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Jason Walsmith van life musician pandemic

Green-Powered Musicians: The Ultimate Unplugged Music

Longtime traveling musician-storyteller Jason Walsmith and his wife, Emma, got around the pandemic shutdown by playing shows anywhere they could set up — which is to say, everywhere. The secret? A van power system unlike any other.

Sidelined

Like many touring and recording musicians, Jason Walsmith found himself suddenly sidelined by the Coronavirus shutdown in Spring 2020. He and his wife stared at a daunting near future: 60-plus shows, none of which he could play, and bills that would not stop coming just because, oh, the economy and their livelihood was waylaid.

For a musician who has spent the past three decades touring the band he founded in college, The Nadas, sitting at home without any gigs was particularly daunting — as was sitting at home for any long period of time.

“We had booked a whole tour – 60 or 70 dates on the books, ready to go on a usual tour for us,” Jason said. “We have a lot of annual shows, annual trips. Then we got locked down. I sat home the first couple months, the longest I’d ever been at home in my adult life. I started to get a little antsy. Also, I didn’t know how we could pay the bills.”

Months later, they found an answer that solved many of their challenges and saved a good part of their Summer and Fall 2020 bookings — a Storyteller Overland van powered by Volta Power Systems with a lithium-ion source that speaks to the Michigan company’s position as a forerunner in next-gen energy systems. With it, they played before socially distanced turnouts in places like the Moab Desert of Utah, mountains of Colorado, and backyards and small-venue gigs from “coast to coast and corner to corner,” as Jason put it.

Van Life

Whether pulling up in the desolate Utah desert, backyard concerts or other remote sites, long-time recording artist Jason Walsmith and his wife, Emma, revolutionized live performance during the pandemic with 72 concerts from their Storyteller Overland van, Volta Power Systems lithium-ion power pack, and desire to keep music alive in our hearts.

The story of how they went from being confined in their Iowa home to driving 45,000 miles across 32 states and playing 72 shows from a Storyteller Overland MODE van is fascinating and fortuitous.

It began with uploaded daily content — which became a passion for many during the lockdown months. Jason, who has released 14 albums with The Nadas as well as several solo efforts, decided to cheer his fans up by dropping a song per day on social media. He did it for two straight months. He skipped just one day — and heard all about it. That’s when Emma realized they were onto something.

“He was doing these daily videos. It kind of energized him and illustrated the sort of good it did for people,” Emma said, “as well as the desire people had to connect through music. The one day Jason took off from doing that, the amount of people that texted, called, or posted on social media saying ‘Where’s the morning song? Where’s the music?’ was huge. It wasn’t just a self-serving endeavor to keep our presence relevant. It was doing some good and serving a purpose during a very weird time. With that, Jason started looking at booking shows. My response was, ‘OK, how you going to do that in a COVID-aware way?’”

Thus began the search for a band van that could allow them to play in remote locations or places where people could socially distance themselves.

“We started searching for ideas on how we could travel self-contained, play in people’s homes and backyards, socially distanced, make sure we weren’t the cause for someone getting COVID,” Emma explained. “We looked at a couple options, one was a band van. We could buy the band van, strap down some bungee cords, put chairs in it. The day we were going to buy that van — a Transit — somebody offered the full asking price before us. Then we looked at a Chambermaid we found on Craig’s List, a truck camper… different ways we could travel self-contained. But whenever we found something, it was sold before we could even offer.”

Volta Power System

Their break came while visiting a friend in Steamboat Springs, CO. The friend suggested they look into the Storyteller Overland van, in particular its biggest feature — a power system that could keep them comfortable, but also had the capacity to power up music systems.

“It had a Volta Power System that would keep the equipment air-conditioned all day, and our dogs as well when we’re outside playing gigs, away from the van,” Jason said. “That was the big selling point — that it would work for us and our dogs. We could keep our dogs cool, power all the devices we use to tell our stories and create our content and power our musical instruments.”

They jumped onto the Storyteller Overland website, researched the Volta Power System — and realized they’d found the perfect solution. They muted their excitement long enough to learn there was one such van — one — available in the entire U.S. By luck, it was just a day’s drive away, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“We decided to do it, pulled the pieces together, got the approval and financing in three days, drove down, and had our Storyteller Overland van,” Emma said. “For us, it’s very much a fairy tale situation. We needed a solution with these dates approaching for Jason to get on the road. The idea we’d get a Storyteller and, in four days, be driving it home? That’s our fairy tale. Nowadays, you put your deposit down and wait eight months.”

