Live music returns to big venues — carefully
Fueled by rising vaccination rates and the tantalizing promise of herd immunity, the live music industry is more optimistic than it was a year ago. Around the region, however, a haze of uncertainty remains, and a survey of regional venues seating 500 or more patrons reveals varying plans to offer shows in the coming months.
In Manchester, the Rex and Palace Theatres are ambitious, almost booked solid from June through December. There’s more caution at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts and its sister room Bank of NH Stage, with only outdoor events planned — at least until New Hampshire eases its social distancing rules for venues like theirs from 6 to 3 feet.
Portsmouth’s Music Hall is taking a hybrid approach, re-launching 2020’s successful Music Under the Arch outdoor concert series while booking regional acts for its Historic Theatre. Casino Ballroom in Hampton Beach is selling tickets for nationally touring acts, though it’s aware that those shows might get canceled or postponed.
That’s also somewhat true for Bank of NH Pavilion; the Lakes Region shed is bullish on its plans for national acts like Toby Keith, Dave Matthews Band and Chris Stapleton, betting on New Hampshire plans to allow 100 percent capacity there by July 16, “assuming self-attestation of vaccination” by fans when they purchase tickets.
At SNHU Arena in downtown Manchester, the state’s largest indoor facility, tickets for Nickelodeon star JoJo Siwa are still being sold, but the July 24 date, rescheduled from last summer, might move again. The arena’s next listed concert is Eric Church on Dec. 3; the country singer’s 55-city Gather Again tour is scheduled to kick off in mid-September.
“The chicken/egg situation is still true no matter what confident venue people say,” Tupelo Music Hall CEO Scott Hayward said on April 5. “Unless artists are ready to organize tours through several states and be confident that it’s safe everywhere, they’re not going to mount tours.”
The question of how to ensure the safety of audience members lingers. New Hampshire state guidance makes no mention of a so-called vaccination passport or other form of proof. Verifying such a document was deemed “impossible to do” by Capitol Center Executive Director Nicki Clarke in an April 6 phone interview. “If some other authority issues something” defining enforcement, she said, it might have a chance of working, “[but] we just think it’s a problem on so many levels.” (Clarke, also a member of the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force, announced her retirement from the Capitol Center after 14 years at the helm on April 9.)
Two efforts born of necessity last year are returning, each bringing a different mindset.
Tupelo Drive-In in Derry was a pioneer in parking lot concerts, garnering national press for its quick pivot from indoor to outdoor shows. It will be back exactly as it was in 2020, with only minor tweaks. That said, Hayward sees an end in sight as he eyes indoor shows for the fall, albeit cautiously.
Not so for Northlands, launched last year as Drive-In Live by the agency that books Plymouth’s Flying Monkey Cinema. With a capacity more than double Tupelo’s, it can book bigger acts. The rebranded venue now has five-person audience pods instead of parking spaces, and its founders envision a life well beyond the pandemic.
Here’s what venues around the region are doing in the coming months. Fans need to be aware that everything is a moving target. Tickets bought for an event in May or June might end up unused until September or October — or even 2022. It’s essential to frequently check websites and social media pages — the latter option seems to be the most reliably up to date.
Palace Theatre & Rex Theatre, Manchester
The wall calendar in Palace Theatre CEO Peter Ramsey’s office is filled with shows.
“We have some 200 events scheduled between June 1 and the end of the year, which is a lot,” he said. “I’ve only got maybe six or seven days free from Labor Day to the end of the year and most of them are Mondays.”
Many are shows that were postponed in 2020, like Linda Ronstadt Experience and KT Tunstall. “From the beginning, we were committed to not treating any artist in an unethical or bad way, so we guaranteed we’d rebook them out,” Ramsey said.
Those include Paula Cole, The Fools and Billy Joel tribute act David Clark’s Songs in the Attic.
Ramsey’s big hope is a five-week run of Mamma Mia! in the fall, at full capacity.
“We were running Mamma Mia! when we shut down and we ended up canceling 15 sold out shows,” he said.
Manchester’s newest venue was sent reeling when the pandemic shut it down mere months after opening. Rex Executive Director Chuck Stergiou promises three months of regular Friday night comedy shows, along with a solid mix of music, from locals like Ally Beaudry and the Spain Brothers to Adam Ezra, Susan Werner and Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, a side project of the E Street Band drummer due to hit town on Nov. 11.
Capitol Center for the Arts & Bank of NH Stage, Concord
While the space was shuttered for the year, indoor air treatment capabilities were improved, hands-free restroom equipment was added and other pandemic-related enhancements were done, so both the Chubb Theatre and Bank of NH Stage are ready when the State of New Hampshire green-lights larger audiences.
