Back in May when Wilco and Sleater-Kinney announced their 2021 It’s Time tour, which is playing the Mann Center on Sunday, Jeff Tweedy and Carrie Brownstein made a funny Facebook video.
The clip shows Wilco leader Tweedy and S-K guitarist Brownstein chatting. “Thankfully, the pandemic seems like it’s almost run its course,” Tweedy says, though it’s not his voice you hear but a computer-generated one that underscores the distant, otherworldly quality of life during COVID.
“Let’s remember rock and roll concerts … are historically a wonderful place to meet like-minded people in a setting that allows for feelings of euphoria and community,” Brownstein enthuses, also in an unsettling robot voice. “Feelings most people are quite in need of after a year and a half absence from group settings and large gatherings.”
Indeed we are. And now that live music has returned, there are suddenly large gatherings galore across the Philadelphia region. Summer shows are happening in amphitheaters, stadiums, and on the beach. Indoor clubs and theaters are back in business.
But euphoria? So far, that’s been hard to come by, thanks to anxieties over the delta variant and the rise in COVID cases locally and in alarming hot spots nationally.
Concerts are going on, though acts like Garth Brooks and Stevie Nicks have canceled shows.
Some events, like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival and the in-person portion of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, have been nixed. (The all-virtual Folk Fest is happening this weekend.)
But the live music business is still moving ahead, even if it’s not the carefree fall that we all imagined when case numbers tumbled this spring. Instead, promoters, venues, and bands are updating protocols to respond to shifting news, and risk assessment is now an uneasy part of concertgoing.
I’ve been back at it this month — going to shows where it’s impossible to avoid crowds, and wondering why I’m spending time with thousands of strangers.
I started out with Philly band Japanese Breakfast, sold out inside the 1,200-capacity Union Transfer. Then Hall & Oates’ Hoagie Nation, with 10,000-plus at the Mann. And last weekend, a big kahuna with 37,000 Phish fans on the beach in Atlantic City.
I had circled the Japanese Breakfast show for months, but as it approached, I got anxious. Last year, when venues were lobbying for federal assistance, the head of the National Independent Venues Association, Dayna Frank, called the concert business “a post-vaccine industry.”
But suddenly, my two Moderna shots didn’t seem quite enough concertgoing armor.
So I was relieved when Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast announced that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test would be required at all her shows. And also that — ahead of the city’s mask mandate announced the following week — the venue was requiring masks be worn inside.
The show turned out to be fabulous, an emotional homecoming. And it was also calming. Mask compliance seemed universal, the checking of vaccine cards at the door went smoothly.
You need to be comfortable to feel euphoric, and as the show went on, I was getting there. But was it really safe? Who knows, I’m not an epidemiologist — and this novel, mutating virus has had some tricks up its sleeve.
The industry has been rallying behind a strategy of vax-or-a-test-or-you-don’t-get-in, with Japanese Breakfast and Nashville songwriter Jason Isbell, who plays the Met Philly on Sept. 15, leading the way. The City Winery venue chain, including Philadelphia’s, also adopted the policy, as have other venues like the reopened PhilaMOCA.
Protocols are gaining strength, even at outdoor festivals. Jay-Z’s Made In America on Labor Day weekend is requiring either a vax or a test, plus masks inside the gates.
The Making Time dance party at Fort Mifflin on Sept. 11 — with James Murphy as headliner — will require a vax or a test. And a spokesperson for WXPN-FM (88.5) says the station expects to announce soon that both Camden’s Wiggins Park and BB&T Pavilion will follow that policy for the XPoNential Music Festival from Sept. 17 to 19.
Worries that festivals would be super spreaders were stoked with images of maskless crowds at Lollapalooza in Chicago. But proof of a vaccine, or a test, was required at that Live Nation fest, and case numbers did not skyrocket: The four-day festival attracted 385,000, and Chicago health officials reported 203 COVID cases connected to the event.
AEG Presents, the second-biggest concert company behind Live Nation, is implementing a vax or test policy at all venues and festivals, where legally permitted. And starting Oct. 1, a test won’t be enough: All shows will be vax-only for fans and employees.
Locally, that includes Valerie June on Sept. 11 at the Keswick Theatre and Julien Baker on Sept. 15 at Franklin Music Hall, as well as Delaware’s massive Firefly Festival, which Billie Eilish kicks off Sept. 23.
At Live Nation shows, a vax or a test will be required at all venues and festivals (also where legally permitted), but not until Oct. 4. Until then, it’s up to the band’s discretion, a way forward also being followed by indie venues like Johnny Brenda’s and Ardmore Music Hall.
In practice, that means a different risk calculus for almost every gig.
When I went to Phish, neither vaxes nor masks were required. My only angsty moment came was when I got caught in a cattle chute trying to leave the breezy beach. A wasted Phish fan was breathing towardsme when I realized my mask was tucked under my chin. Hope you didn’t give me COVID, dude!
Green Day’s Hella Mega tour stop at Citizens Bank Park Friday didn’t require vaccines, and masks were only required in indoor spaces. But on Saturday for Dead & Company a vax or test is needed to get in.
The Dead are part of a trend of older artists being careful. “At my age, I’m being extremely cautious,” Nicks, 73, said in announcing cancellations. Neil Young, 75, pulled out of Sept. 25′s Farm Aid. “I don’t want to play until you feel safe,” he said.
Texas rocker Alejandro Escovedo, 70, was eloquent explaining why he’s canceling 2021 tour dates. “I always felt that rock n roll was a contact sport played in sweaty little clubs,” he wrote. “If even one of you became ill as a result of attending one of my shows, it would bear heavy on my soul.”
I’ve been bearing all this in mind as I think about which shows to go to for fun, and which to cover for The Inquirer. (Ideally, they overlap.) I will go to outdoor shows, especially if they’re vaxxed. I’ll go to indoor shows only if they’re vaxxed — even though it will mean I’ll miss some good ones. And I’m all for Philly’s indoor mask mandates.
I have faith in the vaccine to prevent serious illness, but I’d also rather not get sick at all, or risk infecting somebody else.
I’m headed to Wilco and Sleater-Kinney on Sunday, planning to get there early for Chicago rapper and singer NNamdi. That show requires proof of a vax or a test, the Mann is spacious and breezy, and there’s a mask mandate as well. Hopefully that will mean, for me at least, euphoria will ensue.