Lithium-Ion Power Plant

The other part of the equation was Volta’s lithium-ion power plant, which is fed by a solar system atop the roof of the van. Jason and Emma quickly realized that not only did they have a van that could handle Jason’s one-man shows, but also full-band concerts – with a small stage presence to boot.

“We have been blown away by the amount of access and opportunity the system gives us. We feel spoiled, even, compared to some of our friends who travel in other types of vans and say, ‘oh, this that and the other blew out when I tried to plug it in,’” Emma said. “We went to a campsite with no power and no amenities, and I felt totally comfortable with that because our multiple power system was going to keep our dogs, devices and refrigerator good. 

 “Most places we played had power, or at least I assumed that, especially for backyard gigs, but because of our van and the Volta Power System, the band came to the rescue of those places that didn’t have power,” Jason added. “Because that worked so well, it became our go-to, we could use the van as a stage/backstage and run our equipment through it.”

One such show, in Erie, Colorado, led the Walsmiths to decide that all remote or socially distanced concerts would run through the van. They’ve since played before as many as 300 people while feeding everything off the power system.

“I’m not a technician, so my system for testing capacity was to say, ‘I’ll try and add this. I’ll try and add that. OK, that worked,’” Jason said. “Then we actually visited the Volta people and plug the full system in, have them monitor it for the draw we put on the system… and there was lots of headroom left.”

Creating a Buzz (Not Just from Feedback)

Jason and Emma Walsmith entertained listeners in 32 states while music venues were shut down.

The concert at Volta headquarters in Michigan couldn’t have been better received. Volta employees were not only treated to an afternoon of stories and music from Jason’s massive repertoire of folk, country, rock, and blues, but also to the two people behind the company’s pronounced social media boost among audiences not ordinarily reading posts from lithium-ion power plant manufacturers.

“Certainly, what the Walsmiths are doing has generated a nice social media buzz, both for them and for Volta. People have noticed that,” Volta Power Systems VP of Sales Buck Lewis-Mathieu said. “This has driven quite a bit of conversation in social media and driven some business both for us and the folks at Storyteller Overland.”

The Walsmiths also shared a story with their Volta partners that Emma was very hesitant to publicize when it happened: the fact they basically powered their home, van, and lives on the power system for a week after a derecho (long-lasting hurricane-strength windstorm) ransacked Iowa and five other Midwestern states in Summer 2020.

“We lost power, like everyone else, and ended up plugging both our home refrigerator and deep freezer into the Volta Power System in our van,” Emma recalled. “And we ran the AC unit in our van when we slept in it. It saved us. So many people lost a ton of food. I was terrified Volta would find out and we’d be in trouble, so I didn’t put up any photos, but when we told them, they said, ‘Absolutely perfect use of the power system.’”

“They’re super supportive, we have this mutual admiration society thing going on. We’re fascinated by all the other stuff they’re doing. Because their power system has enabled us to get on the road and play music and pay our bills, we’re pretty jazzed about seeing the continuation of their business. And they’re super cool about supporting us. When Jason’s new solo album came out in September and we released the single, Camper Van – an ode to our camper van – Volta shared it on their social,” she added.

Silence is Golden

While expounding on the technology and benefits of the power system for vans and the van life, Lewis-Mathieu pointed out another advantage that will be familiar to many who have seen gigs in fields, backyards, outdoor venues and the like — background noise. “People experiencing a Walsmith performance first notice, ‘No background noise,’” he said. “Then they put up some mood lights or whatever, and the way they power up suddenly is not what’s on people’s minds. They get to enjoy the music, to experience the venue, the mood or ambiance without the disruption of energy being generated and creating noise in the background.”

A New Way to Tour

Now that society is largely open, bands are playing live and setting up a gig a hundred miles from anywhere unnecessary, the Walsmiths are again touring their regular stops, along with new bookings. However, they will always play pop-up or remote venue concerts as part of their future touring plan, which enables them to reach their audience in more places than ever. For a lifelong traveling musician like Jason, that is critical, as he eyes a highly creative upcoming period of playing and writing. Most importantly, he gets to keep doing what he loves, in the way he loves it — performing as an independent musician.

“Here we are, almost 29 years later, with the same band — and we recently put out our 14th record,” he said. “We always toured as an independent band. There’s not a lot of people who have found success as independent musicians, but they will agree that business is done in a different way. You’re making your own way, making your own opportunities, meeting and actually getting to know some of your audience. It’s a hard life, but a really great life.”

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March 17, 2022
By Robert Yehling

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