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From what we hear, sounds like the return of live music

Philly concert venues are ready to get back to normal.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong light up the stage at the Ardmore Music Hall. All around the city and surrounding areas, venues are preparing for the – hopeful – return of live, in-person concerts soon. | Image: Jade Frias

After 14 months of laptop live events, Streamyard/StageIt gigs, Zoom rock-outs, Instagram rap battles, Tik Tok jazz jams, and iPhone operas, the real thing is quickly popping-up and soaring back to life. Between now and autumn, real, face-front-to-stage, shoulder-to-shoulder concerts are returning.

That means, so far, new, large-scale tours (e.g. Bad Bunny, Eric Church, Genesis), and rescheduled events due to COVID (Roger Waters, Ringo Starr). That means independent venues quickly fashioning schedules they hope aren’t tentative, while slowly and patiently dealing with necessary Save Our Stages/National Independent Venue Association funding and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant applications. That means venues from Union Transfer to Sellersville Theatre, from World Café Live to Scottish Rite, from Johnny Brenda’s to Ardmore Music Hall, from Connie’s Ric Rac to the Keswick, from the Mann Center and Franklin Music Hall to South Jazz Parlor to Chris’ and TIME in Midtown Village. That means small-scale, day-or-so-long festivals such as West Philly’s Porchfest in June, as well as bigger fests such as Hall & Oates’ HoagieNation 2021 in August at the Mann.

Presently, there are huge question marks over annual outdoor mini-festivals such as The Roots’ Picnic and Jay-Z’s Labor Day soiree at the art museum circle, Made in America (the latter three are booked-promoted by Live Nation, the world’s concert corporation whose optimism rose, as did its stock’s strengths, during the pandemic, despite its complete lack of staged concerts for the last 14 months). Then again, Dover, Del.’s Firefly Music Festival just announced Sept. 23 to 26 dates for the Woodlands. And WXPN-FM’s XPonential Fest on the Camden, N.J., Waterfront may allow its concert slot for Sept. 17 to 19 to be a live showcase, mixed with online performances.

All of this back and forth would fell lesser people, but the music biz is a resilient biz.

“I know it’s been a stressful journey for all promoters and talent buyers here in Philly…I’m just glad that our rooms are seeing some sort of relief,” said local booker-promoter Marley McNamara.

McNamara was talking about the hassles of Save Our Stages cash, which is dedicated to aiding independent venues, supposedly in the area of billions of dollars in relief, but taking its time in doing so. 

“It’s sad that we had to lose a place like Boot & Saddle to this pandemic, and we’re fortunate to not have lost many more, although that was a major loss.”

The Disco Biscuits perform at the Ardmore Music Hall. The venue’s long-standing live stream studio program helped it weather the pandemic. | Image: Jade Frias

Locally, nationally and internationally, the business of live music is a beyond-billion-dollar economic engine that needs constant refueling to keep its motors running. And while the pandemic allowed concert corps such as Live Nation and AEG, booking-showplace chains such as City Winery, and individual local artists on their Instagram and Facebook pages (e.g. Low Cut Connie, Martha Graham Cracker, Orrin Evans) a chance to strut their stuff, most would agree that it’s time to get to work in front of audiences again.

That’s the case even if India and Brazil are experiencing their harshest COVID-19 death waves yet – even if Germany recently reinforced its strictest lockdown policy since the start of the pandemic. And even if massive tours such as Justin Bieber (just the other day) moved its schedule to 2022. If that means masks, social distancing and the fact that still – to date – only 30 percent of the U.S. has been vaccinated, somehow, Philly and its environs is now ready for live music to restart. 

One delicious indicator that concert life is – and will be on track for 2021 – is that Louis Landro, one of the most familiar and friendly faces on the Philly live music scene, is raring to go. Landro isn’t only a live music lover and an appreciative attendee. He acts, daily and nightly as an audience concierge at venues such as the Tower Theatre and The Mann, the latter where he happened to be back in action as of last weekend.

“It was just so absolutely exhilarating to be back,” said Landro, who worked an Opera Philadelphia event at The Mann, and will again, for Opera Philadelphia’s “The Drama of Tosca” (May 7, 9), as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Hail to the Heroes concert (May 15). 

“People were appreciative to get out, see each other, talk, socialize. That was wonderful to see and hear. Face it, mentally, as well as economically, we need to get back to the live event – people still need to be responsible when they’re out. Masked. Distanced. But, it was really just so nice to be part of live music again, and in such a pretty environment as the Mann.”

Artists such as outlaw country doyen Eric Church know too well the need to get back to stages such as that of the Wells Fargo Center (Oct. 9); not just to drive his, or music-at-large’s economic engine. Church’s readiness is about getting out of the miserable psychic fugue state Americans find themselves in after too long of a lockdown.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done by 50 billion miles,” Church told Variety about being one of the first artists to book new tours in 2021. 

