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Vaxxed venues, masked musicians

Philly’s music halls are pulled back into COVID’s fray

Philly’s Electric Candlelight will be back on stage to reopen Johnny Brenda’s next month. Image | Rachel Del Sordo

It’s another sweltering, humid early August night on Spring Garden Street, and Sean Agnew – the capo, curator and booker behind all things Union Transfer – is doing a job far beyond his purview, far beyond what he imagined he would have to do upon the return of live, indoor shows to his venue.

“I’m checking vaccine cards outside of UT, something I’ll be doing for Japanese Breakfast, too,” said Agnew, regarding just a few of the many sold-out shows coming through Union Transfer.

Though one-time Philadelphian Michelle Zauner’s record five sold-out Japanese Breakfast shows represented something fun for Agnew, his bands and his audience (UT renamed its coat check as “The Michelle Zauner Coat Check” in honor of her tenure behind the counter) as well as formidable (a return to live, indoor concerts in the region after 16 months away due to the pandemic’s first gleaming) – no sooner than we’re reawakened to packed houses with no masks and no social distance – we’re pulled back into COVID’s fray.

What started as summer’s return to unmasked, unbridled, boozy live concert weirdness – interrupted by the increasing physical dangers of the Delta variant – quickly became what Monty Python’s Flying Circus teased, satirically, as a “Spanish Inquisition.” 

Would proof of vaccination at concerts be a thing? Or forced masks? Or more? “Am I going to go to a restaurant or a concert and have to give blood just to get in?,” I overheard one patron outside of Butcher & Singer joke. 

At least I think he was joking. 

Would the same vax and mask requirements – its accompanying fatigue and MAGA-soaked political intrigue too – that infiltrated Philly restaurants (and annoy its operators) bug out live venue-going folk as well as the artists themselves? Would venues leave what was required from its audiences up to an artists’ Delta-related needs and wants?

And when would all the bitching begin, once proof of vaccination (or proof of a negative COVID test within the last 48 hours) AND masks would be required?

“There are lots of moving parts,” said Agnew. “We are moving forward with masks AND vaccine (or negative test) requirements for all shows until Oct. 1.”

One great example of what requirements look like, per artist, comes, for example, with the small print of Aug. 14’s UT show starring mewithoutyou: 

“Union Transfer requires that all attendees for both mewithoutYou shows be fully vaccinated (at least 14 days after last shot) OR have PCR-tested negative for COVID within 2 days prior to attending the show. If you are FULLY vaccinated, we ask that you please bring your vaccination card, a copy of your vaccination card, or have a legible photo of your vaccination card on your phone. If you are unvaccinated (or half-vaccinated) please bring a printed or digital copy of your recent negative COVID-19 PCR test results (2 days from the date of the show). If you cannot furnish proof of either a vaccine or negative test, we will refund your tickets in full, BUT, you will not be permitted inside the venue. We can process your refund in advance by emailing us at info@utphilly.com. Additionally, we at Union Transfer will be asking all patrons, along with all staff, to please wear a mask inside for the show except when eating or drinking. We can’t wait to finally see everyone and we really appreciate your understanding over the next few days!!”

With that, there will be artists who only are cool with all-vaccinated audiences and will not accept negative COVID PCR test results. Either way, if you want to get into Union Transfer, it is best to have a vax card and a mask. 

Union Transfer’s Sean Agnew and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner are pictured in front of the new coat check at UT. Union Transfer, like other Philly music venues, is confronting a new wave of COVID-related challenges. Image | Courtesy of Sean Agnew

“We issued post-show surveys to customers after each Japanese Breakfast show, and we received the same, exact answers and percentages; no interesting contrasts or experiences,” said Agnew when asked if he heard from audiences and artists/managers about having to go through re-masking, vax cards and the like – whether the decision is up to the artist, the venue or the city’s all mask and vax card mandate.

Every Philly venue and each artist – local and national –  has their own way of getting through Delta’s Pandemic 2.0. 

