Music as it was meant to be heard: Outdoor concerts on tap in August, indoor shows in fall, despite renewed Covid concerns

  • Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, in The Parlor Room in Northampton, which is scheduled to reopen in October. Olsen says live indoor music seems ready to make a comeback, barring significant problems with the delta variant of COVID-19.. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, where live music is now on tap for September and October. The venue has instituted new safety protocols for those shows to address the delta variant of COVID-19. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Las Cafeteras play at the Green River Festival in July 2018. The longtime festival, canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic and taking place this year in late August, is close to selling out. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Perfomers at Northampton’s Academy of Music take a bow after a July 2018 show. The Academy has a host of live events back on tap in September and October, barring any serious return of COVID-19. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Veteran indie rockers Yo La Tengo are scheduled to play Gateway City Arts Sept. 17. Gateway is one of a number of area clubs that have live music back on the agenda this fall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Indie folk band Darlingside, which has ties to the Valley, plays at the Academy of Music in Northampton on Sept. 17. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:23:14 AM

Dare we say it? Live music is back.

Northampton’s Signature Sounds tested the waters with some modest-sized, outdoor acoustic shows in Hatfield in May and June, and outdoor music series were held in July in Northampton, Amherst, Turners Falls, and other area communities.

The schedule heats up even more in August, with several outdoor shows at the Pines Theater at Look Park in Northampton. Meantime, three outdoor music fests — the Green River Festival in Greenfield, the Jazz & Roots Festival in Springfield, and “Barbès in the Woods” in Montague — are back on tap after being canceled last year because of the pandemic (some smaller virtual versions of the shows were staged) .

And music is finally moving indoors again, with a handful of local shows in August, including the acoustic series Watermelon Wednesdays at the West Whately Chapel. A much bigger lineup is scheduled in September and October in venues such as Gateway City Arts, the Academy of Music, the Shea Theater, and the Calvin Theater — even as new COVID-19 clouds appear on the horizon.

“It’s kind of amazing how quickly a lot of this has come together,” said Jim Olsen, head of Signature Sounds and the producer of a number of area shows, including the Green River Festival. “There’s been a lot of pent-up demand for live music all the way around … and I think people who have been vaccinated are pretty comfortable about being part of an audience again.”

Olsen said the six shows his company presented in spring in Hatfield, at Black Birch Vineyard, all sold out.

The strong pace of vaccinations in Massachusetts has paved the way to offering a much fuller schedule of music by fall, he noted. Signature has several shows on tap for then at the Academy, Gateway City Arts, and the Shea Theater, and Olsen says The Parlor Room, Signature’s intimate listening room, is slated to reopen in October.

Also on the agenda: Signature’s Arcadia Folk Festival, which takes place Sept. 19 at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.

“So many musicians are so eager to play live again that (scheduling new performances) has gone better than I think we had expected,” Olsen said.

John Sanders, a partner in DSP Shows of Ithaca, New York, also points to pent-up demand for live music and improving COVID-19 conditions for moving the ball along. DSP has produced shows in the area for several years and is now leasing the large performance hall at Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts.

That’s an arrangement the company began this spring with Gateway owners Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine after the couple had to shut the venue in late 2020 because of the pandemic. (Kruta and Divine hope to reopen other parts of the business such as restaurants, an art gallery, and a smaller performance space.)

At the moment, DSP has 17 shows scheduled in September between Gateway City Arts and the Academy of Music (an 18th performance is slated for Sept. 30 at the Pines Theater), with acts such as singers Madeline Peyroux and Joan Osborne, the Irish folk group The High Kings, and indie rock favorites Yo La Tengo in the mix.

Moreover, the company’s first Gateway show, an Aug. 2 split bill of Japanese Breakfast and Mannequin Pussy, sold out weeks ago.

“Ticket sales have been really strong,” said Sanders. He says DSP began scheduling fall shows earlier in the year, even though many were not initially advertised, on the assumption that conditions would be favorable for a return of indoor music in the Northeast by September.

“We could see by the pace of vaccinations and how states were approaching (the pandemic) that we could likely have live music again after Labor Day,” he said.