“Because the target moves every day. Things may adapt. But we’re doing this. We’re going to strap on guitars, gather people together, and we’re going to start to pull people out of this nosedive…Once the vaccine becomes widely available, sometime this month or May, it became a little bit aggressive, but coming into summer, I felt as if we were going to be in a good spot going forward for fall. We could do what a lot of people did, and punt to ’22. But I’ve been as concerned about the country, and our psyche with the lack of music and sports and connection, the isolation…There was an opportunity for us to lead. We took the attitude that we’re going to do this.”

Artists such as Church surely didn’t get into the business of singing, songwriting and jamming so to work, additionally, as epidemiologists. 

“I have been involved in calls with municipalities, state authorities and scientists, all this stuff,” said Church. 

“I never could see a way for us to test our way into touring. Not for the many people we play to. Maybe five or 10 states, but you’d never be able to play in 50 states without the vaccine.”

Yet, a larger part of the responsibility to both audiences, venue owners, producers and backers, going forward, is on the backs of those same venue operators and bookers. Several venue owners/bookers wouldn’t speak for this story – not because they don’t want publicity for their events. Rather, some are still fussing and fighting to get government loans and grants…Some simply face the very real panic of having to drop, again postpone or drastically reschedule shows and tours as COVID numbers head north during fall and winter months.”

“If we had to go through what we went through in 2020 and early 2021, this would be catastrophic to the entire industry on a scale I wouldn’t even try and predict or speak out loud at this point,” said World Café Live General Manager Kerri Park.

Billy Strings performs on stage at World Cafe Live, one of the Philly venues eager to get back to live shows. | Image: Jay Strausser

To some, pushing the restart button on local concerts seemed to be a distant reality, one met with blissful relief and ecstatic enthusiasm upon the recent shifts in April and May.

“I did fear a little that this chapter would never end and glanced into other careers I could pivot into with whatever skill sets I have,” said McNamara, who threw bands on the roof of Johnny Brenda’s as early as July 2020. Johnny Brenda’s assistant talent buyer, head showrunner and handler of local and regional booking, is in charge of everything from advancing the shows to settling with the bands each night. 

“I live there when there’s not a pandemic happening,” she said.

In addition to that, McNamara currently promotes and talent-buys for Human Robot Brewing Co.’s summer outdoor concert series at Sunflower Philly, and has been a manager for emerging Philly acts, most famously, The Districts, during her 15-year tenure in the local music biz.

Ken Correll, Jake Atkinson and Jimmy Everhart at Human Robot rented the community-driven Sunflower space (curated by Melvin Powell) for happy hour events with live music. Since April’s start, the ticketed series has sold out its announced shows, this together with the fact that Sunflower had been holding their own events there with a limited capacity. 

“Our combined teams make sure that the Human Robot events go off without a hitch with CDC guidelines and the spacing-out of everything,” said McNamara. 

“I honestly knew that these shows would do well because I know how badly people miss live music. The response has been enormous. Hence, the sold-out shows. Plus, it’s been a bit overwhelming trying to keep up with all the inquiries from bands wanting to play. I feel bad I can’t give everyone the opportunity. And the great thing about Sunflower is that even a sold-out show looks like it’s half full because there’s so much space to move around and spread out. Normally, in this business, it’s a bummer if your show looks half empty, but post-COVID, that’s a win, baby!”

With dates filling up fast for the inside of Johnny Brenda’s (they’re taking holds for fall and winter and announcing shows as they see fit), McNamara welcomes the reopening of all of the city’s rooms, as well as witnessing, firsthand, how seriously venue owners and promoters take CDC guidelines and restrictions. 

“So, I’m not at all worried about any of these shows getting out-of-hand or over-packed,” she added, before heaping high praise on a local music scene that stayed strong and unified, COVID-19 and beyond.

“In a lot of ways, the scene is very close-knit and collaborative. I knew that the people and the venues in our scene would support each other and lean on one another and that’s exactly what happened from what I saw. As far as the musicians go, I’ve been sent some of the best work I’ve heard from our bands over the last year or so and I’m even more pumped to book all these folks again whether it be at Sunflower or later on at JB’s so they can showcase their COVID masterpieces! There’s so much music to be excited about. It’s wild.”

Park is used to navigating complex operations, between doling out live music, dealing with musicians, crew and managers, and serving food to the West Philly and university-area communities. With that, being non-operational as a live venue (yet, open as a take-out restaurant) has taken a toll. 

“It’s forced me to flex new leadership muscles, and I’m fortunate to have retained a team that has handled the ever-changing landscape like champs,” said Park. 

“There have definitely been dark moments where you wonder if your empty space will ever be full again, but, I am more hopeful by the day we will all get to return to doing what we love the most and watching artists and guests connect in person.” 

Unlike many venues, when the Small Business Administration successfully opened the SVOG portal in April, World Café Live logged-in, applied with ease, and is currently waiting on approval status and a potential fund disbursement timeline. Most notable is that World Café Live CEO Hal Real was one of Save Our Stages’ prime movers, founders and motivators. 

