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‘Every band that ever existed wants to tour’: The Philadelphia concert calendar is about to get swamped

Live music has been nearly nonexistent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's about to change, really fast.

“The wild rush of tour and festival announcements has been dizzying,” says Chris Perella, co-owner and talent buyer at Ardmore Music Hall, where limited-capacity shows are already underway.
“The wild rush of tour and festival announcements has been dizzying,” says Chris Perella, co-owner and talent buyer at Ardmore Music Hall, where limited-capacity shows are already underway.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Since the pandemic shuttered the live music business, Philadelphia concert bookers have scheduled, unscheduled, and rescheduled shows over and over again, hoping that someday they might actually happen.

Now they’re about to all happen at once.

Wednesday’s news that Made in America will be back on the Parkway Labor Day weekend was the latest in an avalanche of announcements as pop music springs back to life.

“The wild rush of tour and festival announcements has been dizzying,” says Chris Perella, co-owner and talent buyer at Ardmore Music Hall

“Things are completely insane,” agrees Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment, who books The Locks in Manayunk and other venues.

The crazed pace of bookings has even sparked a new worry: Will there be enough ticket buyers to go around?

» READ MORE: Made in America is returning to the Parkway on Labor Day weekend

Amphitheater schedules are filling up fast: The Dell Music Center kicks off an R&B and jazz series on Aug. 5, and the Mann Center serves up Hoagie Nation with Hall & Oates and Squeeze on Aug. 7, My Morning Jacket with Brittany Howard on Sept. 8., the Struts on Sept. 10, and Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Fest on Sept. 11, to name a few.

The BB&T Pavilion in Camden has Chicago on July 17, Jimmy Buffett on Aug. 12, and the MMR*B*Q with Jane’s Addiction and Cheap Trick on Sept. 25, among others.

And with Philadelphia lifting all COVID-19 limits and allowing full-capacity shows starting June 11, action is also moving indoors. The first indoor gig on the City Winery calendar is indie band San Fermin on June 12. Ardmore Music Hall, the Sellersville Theater, and South Jazz Kitchen have already been doing reduced-capacity shows. Joey DeFrancesco plays South on July 1 and 2.

Union Transfer, which is set to open Aug. 7 with three nights of Japanese Breakfast, is booked solidly through May 2022, says Sean Agnew of R5 Productions — longer in advance than it ever has been.

Other indie venues like World Cafe Live and Johnny Brenda’s also have packed schedules for fall and beyond, and opening dates are creeping forward. Tobin Sprout opens Johnny Brenda’s Aug. 14.

“Every band that ever existed wants to tour,” says Point Entertainment’s Lundy. “And they’re starting to reach back into summer. ‘Hey, have you got July 29 available?’”

The Met Philadelphia gets back in business with violinist Lindsey Stirling on Aug. 3, and high-profile shows include John Legend on Aug. 26. The Franklin Music Hall has August Burns Red on Sept. 9 and Julien Baker on Sept. 15. And concerts return to the Wells Fargo Center with Blake Shelton on Sept. 2.

Outdoor music festivals are a go again, too, largely clustered in late summer and fall. Scranton’s jam band Peach Music Festival is first on the docket locally, July Fourth weekend, followed by MIA over Labor Day weekend, the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden Sept. 17-19, and the Billie Eilish-headlined Firefly Festival in Delaware Sept. 23-26.

The Philadelphia Folk Song Society announced Thursday that it will put on a “pocket-size” Philadelphia Folk Festival on Aug. 21 and 22 at a new location, the Spring Mountain Ski Area in Upper Salford Township, Pa., for fans to attend in person or stream digitally (or both). The other fest that’s a staple of the Philly summer season — the Roots Picnic — is still in limbo, with no announcement yet.

Dates are in place for other destination festivals around the country like Lollapalooza (July 29-Aug. 1), Bonnaroo (Sept. 17-19), and the New Orleans Jazz Fest (Oct. 8-17).

Expect more to come. So many shows have been announced with short lead times in the last month that “I can’t even wrap my head around it,” says Ardmore’s Perella. “It’s crazy.”

» READ MORE: Will there be music festivals in 2021? Firefly and XPoNential are on schedule to return.

Some venues limit crowds

Music bookers say the explosion results from plenty of planning — and replanning — during the shutdown.

Hal Real of World Cafe Live says Pokey LaFarge, who’s playing the University City venue Nov. 12, is one of many acts that needed to be rescheduled three times. At Union Transfer, Agnew says he’s canceled 358 shows since March of last year.