For September and October, the Iron Horse Entertainment Group has close to 30 shows scheduled between the Iron Horse and the Calvin Theatre. IHEG Marketing Director Jim Neill says the company also is booking shows for Pearl Street Nightclub, with all three venues “on target to open with full capacity and any regulations that may be in place by then.”

Possible trouble?

Indeed, ticket sales for local venues are available without restriction, as managers and planners have felt confident a full audience can be brought in, given about 80% of Massachusetts residents have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Yet they’re also watching the spread of the delta variant and a recent increase in COVID infections, both in the state and nationwide, mostly among people who have not been vaccinated.

“We’re following all the state and local guidelines” for COVID, said Debra J’Anthony, executive director of the Academy of Music. “We can’t wait to welcome people back [in September], but we’ll make sure it can take place safely.”

Face masks might be required for audience members as a precaution, she notes, and staff at the Academy will also be required to be vaccinated. In addition, only bottled beverages and prepared packages of snacks will be sold at the concessions stand, J’Anthony said.

On July 28, the CDC issued new COVID guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people who live in areas with “substantial and high transmission” of the delta variant wear masks in indoor public spaces. Those areas include five counties in eastern Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe. However, Gov. Charlie Baker says he sees no need — yet — for more mask mandates in the state.

For the Watermelon Wednesdays series, which will continue from August into September, longtime producer Paul Newlin is asking unvaccinated people not to attend the shows; he hopes to make live-streamed or videotaped versions of the concerts available online.

DSP has also just updated its guidelines for concerts at Gateway City Arts. Ticket holders will now need to show proof of a full COVID vaccination, or proof of a negative COVID test within the past 48 hours. Unvaccinated people also will be required to wear masks.

Hopefully, further safeguards won’t be needed, said Sanders. Earlier this summer, he noted, “We had 11 shows, and all of them took place without any problems.”

Outdoor shows

In the meantime, outdoor music returns to the Pines Theater Wednesday, Aug. 4 when Northampton singer-songwriter Roger Salloom offers his 37th annual summer show; the concert was canceled last year, and Salloom says the theme for this year’s concert is “Welcome Back to Normal.”

DSP productions has two shows on tap at the Pines Theater, though one, the blues band Tedeschi Trucks on Aug. 16, has already sold out. On Aug. 24, venerable progressive rockers King Crimson come to the theater. And Transperformance, the annual fundraising concert for arts programs in Northampton schools that features area bands impersonating other artists, takes place Aug. 17.

A new wrinkle this year at the Pines is Signature Sounds’ first annual Back Porch Bluegrass Festival on Aug. 15. Olsen said it’s an outgrowth of Signature’s annual Back Porch Festival, a series of roots music concerts the company has presented for the last several years in late winter, but which had to be canceled this year due to the pandemic.

When a couple other summer bluegrass festivals in Massachusetts were canceled this year, “We saw an opportunity to do this, and luckily we were able to pull it together,” he said.

The Aug. 15 show, from noon to 7:30 p.m., will take place at the Pines Theater and on a smaller stage that Signature will put up nearby for solo artists; the lineup includes bluegrass legends such as Del McCoury and Tony Trischka as well as up-and-coming acts and local favorites such as Mamma’s Marmalade.

Meantime, tickets have been selling very well for the Green River Festival Aug. 27-29, Olsen says, with only limited numbers left.

Tickets are still on tap for Barbes in the Woods Aug. 21 in Montague, presented by Laudable Productions of Easthampton, which brings a number of bands connected to Brooklyn, New York to western Massachusetts, along with art installations, impromptu theater performances, and more. Tickets are also available for the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival Aug. 14, which features a wide range of jazz, blues and fusion music.

For Olsen, the joy of hearing live music came back to him in early July when he went to the Red Wings Roots Festival in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, a music fest with a vibe similar to that of Green River.

“The emotion coming off the stage and in the audience, the amount of love you felt — it was incredible,” he said. “It was like ‘This is what we’ve all been missing.’ I can’t wait to have that feeling back again.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at
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