In late August, a group of nine of the largest venues and organizations in the state issued a new policy regarding COVID. All patrons, including children, attending performances must either show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken in the prior 72 hours, or proof of a negative COVID-19 antigen test taken in the prior six hours. All patrons regardless of vaccination status must wear masks over their nose and mouth at all times while inside the venue (unless actively eating or drinking). For those who have been missing the shared experience of concerts, vaccination cards are the new hand-stamp if you want in.
The past 18 months have been a challenging time for the concert industry. When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, national tours shut down and musicians were suddenly unemployed, with limited opportunities for income. Locally, concert venues large and small closed their doors during most of the pandemic; things changed quickly last October when then-Governor Raimondo encouraged businesses to Take It Outside, an initiative to increase outdoor commerce.
Askew, a club in the Jewelry District, was among the spots that began to produce concerts outside. With support from the City, a portion of Chestnut Street in front of the bar was closed to traffic to allow for socially distanced seating. “National bands were not touring so we had to be creative,” says Michael Panico, a concert promoter. “John DiFruscio and Windsong Hadley [of Askew] were very good with adjusting to the ever-changing COVID rules,” he explains. “Whether it was putting up plexiglass, measuring out six feet for tables, requiring masks, or transitioning to outdoor shows, they made sure we followed all the protocols and rules that the state put in place.”
Fast-forward to August 2021 and music returned to the Providence Performing Arts Center, with a rousing double bill from local legends John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, along with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The first show back was a big success according to PPAC president Lynn Singleton. “From an operational perspective, it was spectacular given that we hadn’t done a show in 18 months.” According to Singleton, one of the reasons for the show, besides having a great event in the building, was that the venue needed a practice run for the staff working the event. “It was also the first time we had a mask requirement, and 99 percent of those attending respected that,” he says. “We put $300,000 into air filtration systems, added touchless credit card machines, and we are requiring all staff to be fully vaccinated,” he explains. “We all need to come together safely to keep events happening. That’s the bottom line.” Several big-name rock concerts are scheduled at PPAC, including Foreigner, Elvis Costello, and Cheap Trick, and ticket sales for both musicals and music are strong according to Singleton.
Sister-venue The Vets is also gearing up for a busy season, with the RI Philharmonic returning for full-capacity shows, along with a roster of national and local acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Marc Cohn, Shawn Colvin, and Twitter sensation Randy Rainbow. Says RI Philharmonic Executive Director David Beauchesne, “We spent the pandemic working hard to bring live orchestral performances and music education programs to our community.” For the orchestra, that meant redesigning an entire season with works that required fewer musicians for social distancing, while increasing the usual number of concert weeks from 10 to 19 to include as many musicians as possible.
When the Columbus Theatre reopened in August they did so with a mandatory valid proof of COVID-19 vaccination for entry, no exceptions. “The reaction to our COVID policy has been overwhelmingly positive,” explains Tom Weyman, co-founder of the Columbus Cooperative. “Many people told us they had been feeling hesitant about attending a live show indoors, but that our policy made them feel better about coming. We have also noticed a lot of the artists that we booked for the fall have instituted their own policies similar to ours.”
During the pandemic, RI Music Hall of Fame inductee Mark Cutler turned his home into a virtual performance space. “In lieu of live shows, I did a Wednesday night Facebook Live performance every week,” Cutler explains. “It was a great way to stay in shape. I also did Zoom songwriting workshops and lessons.” Meanwhile, Cutler is trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy. As leader of both The Schemers and Men of Great Courage, he happily reports that he’s booked for the rest of the year. “I’m trying to do more outdoor shows while we can. We’ve done a couple of gigs inside with no weirdness. I gotta make a living somehow,” he says with a grin.
“When I realized that the pandemic was going to be a long-term situation, I knew that performers of every kind would be out of work much longer than those in other professions,” remarks Tish Adams, a jazz singer and artist. “I did a few streaming shows, mostly as fundraisers for struggling music venues or non-profit arts organizations.” In June, 2020, Adams launched a “safe pandemic” concert series of live and in-person shows, along with livestreams and radio broadcasts with the help of WRIU DJ Sam Kopper. “It’s been a long road with a lot of pitfalls, but I’m determined to preserve the live music experience, not just for myself, but for other musicians and audiences, too.”
Music enthusiasts are excited but guarded about the return of live music. With fears of a resurgence of COVID, some are taking a wait-and-see approach. Elizabeth Allen, guitar/vocalist in the The Debutantes, shares “I have really enjoyed being back at shows and even doing a little bit of outdoor performing myself this summer, but with the Delta variant and potentially not enough people vaccinated, like all kids for example, I’m anxious about what indoor live music is going to look like.”
Askew’s Panico sums up everyone’s wishes, “I hope at some point we can all get back to normal, and the Providence music community – which I think is one of the best – can thrive again.”