After previously announcing that it would leave all mask/vax enforcements up to its artists, Live Nation, on Aug. 13, updated its COVID-19 policy to require all artists, crew and attendees show proof of full vaccination or a negative test at its venues and upcoming festivals. In Philly, this includes The Fillmore, The Met, Theatre of Living Arts, Tower Theater, and any of its shows across the area at The Mann, Wells Fargo Center, the Borgata, the Kimmel Center and more. One of the biggest “mores” include Live Nation’s Made in America fest with Jay-Z during the Labor Day weekend, one where vaccines, and not just masks, are required to witness Justin Bieber and Megan Thee Stallion in full effect on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

“Vaccines are going to be your ticket back to shows, and as of October 4th we will be following the model we developed for Lollapalooza and requiring this for artists, fans and employees at Live Nation venues and festivals everywhere possible in the US,” Live Nation President and CEO Michael Rapino wrote in an email statement last Friday.

While Rolling Stone magazine noted that “Live Nation has also developed best practices for artists to request these policies at third party venues,” the nation’s largest concert company’s mandate was inspired by its success with Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival where attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. With little Delta spread because of its precautions, Live Nation was successful in Chi-town, and moved forward in turn. 

AEG Presents, the second-largest live music company in the country, which also books shows at Wells Fargo, Franklin Hall, the Kimmel and more, will also implement a stricter policy requiring proof of vaccination for ticket holders and event staff at all shows by Oct., proof of vaccination for ticket holders and crew at all the venues it owns or operates in the United States. “The date was chosen specifically to allow time for any eligible unvaccinated ticket holders and staff to reach fully vaccinated status should they choose to do so,” stated an AEG statement. This additional time also means that if you do not agree with the city’s or the venues’ needs for you to wear masks or get the vax, you have time to get the money back for your tickets. 

Proudly, no one interviewed was upset about some perceived loss of freedom or civil liberties. What each interviewee was most concerned about, naturally, was health for themselves, their families and their audiences, and the fear of going into another landslide of lost music, community and income.

When singer/songwriter turned venue owner Laura Mann reopens The Living Room at 35 East (now at 35 East Ardmore Avenue) on Sept. 4, it isn’t just a post-pandemic reawakening. Mann is moving her Living Room concept from what was once her cozy, intimate BYOB 40-seat venue next door to the Ardmore Music Hall, now, into a new, 400-seat space at the one-time Masonic Hall building. 

“I wasn’t looking for a larger venue,” said Mann. “It just happened that way. I can’t afford a liquor license, so I never looked for one. I had to close my 40-seat venue because of COVID, and during the shutdown I just thought I would look around. I always walked by the cool Mason building around the corner. Once I took a look inside I fell in love. When I asked the Mason’s what the address was they told me it’s 35 East Ardmore Avenue and our old address was 35 East Lancaster Ave. and my venue is called ‘The Living Room at 35 East,’’ and so it was meant to be.”

Though much larger than her former space, Mann won’t use her new Living Room to its full capacity so to maintain its parlor-plus look of plush couches, comfy chairs and cocktail tables (to go with its chill BYOB vibe and homemade dessert menu), as well as making extra space for distancing. 

“Because of the current surge I’m following the CDC  guidelines to promote the safety of everyone who works, performs and attends The Living Room,” said Mann, busy putting finishing touches on her new address, while wrapping up work on her new “Wouldn’t It Be Good” single. 

“I think everyone is going to have to make changes again. The nice thing about having a much larger venue is that I can socially distance my audience and I can also limit the number of tickets on sale. I haven’t received any special requests from artists yet. I have heard that some artists want everyone vaccinated before they perform there. Some venues are asking everyone to wear masks. I’m going to strongly encourage our audience and musicians to get fully vaccinated and to wear masks if they aren’t. In the future we may need to mandate vaccinations. I’m vaccinated and would have driven a thousand miles to get vaccinated if needed. I’m just hoping for the best. If we have to close again, we will and that would be heartbreaking, but all you can do is go with the flow and follow the guidelines and reschedule shows, which is painful for everyone.”