For Clarke, reducing the social distancing minimum from 6 to 3 feet would be a critical step.
“Depending on what happens with the guideline situation, if it loosens up a little bit, getting another 25 or 30 people into the Bank of NH Stage makes a difference for us,” she said. “Nothing’s going to change in the big theater until we really can be at full capacity, because of the fees we pay artists.”
Rather than plan indoor events that currently aren’t economically viable, there are plans for an 11-show Sunday in the Park outdoor concert series in nearby Fletcher-Murphy Park, beginning on June 16 with guitarist Joe Sabourin.
Tupelo Music Hall, Derry
After inventing a new business from scratch in three weeks last year, Hayward will again transform his parking lot into Tupelo Drive-In — he hopes for the final time.
“The question is, how long are we going to be outside? We’ve booked through the end of July, but from everything I can see … we’ll be outside in August. I’m hoping I can get back indoors by October, but who knows?”
An eclectic mix of talent is booked, from national acts like Dar Williams, Tiffany and Popa Chubby to local favorites like Truffle, Entrain and guitarist Tim Theriault, who opens the season on Friday, April 30. A May 29 Jon Butcher Axis show will include a guest appearance from Stompers front man Sal Baglio.
Doppelgänger acts appear frequently, beginning with Foreigners Journey May 1 and May 2.
“The tributes attract a lot of people because they are generally bands that have been around a very long time, like the Eagles,” Hayward said. “People like the music … it appeals to parents and kids alike, and they will bring the families.”
After a switch from cars to pods inspired by European festivals, the novel venue can sell even more seats for big-name acts like Indigo Girls, Allman Betts Band, Dinosaur Jr. and Smith & Myers, the latter an acoustic side project from Shinedown front man Brent Smith and guitarist Zach Myers.
The switch was made to improve audience experience, Northlands Director of Operations Mike Chadinha explained in a phone interview. “The drive-in was cool in a lot of ways because you’re tailgating at instead of before the concert,” he said, but other issues, such as sight line and sound, negated the benefits. “Someone has a giant truck and the person behind them has a Honda Civic, that’s a little tough. On top of that, I don’t think artists generally want to play to a parking lot.”
Bank of NH Pavilion, Gilford
Beginning with Thomas Rhett on June 3 and June 4 and ending with Toby Keith in early September, there are 17 shows scheduled at New Hampshire’s biggest outdoor concert facility that require fully relaxed guidances. “We expect to be back to full capacity by midsummer, so a very good chance,” the venue responded on its Facebook page when fans asked about whether their tickets would be used.
That said, four “reduced-capacity, socially-distanced” shows are bet-hedgers for the LiveNation property. Country singer Jake Owen appears May 29, followed a month later by an Independence Day weekend run from by Nashville band Old Dominion.
The Music Hall, Portsmouth
The historic downtown theater will take its mixed approach of indoor and outdoor events a step further, with livestreams of socially distanced concerts now available. The focus of those concerts continues to be regional talent that would appear at the smaller Music Hall Loft in different times.
Music Hall CEO Tina Sawtelle is especially pleased with a three-concert series featuring Zack Williams, Rachael Price and Son Little, designed to assist fellow Portsmouth venues 3S Artspace and Prescott Park.
“They were not able to access State of New Hampshire Covid emergency funding as easily as we were,” she said by phone, “so we’re opening up our doors and providing the production team and the front of house team to run those events.”
Proceeds will be split evenly between the two nonprofit organizations, Sawtelle continued. “We’re just thrilled to be hosting it and to be collaborating in a way we haven’t before,” she continued. “We hope that’s a real relationship that is sustained beyond Covid and these trying times that we’re all in.”
The very successful evening concerts on Chestnut Street resume with two shows from Antje Duvekot on May 8, followed by area bluegrass stalwarts Rockspring the next Saturday. Also slated are folksinger Vance Gilbert on May 19 and the duo Crys Matthews & Heather Mae on June 22.
Casino Ballroom, Hampton Beach
Beginning with the ’60s revival Happy Together Tour on June 27 followed by the annual SoCal ska show from Badfish on July 2, Casino Ballroom has over a dozen dates slotted for summer. But the reality, Marketing Director Andy Herrick explained by phone recently, is many may be postponed because advance ticket sales already exceed capacity limits.
“The holy grail for us is when restrictions can be dropped,” Herrick said. “No one has a crystal ball, but the fall looks reasonably good, and maybe even summer, with the vaccination rate being what it is.”
The reluctance of big-name acts to hit the road compounds things.
“We’re only part of the big picture, because tours have to happen for our shows to happen,” he said. “We’ll try to stay positive, and keep shows on our website that have a shot.”
Featured photo: Northlands. Courtesy photo.