Behind the scenes, the action never let up. “The churn never stopped,” says Agnew. “There was never a week where we weren’t confirming shows.” (Agnew co-owned the late Boot & Saddle and said he expects R5 to pick up the slack from its closure with 30 shows this fall at all-ages venues First Unitarian Church and, once it reopens, PhilaMOCA.)

The burst of announcements now is the result of this “maddening amount of scrambling and reshuffling that went on,” says Perella.

With all that prep, the industry was ready as COVID-19 case numbers fell and restrictions were lifted, he says. “When confidence rose, people just wanted to get going … like, ‘All right, let’s do this thing.’ I think that’s the conclusion that everybody reached, all at once.”

But many promoters are reticent to rush in to full-capacity shows when audiences might still be uneasy.

At Ardmore Music Hall, Perella is sticking to an initial plan of limiting crowds to 150 (out of 600) capacity in a series that winds up with jazz guitarist John Scofield on July 31. “That reduced number feels pretty good to everybody,” he says.

Waiting till August “gives us another three months to figure this out,” says Agnew. “What is going to happen with masks? What’s it going to be like to welcome people back? Bars and restaurants are going to go ahead of us, and we can learn from that.”

Outdoor festivals and stadium tours return

With so much uncertainty, many prepared for an outdoor summer. That means stadium shows like Green Day (Aug. 20) and Dead & Co. (Aug. 21) at Citizens Bank Park and Phish on the Atlantic City beach (Aug. 13-15), but also such intimate gatherings as the Shady Grove shows at Arden Concert Gild in Delaware and the Sunflower Philly series in Kensington booked by Johnny Brenda’s talent buyer Marley McNamara, where Philly rocker Ali Awan plays June 18.

David Pianka, the promoter of Philadelphia’s roving dance party Making Time, is putting on a limited-capacity series on the deck of the Moshulu starting June 18, when he and Avalon Emerson will DJ.

He began planning the series — and a Making Time 21st anniversary blowout at Fort Mifflin on Sept. 11 — in January. “My feeling all along was that when summer comes, and it’s safe to do so, we should just do events outdoors,” he says. “And then we don’t have to go indoors until we have to.”

At the Dell Music Center, Susan Slawson books one of Philadelphia’s most attractive outdoor venues. Its annual summer R&B and jazz series was on hiatus last year because of the pandemic, and Slawson held off booking shows for this year until the city, which owns the Dell, announced June 11 as its reopening date.

But now it’s official: An abridged Dell series will run for four Thursdays starting Aug. 5. Artists and dates aren’t locked in yet, but Slawson expects Babyface, Gregory Porter, and SWV to be among the acts.

“Until the CDC and the mayor said it was OK, we weren’t doing anything,” Slawson says. But even at the last minute, artists and their agents have been receptive. “Some are going to sit it out, but most are ready to get out there.”

» READ MORE: Find more great things to do in our weekly events calendar

Shuttered Venue Operators Grants and other reasons for hope

As venues prepare to reopen, there are still causes for concern. Many are still awaiting Shuttered Venue Operators Grant money that is part of a $16.3 billion program being administered at a snail’s pace by the Small Business Administration.

Though the program was created in December, the application process didn’t begin until late April. World Cafe Live’s Real, who cofounded the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) last spring, says “lots of NIVA members around the country are barely hanging on as they wait for SVOG money.”

And many worry that with everything reopening at once, fans will be presented with too many options.

“For everybody involved, there’s definitely a concern that while there’s a ton of pent-up demand, there’s only so much time and money that people can spend,” says Perella. “Will it hurt the festivals or the clubs more? I don’t know.”

“There are only so many dollars out there,” Agnew says. “There are only so many shows that people can go to. So far, ticket sales have been great. But it’s constantly in the back of my mind.”

But considering the critical status that the Philadelphia music scene has been in, there are plenty of reasons to be positive, says Gerald Veasley, head of advocacy group Jazz Philadelphia.

“The biggest hurdle was for the venues to remain in business,” says the bassist, who books the Unscripted Jazz Series at South. “We have lost some, but I don’t think we’ve lost any fans. We’ve had a supply problem, not a demand problem.”

As Philadelphia emerges from the pandemic, live music feels more necessary than ever.

“There’s been a lot of stress with this COVID,” says the Dell’s Slawson. “Last year, we didn’t know if we were going to able to do some of the things we did in the past. When we open the doors, we will be able to give you the sense that things are going to be OK. Music takes you somewhere else. Music helps you feel like there’s hope. And we need that.”

» READ MORE: Our best Philly tips: Read our most useful stories