When singer/songwriter turned venue owner Laura Mann reopens The Living Room at 35 East, COVID social distancing will be part of her plan. Image | Courtesy of Laura Mann

Independent Philly promoter Dave Kiss of Dave Kiss Presents – internationally famous for booking the beloved Laura Jane Grace for an Aug. 21 gig at hair dye-dripping Rudy Giuliani’s Elba, Four Seasons Total Landscaping – just dropped his criteria for DKP shows at Kung Fu Necktie.

“All Dave Kiss Presents events will require proof of vaccination or negative test from 72 hours for admission until October 1st,” Kiss wrote. “After October 1st, admission will be proof of vaccine only. So you have 6 weeks to get it together if you’re not vaxxed.”

The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art – better known as PhilaMOCA in the Eraserhood at N. 12th – didn’t just come back from COVID when it reopened at the end of July 2021 for shows like Philly metal-punk ragers Sheer Mag gig Aug. 27-28. In September 2019, the venue was closed by L&I for fire safety concerns (resolved within 24 hours and immediately cleared from violation), a rezoning process that took several months, and time spent making well-deserved soundproofing upgrades and repairs to electrical systems and materials to meet new fire code regulations. 

“I am fully vaxxed and 100 percent pro-vaccination,” said PhilaMOCA’s multi-titled boss and booker, Eric Bresler.

“The shows here have been great so far with every music show we’ve hosted being completely sold out. I think it’s obvious that people not only want to get out of their homes, but also missed PhilaMOCA and are anxious to return to the room.”

Bresler is following Philly mandates unless specific guidelines are requested by the promoter or performer. Masks are strongly encouraged, but are not required. 

“We had a sold-out ska show this past Friday night, the performers required attendees to show vaccination cards at the door, which was easy enough,” said Bresler. “Same for the Maria Bamford afternoon run of comedy shows we hosted where vaccination cards were required at the door.”

So far, so good. But Bresler, like many in his position, are fed up with bozo-ness from all sides of the equation.

“While my original plan was to just follow local mandates for indoor activities, I’ll tell you: I’m starting to get sick of all of these questions – ‘If I only have one of the shots, can I still attend? ‘What type of mask do I need to wear to attend the event?,’” said the cool, calm Bresler in a noticeably disgusted tone.

“And then there are those who are obviously using COVID as an excuse to get a ticket refund for whatever reason. These non-stop COVID-related requests are driving me crazy. I’m on the verge of just making masks and vaccination required at all events so I don’t have to deal with these questions anymore. Like you said, I certainly didn’t sign up for this. I’m usually pretty respectful of those whose opinions differ sharply from mine, but I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that anti-vaxxers are complete idiots whose beliefs are holding this country back from a full recovery. Look at Florida right now, and Texas, these are states that are knowingly harming their residents purely for political beliefs that were entwined with the pandemic due to our previous president. It’s very sad. As far as worst case scenarios, if we went into another lockdown I wouldn’t complain, whatever is needed to provide a bit of finality to this pandemic. I have a 2-year-old at home and am very conscious of that so I take all precautions I can to not bring the virus home with me.” 

Marley McNamara, Johnny Brenda’s assistant talent buyer and showrunner,  as well as Human Robot Brewing Co.’s talent buyer at Sunflower Philly, is also pissed off at more than a few complete idiots. Planning hard for Sept. 3’s all live, indoor, full-band reopening of Johnny Brenda’s, McNamara is not suffering foolishness. Plus, she and JB’s lead talent buyer, Barrett Lindgren, are going an extra mile when it comes to health and safety precautions.

“We’re still on par to open Sept. 3,” says McNamara. “We’ve just reduced our capacity and require proof or vax or negative PCR test 42 hours prior to show. We’re basically just paying attention to what’s happening around us and following protocol in order to be as safe as possible. AND I’m fully vaxxed, thanks, because I’m not selfish, and I want to be able to have a career again at some point, to be honest.”

