One fine day in the not too distant future, the sound of a live singing voice — or a ringing guitar, or maybe an electric piano — will hit that tuning fork in your sternum just so.
It may seem hard to believe, but as the weather and the vaccines begin to cooperate, those of you who are so inclined will venture out past the invisible fence at the end of your yard and travel somewhere down the road to participate in the age-old ritual known as “attending a concert.”
It’s coming. Here in New England, the outdoor festivals of summer are beginning to stir. In recent days both of the Newports (folk and jazz) and the Green River Festival (in Western Massachusetts) have announced their plans to return — with modifications — after last summer’s cancellations. Indoors, some venues have begun to schedule intimate, reduced-capacity shows, while others stay the course on the abundance-of-caution route, at least for now.
Still, most of the big-name shows that define the summer concert season, at the Xfinity Center, Fenway Park, and the newly renamed Leader Bank Pavilion in the Seaport, to name a few, remain in limbo. Boston Calling has canceled again this year, with plans to return in 2022.
“We’re in the gathering business,” says Michael Dorf, who founded the City Winery venues. Even before the pandemic, the job of an event promoter was “to try and create as safe, secure — and homey, and comfortable — an experience as possible for everyone.” In that sense, he says, the hurdles that must be cleared to present live music in the COVID era are “just an extension of that.”
In Boston, where City Winery opened its local restaurant and nightclub near North Station in late 2017, the venue hosts comedian Michelle Wolf on Monday and Tuesday and a solo show by jazz guitarist John Scofield on May 15, among a handful of new live dates. The city and the state of Massachusetts have been slower to reopen than most of the jurisdictions where he operates venues, Dorf says.
Massachusetts is currently in Phase IV, Step 1 of the state’s reopening plan. Arenas and ballparks have been permitted to operate at 12 percent capacity, theaters and clubs at 50 percent. Face masks are required. Singing is still discouraged, and forbidden indoors.
In New York, City Winery has started presenting shows with a series of requirements for customers, including vaccine screening and contact tracing. For those who aren’t getting the vaccine due to health concerns or religious beliefs, proof of a negative test result will do, Dorf says.
He expects to run a similar program here. “I definitely believe in Boston we have an educated customer. We’ll probably find 90-95 percent of our customers starting in May are going to be vaccinated. It’s not going to be an issue.
“I just had a conversation with Steve Earle, and he was begging me to roll out the vaccine-only program as fast as possible in every venue,” Dorf says. “He’s frustrated that more venues are not doing this.”
For Jay Sweet, who has served as executive producer of the venerable Newport Festivals Foundation for more than a decade, the pandemic has been a nightmare.
“I’m utterly exhausted, emotionally tattered,” he says. “But I’m also strangely overwhelmed with a sense of hope. Not to sound too reverential, but I believe that the world needs live music more than at any other point. It’s social glue, and we need it.”
Musicians, he believes, should be considered “essential workers.”
Though the Newport Folk Festival is returning, it will look different than past years, expanding from one three-day event to two (July 23-25, July 26-28), with reduced capacities for each.
“The reality is, we’re starting completely from scratch,” Sweet says. Tickets are not yet on sale; for now, the folk and jazz festivals are not revealing the names of their headliners, in case any of the musicians need to back out.
“If they don’t know you’re coming, you don’t owe them anything,” Sweet reasons.
On the plus side, the pandemic has created a sense of heightened camaraderie between the Newport team and their patrons, who were already a devoted bunch. On social media, Sweet and his colleagues have been surveying their loyalists: “Do you guys think we can do this together?” Given the lengths that a Newport fan must go to in order to attend — the travel, the parking, the accommodations, the long days in the sun — “if they’re willing to do all that,” Sweet says, “those are people you can count on.”
Matt Smith is the managing director of Passim, the historic Harvard Square folk club. For him, it makes little sense to open just yet, given the tiny club’s capacity (102 people) in healthy times. At a reduced capacity, shows aren’t economically feasible.
“We don’t want to sell a dozen tickets for $150 each,” he says. “That’s not who we are, or what we’re about.”
During the yearlong pause, Passim has presented a steady stream of online events. That model could be useful moving forward, Smith says, for smaller-scale touring acts who can’t always afford to travel to remote locations to reach fans.
This summer Passim expects to resume some of the outdoor shows it presented in the before times, in and around Harvard Square.
“Odds are we probably won’t open [indoors] until we can be at full capacity,” Smith says.
Around the corner from Passim, the Sinclair has one concert on its calendar for the month of May — the high-concept, costumed, and anonymous art-rock band the Residents. The listing for tickets includes a lengthy disclaimer about “applicable public health requirements.”
Dorf, on the other hand, sees the coming months as a unique opportunity for his venues. The major concert promoters at Live Nation and AEG — “the two 900-pound gorillas that control the concert business as we know it,” he says — remain at the mercy of COVID protocols. There’s no word yet, for instance, about the status of this summer’s major acts penciled in to play Fenway Park, including New Kids on the Block in July and Lady Gaga, Green Day, and Guns N’ Roses in August. All those dates were pushed into this year from last summer.
“Between now and this fall, it’s a great opportunity to see great artists in a scaled-back setting, an intimate environment, with a lot of space between tables,” Dorf says. “Up close and personal. This kind of goes to our sweet spot.”
Since reopening in New York City recently, Dorf has been encouraged, and not only by the level of cooperation on health and safety. “The last three weeks have been really special, I have to say. It’s been emotional.”
In Newport, they’ll welcome the return of live music on any scale. The folk festival had a big year in 2019, when it turned 60.
“How much more crazy does it get after Dolly Parton and Kermit the Frog?” Sweet asks, mentioning two of his surprise guests. “Maybe the world gave us a chance to breathe.”
Earlier this month, he traveled to New York City to visit George Wein, the impresario who launched the Newport festival tradition. Wein is 96. It was their first sit-down together in more than a year.
“I went to kiss the ring and pat the lucky head,” Sweet says.
Wein had some sage advice for his protegé.
Every producer worth their salt has endured some bad moments, he said. The ones built to last are the ones who realize it’s just another challenge. And, yes, they may have to adapt.