Bit by bit, the world is opening up.
You can go in the Wawa without a mask. Instead of cardboard cut-outs, there are fans booing umpires in the stands at baseball games. Graduation celebrations now include grandparents and lots of hugging. And while few of us have completely put away the concerns and uneasiness that living in a COVID world produced, folks seem more than ready to get back to enjoying some version of pre-pandemic life.
One signal for me that THIS summer will be more summer-like is that outdoor concert venues are welcoming audiences for live-and-in-person shows.
In fact, when I saw the BRE Presents summer line-up at Appel Farm – Indigo Girls in June, Tedeschi Trucks Band in July (sorry, that one is sold out), and The Hooters in August – I felt like throwing a party!
But the path from then to now has been anything but breezy and, now that we are emerging, I am curious to learn about the impact of this journey on the music industry.
I recently talked with two people responsible for booking performers – Rich Mancinelli, Vice President at BRE Presents, and Lou Reichert, Music Coordinator for The Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton, and to musician Rob Hyman from The Hooters.
And my first question to each of them was “When did you know…?”
“Almost immediately,” Mancinelli said emphatically. “When the NBA and then the other professional sports teams shut down their seasons, I knew things were serious.”
“There were concerts booked that week and that weekend. It was hectic. We had all the states’ governors’ Twitter feeds up, watching constantly.”
“We were rescheduling, and then rescheduling again,” he continued. “It was like we were kicking a can down the road.
At first, Mancinelli imagined this to be a short-lived crisis. “I left food in the fridge at work,” he said. “We all joked that it was the longest two weeks ever.”
Reichert agreed. “We hosted two shows in the first week in March and, after that, nothing.”
These ever-changing circumstances certainly challenged people who book acts and run venues. But for the artists, it was a dead stop.
“It was tough for everyone,” Mancinelli said, “but hardest for the artists.”
“Musicians couldn’t tour,” Reichert said. “They weren’t making any money.”
Rob Hyman provided a band perspective. To commemorate The Hooters’ 40th anniversary, the group developed a multi-year performing schedule that included several overseas shows for the summer and fall of 2020.
“We were supposed to start in June and tickets were selling like gangbusters,” he said. “2020 was looking to be one of our best years ever.”
“Then things started to collapse, one after another,” he said, “like dominoes.”
And what was his moment of reckoning?
“When I heard that Tom Hanks – ‘Mr. All America’ – tested positive, well…” Hyman trailed off.
We all experienced an adjustment period – trying to stay abreast of changing guidelines and keep active and connected. But for some folks in the entertainment field, who were accustomed to maintaining a high-energy lifestyle, the change between before and during was especially dramatic.
With that in mind, another question I asked was, “What kept you sane?” Not surprisingly, the answers ranged from deadpan to serious.
“What makes you think I didn’t go crazy?” Reichert joked. But then he reminded me that The Lizzie Rose Music Room is a no-profit, staffed and run by volunteers, and no one collects a paycheck.
“Fortunately, it was never a financial situation for me,” he said.
At BRE, Mancinelli said he was able to retain his team. “It’s a small, tight staff,” he said, “and fortunately we could keep everyone working.”
“At times, it felt like a very long tunnel, with not much light. But we knew there would be another side, so we just tried to keep our eyes ahead and make sure things were in place for when things opened again.”
“Thank goodness for the internet,” he said.
For Hyman, who has played music professionally for half a decade-plus, the physical and artistic confinement was challenging.
“I tried to keep in touch with people,” he said. “I also got outside as much as possible and went jogging every day, even in the winter. It helped me get re-energized.”
He was also doing a lot of Zoom things, but, as we all know, that gets old.
“There is no substitute for getting out there and playing,” said Hyman.
So, now we are here. It is the Summer of 2021. We are blinkingly coming out of the gloom into a brighter place. But how, exactly, do we go about making such a sharp shift in behavior and mindset?
For the Lizzie Rose, indoor shows were not an option. The listening room there is a cozy gem that seats 70 people but, with the future so uncertain, Lou Reichert had to be proactive and find an alternate venue – the Pavilion in the Pines at the Atlantic Shore Pines Campground, just down the road a piece from the Lizzie Rose Music Room.
And since touring performers may not have resumed a travel-based schedule, Reichert started out the concert season by reaching out to several regional bands who could more reliably get to the show.
The summer concert line-up is like what LRMR presents all year long – a mix of top-notch tribute bands, singer-songwriters, folk artists, rock ‘n’ rollers, and a whole lotta blues – in a beautiful open-air setting. There is also free parking, concessions for sale, a BYOB policy, and chairs in the pavilion so guests won’t need to schlep their own.
“We started in June and have hosted four shows so far, with two sell-outs,” he said. “The audience response has been positive, and the campground owners are a joy to work with.”
“The only thing they ask is that we wrap up the shows by 10:00 PM.” It is a family-friendly site, after all, and those little campers need their quiet time.
So, now that they have a few post-lockdown shows under their belts, how are the folks at BRE feeling?
“We don’t want to go too far ahead of the leash,” Mancinelli said, “but we are cautiously optimistic.”
The Indigo Girls appearance at Appel Farm in June was really special, he told me. “It almost had a family reunion feel, with the audience clearly so excited to be there with each other.”
And the backstage scene was the same. “You’re seeing people you haven’t seen in such a long time,” he said. “Honestly, there was a sense of relief, of a much-needed return to normalcy and a happy time.”
And the lessons learned? “Two things: I now genuinely appreciate the resiliency and adaptability of the music community,” Mancinelli said, “and acknowledge what an important outlet music is for so many – artists and audience.”
Hyman agrees. “There is longevity. What is solid survives,” he said. “You don’t retire from music. You just keep playing.”
And, as a last thought, Hyman invites everyone to come to Appel Farm on August 14. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.
“Bring the family. Get Hooterized!”