Johnny Brenda’s booked shows during the pandemic’s time off, but slowly over the course of C-19’s 16 months away, took their time until September 2021 to reopen rather than rushing into summer. “We’ve definitely taken our time in reopening JB because it’s super important to us that everyone is in a safe space at our shows,” says McNamara. “We know we’re nowhere near out of the woods and if we need to shut down again in order to keep people safe then we will absolutely do that if that’s what the city decides. It is more important to us that we’re able to get through this and continue shows once we’re in the clear, but we’re not interested in risking anything right now just for a good time. As for Sunflower shows, I just follow the protocol that’s enforced by the nonprofit that runs the space. If they want to reduce the cap and require masks while we’re still navigating this nightmare, then we will. If we need to stop shows completely in order to help keep people safe, then we will.”

McNamara is proud that everyone in the live music industry is totally on board with masking, vax cards, negative COVID tests, etc., “because our livelihoods are in extreme danger if people keep effing around and caring only about themselves.” 

She thinks that it has been great that there hasn’t been pushback from any bands, agents, managers, etc. because they know what needs to happen to actually get through all this. Again.

“The best case scenario is that people stop thinking only about themselves and get vaccinated so we can all carry on with our lives and enjoy live music safely again. Worst case scenario is we all get locked up again, and I have to completely change careers at age 36 which I am not looking forward to.… Everyone on our team will mask at every show and are required to vax. We’ve reduced our cap for our opening weekend as of now – it’s kind of impossible to make people social distance in our room, but reducing the cap can help people spread out a bit more – we’ve announced some shows at full capacity already before we started declining in progress again, but I’m sure our venue management will revisit if things continue to get worse. Look, this is case-by-case, and JB’s is fortunate to have the bar and restaurant downstairs to help carry the venue a bit through these times, but if we continue down this spiral, I bet a lot of other venues won’t be as fortunate, which is really sad.”

Everyone talks about how the vax and the mask regulations in Philly live venues affect the locations. They have, after all, been hit with everything from rents, insurances and payrolls to pay out during the pandemic with little to no financial intake. Fine. But what about the local bands and their plans, especially those working (and spending) hard to make music (and money) after 16 months of having not been allowed to earn. 

Johnny Brenda’s return-to-live headliners, Philly’s Electric Candlelight, is at the top of that heap, as an ensemble born right at COVID’s cusp, filled with local alt-titans such as Ali Awan, Owen Stewart (Ruby The Hatchet), Justin Pittney (Residuels, Moon Women), Max Jonas (Tough Shits) and Joshua Aaron (The Lawsuits), and with three hard soulful singles (“Another Year Gone By,” “Make No Mistake,” and now “Grand Delusion”) to its name.

“We actually formed a bit before the pandemic, but everything crystallized last summer,” said Pittney of Electric Candelight’s start. “Prior to that, Owen and I had created a ‘COVID bubble’ at the Smoke Before Fire space to write songs, work on demos and quite often just hang out and listen to records. There was literally no one else in the building, so it wasn’t long before we invited the rest of the band down to jam. Eventually, I hauled my Tascam 388 tape machine down to capture some of the sessions. What you hear on those singles is the sound of us nailing it for the first time. If you listen to ‘Another Year,’ we are literally figuring it out as we’re going and there’s a sense of spontaneity that is hard to ignore. I think that the pandemic allowed us the freedom to create in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.”

Sept. 4’s re-opening weekend gig at JBs will be Electric Candlelight’s third pandemic show in Philly, and all of these shows, in Pittney’s estimation, have felt like celebrations (Owen Stewart’s Ruby the Hatchet play JB with Heavy Temple on Sept. 18). “Johnny Brenda’s will be no exception; something about being back in that room after all this time is special,” he said. “It’s gonna feel like coming home in the best way possible. Everything changes so quickly that the question of vaccines and masks became irrelevant within a few days. What I do know is that Johnny Brenda’s will be requiring proof of vaccination for shows moving forward and we’re cool with that. Now I just gotta figure where I put my card…”

@ADAMOROSI

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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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