“We fought very hard for the original SVOG legislation knowing it would be the lifeline that we – and some many other independent venues – would need to truly plan their re-opening,” said Park. 

“Without SVOG, it’s a pretty devastating path forward, but we are confident we will receive our grant and are planning our autumn accordingly.”

Currently announcing indoor shows in October and beyond, Park claimed that the majority of her talks with Real are conversations around the topics of comfort, safety and distance for audience, venue crew and musician. 

“It’s important that all stars align and that all parties involved feel safe and comfortable gathering indoors again,” she said. 

“We’re carefully monitoring situations nationally, following the science, and convening with city officials and our peers to try and navigate the best path forward. We believe there will be a time this year when our staff, artists and guests will be ready to work indoors together again, and we’re making sure our facility and our protocols will positively support those efforts. Not everyone will be ready at the same time, but, the best we can do is use our own comfort as a guide and stay cautiously optimistic.” 

With that, Park is in a state of amazement at how long and involved even the smallest processes have become. 

“What’s weird is how much time we now spend focusing on announcing shows. That used to be a very fast and small part of my week, and now it’s almost the entire conversation.”

Sunflower Hill Concerts already are proving to be a popular choice among concert-goers. | Image: Birdie Busch

Beyond the hassle of belabored work schedules, Park is proud that this local music scene, as competitive as it can be, clings together as would family. 

“I could not be more in awe of the perseverance of our local independent scene,” she said. “Everyone has done what they could to hold on and to support each other and it’s been incredible to be a part of that journey. The heartbreaking fact of the matter though still remains that most of us have been digging a serious financial hole with zero revenue and negative cash flows for over a year, and SVOG dollars will literally be the determining factor in survival.”

Like Sy Sperling, what is most interesting about Chris Perella, is that he not only owns Ardmore Music Hall. He is its head booker, one who commenced his COVID shutdown not only with massive renovations to his Main Street Ardmore live venue, but with staged, distanced live shows and online gigs. 

“The fact that we’re talking now for a story about reopening, alone, shows that there is momentum; that people want this,” said Perella. 

“We’re kicking-up steam fast…thawing after having chilled last year.” 

A big aid to maintaining the AMH brand was the fact that the venue has long had a live streaming studio program in place for fans outside of the area.

The first AMH live stream events that came in February 2021, after its multi-million-dollar renovation, allowed Perella to see what live music would look like in a safe and distanced way. “Having Robert Randolph and the Disco Biscuits play, even to 25 people when we could have done 125 made us decide to re-start our engines.” (Ardmore is in Montgomery County, which forever allowed higher percentages, currently at 25 percent of capacity.)

Presently allowed to host 150 people at Ardmore Music Hall, Perella said he had an easier time at the SVOG portal (“no tech errors, no glitches”) than its early April mis-step, and is waiting for his application to be dealt with, and his case and hopeful cash-out, closed. 

“We keep hearing we’ll get some funding in May, and that it will be divided in buckets depending on how much revenue the venue lost. Within those same buckets, it’s first-come, first-served, in terms of when applications are dealt with.” 

Money, luckily, wasn’t a problem for Ardmore Music Hall when booking acts, something other venues have had to dip deep into wells of reserves to keep up with, and-or compete for shows. At the start of the pandemic, Perella cancelled around 50 percent of its shows, outright, rather than moving the ball down the field. Yet Perella continued conversations with booking agents last spring, so little ever slowed for Ardmore Music Hall.

“Along with planning for our renovations, and breaking ground, we were unique in the Philly venue-scape in that we never went into full hibernation during the pandemic,” said Perella. “Through debt and other creative means, we were able to proceed with the renovation during downtime, and because we had a pre-existing livestream infrastructure in place before the pandemic, we could keep that going. We re-branded – created new merch for the store. We didn’t furlough every last person, and shut every light off like other venues. Because of that, we retained more overhead, and now, it is in our best interest to start making a dent in the losses of 2020 and 2021 as soon as possible.”

Soon as possible means now, considering that AMH has sold out live shows with old faves such as Disco Biscuits, G Love and Chuck Treece this month, with dozens of additional shows following through winter. 

“A venue that went into full hibernation may very well believe that they should cut their losses, and stay closed, until they can re-open closer to normal. For us, it made sense from the start, to do anything we felt was safe, get our legs under us, give our team some work, and make some money.”

Following all regulations that Montgomery County requires – it isn’t exactly Texas, but it is more forgiving. AMH will focus on masks at all times (“even between sips and bites”), spacing and no congregating while still making sure audiences have an intimate good time. 

“This isn’t dinner – you’re at a show for far longer, many hours, and artists wish to feel as comfortable and safe as audiences,” said Perella. 

“I think clubs the size of ours will bounce back faster and stronger than large venues because we have to deal with less total bodies, which is different psychologically. Plus, I think there is a real spirit of generosity among audiences to want to support smaller, independent venues after all this mess.”

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  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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