Baggage claim is an important threshold at the Sacramento International Airport – the place where passengers reunite with family, begin the tedious search for luggage or step toward fresh air after a long day of travel. Coming down the escalators Friday, many were pleasantly surprised to hear the sound of live folk music resonating between terminal walls.
Marty Cohen and the Sidekicks, an urban folk/pop trio with deep roots in the Sacramento music scene, strummed and crooned between baggage carousels, greeting weary travelers with original songs and covers. Some pulled over, with carry-ons in tow, to swing and sway in front of the makeshift stage. Others tilted their heads in interest or flashed smiles before scurrying to greet friends and taxis.
The Sidekicks are one of more than a dozen musical groups playing in the holiday performance series, an effort to bring joyful vibes to strung-out travelers during the airport’s busiest season.
The Sacramento County Department of Airports has provided holiday entertainment in the terminals for more than a decade and has partnered with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission to cull local talent for the past three years.
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Jenny Dillon, a Sacramento resident, bobbed to the music while waiting to greet her 34-year-old son, who has been training with the U.S. Army Reserve in North Carolina for the past three months. She’d never been in an airport that had live music before.
“It gets people in the spirit as they’re coming down the escalator,” she said. “It makes the arrival personal. It keeps people calm ... It’s really neat.”
The arts commission begins accepting applications for airport performers months in advance, scouring the pool for acts that will provide a distraction but not a disruption to those traveling between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Shelly Willis, executive director. Applicants must submit a three-minute sample.
Holidays are a busy time for everyone, and the ordeal of standing in lines, waiting for a flight or searching for luggage only makes it worse, she said. Organizers hope the music can assuage any discontent travelers might experience, even if it’s just for a few moments.
“You’re distracted – you’re taken out of that immediate world of ‘I’m gonna be late’ or ‘I haven’t gotten my shopping done’ or whatever might stress you out during the holidays,” Willis said. “It helps everybody. It helps the flight attendants and the ticket personnel and the baggage claim folks if the customers are in a better mood.”
During November and December last year, the airport served more than 1 million travelers, and numbers for 2014 are expected to be slightly higher, said Laurie Slothower, spokesperson for the Sacramento County Department of Airports. Bringing in live music, in addition to bulking up personnel, is a way to reduce tension caused by bottlenecks and delays that can occur in high traffic. The system puts $10,000 into the project each year to pay the musicians.
“We thought this was an amenity we could offer our customers to alleviate stress and add a more festive environment inside the terminal,” she said.
Performers play for two hours in the morning or evening in the baggage claim areas of either of the airport’s two terminals. The groups cover a variety of genres from R&B to Celtic, and are specifically instructed to steer clear of Christmas tunes and other religious music.
Marty Cohen, lead singer of the Sidekicks, said this is the first time the group has played in an airport. While playing quietly enough to avoid drowning out announcements was a challenge, the musician said he thinks the performance was ultimately a good thing for travelers – and for the band.
“We hope that they enjoy the music, and that maybe if they’re Sacramento residents they’ll be willing to sign our email list and become fans,” he said. “Other than that, we hope they hear some nice music and have a good experience waiting for their baggage.”
Music is one way that people can reconnect to the present moment – a tactic that clinical psychologist Marla McMahon said is useful for staying calm. The American Psychological Association reports that 61 percent of people feel stress during the holidays, 52 percent feel irritability and 36 percent feel sadness.
Some people also feel anxiety in crowded places like shopping malls or airports, said McMahon, who gave a workshop on holiday mindfulness at the SATYA well-being center in Sacramento over the weekend. She recommends meditation and positive self talk to combat panic.
“People are maxed out, going to holiday parties and shopping and going to children’s Christmas programs, and there’s a real sense that there’s not enough time,” she said. “They don’t have to stop and get in lotus position at the airport, but they can just sit on a chair and look at the ground and take a deep breath.”
Taylor Fenyoe and Kevin Jones said they found the music relaxing after a stressful morning of travel with their 9-week-old puppy Lyla, who was flying for the first time. The pair enjoyed the performance from afar while waiting for a ride.
“It’s awesome,” Jones said. “They’re playing actual music, not just elevator music.”
Other West Coast airports feature live entertainment in their terminals. San Francisco International Airport hosts a Winter Musical Festival through New Year’s Day and a “You Are Hear” series during the summer. Portland International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport provide live music year-round.
The airport music series aligns with the wider goal of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission to bring accessible art to alternative public spaces.
“You don’t have to pay a ticket and go to a performance space or concert,” Willis said. “You’re there in this unexpected space and you hear this music – it’s surprising, it’s unexpected, it’s fun.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.