felix pushed me, Jen pushed," Brunett says. "I'm feeling whole again. Something was missing. And now it's, 'OK, this is what's missing a little bit.' "

Who are the Angels in the Rafters? Think of the images you've seen, of thousands of people lying in bed. They have a fever. Perhaps they are hallucinating. They are connected to a respirator. All they can do is look up at the ceiling. And they see someone bending over them. Checking on them. A nurse. A doctor. The angels in the rafters.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.