With smaller performance spaces reopening, Local Spins touched base with some West Michigan artists about playing music in front of a live audience again. But concerns remain.
LATE JULY 1 UPDATE: Due to some surging coronavirus cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this afternoon closed indoor bar service in lower Michigan, although restaurants can remain open if they follow social-distancing rules.
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West Michigan's music scene
Fantastic. Strange. Therapeutic.
Getting back on stage after months in a pandemic quarantine has its challenges as well as its rewards.
West Michigan musicians who’ve ventured back into the live music scene since the COVID-19 shutdown order was lifted told Local Spins they’re excited about performing in front of live audiences again, even if the atmosphere – and interaction with fans – is decidedly different.
Many conceded they’re more comfortable playing outdoors than inside, even as the coronavirus crisis seems to be winding down in the state of Michigan. But many also acknowledged there’s nothing like performing for fans in person.
“It was immediately rewarding to be together – socially distanced, of course – and to make music,” said Joel Krauss, of Kalamazoo’s Out of Favor Boys, which recently played for a live audience at O’Duffy’s Pub. “It was incredibly therapeutic.”
But with new worries about social-distancing and wearing masks, it also means overcoming some uneasiness and making adjustments in procedures.
“It’s hard because I’m a person who likes to shake hands and do all of that, and so it’s a whole new normal for me,” said Grand Haven singer-guitarist Jack Leaver, who conceded he had some initial hesitation about returning to the live music scene. Leaver said he feels much safer performing outdoors because some fans follow health guidelines and others don’t.
Popular Saugatuck rockabilly artist Delilah DeWylde, who always brings her own microphones to gigs and wears a scarf/mask when not singing, said while she hasn’t been totally comfortable at performances, she’s happy to be back on stage, with five gigs booked for July. Still, she said, It’s weird having to think about interacting with fans at a distance.
“In that situation, you want people to like you as a performer, so therefore I’m not in the habit of making people feel alienated or asking them to step back,” she conceded.
Jazz pianist Steve Talaga said he played a solo gig at Sandy Point Beach House last month while wearing a mask. “It was weird. And very distracting,” he conceded, though he acknowledged that patrons were respectful.
Of course, the level of compliance with health protocols and rules varies from venue to venue, along with the amount of social-distancing and the number of people actually wearing masks. (One Facebook user recently criticized a performance by a cover band at a venue south of Grand Rapids, noting there were “no masks, no social distancing. Bands like that who have no respect for this virus and who put their fans lives in danger of catching this virus and or dying should be called out.”)
And after reopening for a couple of weeks and hosting live performances again, Grand Rapids’ Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill announced Tuesday it would close back down due to staff “not feeling safe” and other bars/restaurants closing due to COVID-19.
“I think we need to see a sharp decline in cases and a real sense that people are taking this seriously,” said co-owner Ted Smith. “I felt people were better with masks this past weekend, but even one or two people arguing about it is too much.”
LIMITING CAPACITY, HAND-WASHING STATIONS AND PLAYING OUTSIDE
One outdoor “venue” which has taken special precautions happens to be a backyard house-concert spot hosted by the Beaver Xing duo in Comstock Park.
“We are extremely comfortable with performing outdoors where we can define our own safe space, which hasn’t been a problem thus far wherever we perform,” said Stacy Noonan, who performs “completely acoustically” with Jonathan Beaver and always leaves “a minimum of six feet between ourselves and the listeners because we really have to belt it out.”
And when they host backyard shows, such as a recent open-mic at “Beaver Lodge,” they’ve taken extra precautions to protect performers and guests. They use disposable microphone covers, switch out microphones between performers, sanitize equipment, provide a hand-washing station and limit capacity to 50 people.
“I polled each attendee/performer individually,” she said, “and the response was overwhelmingly positive.”
(Health officials have made some recommendations for musicians and venues, and various studies have taken place evaluating the possible spread of the coronavirus during performances. Read more about that in these stories: Adapting to Chaos – Playing music amid CVOID 19 and The case against concerts now: High-risk singing, tight spaces. Kent County also recently cautioned that there’s been a slight upward trend in cases in recent days so residents need to be vigilant. Some area bars/restaurants have closed again after employees tested positive for COVID-19.)
Here are more comments from West Michigan musicians who’ve eased back into the live performance scene, with a couple of popular acts declining to comment on their return to live music:
COLE HANSEN (Grand Rapids singer-songwriter): “I normally bring my own gear and travel lightly so for me as a solo performer, there weren’t any changes to how I normally do things. The only thing that was different was the size of the crowd, obviously limited but I have no arguments for that if it helps people feel safe. I know I felt safer knowing they (Saugatuck’s Guardian Brewing Co.) were enforcing social-distancing and the use of masks. The spaced-out tables made it feel like an intimate backyard house concert which was kinda nice for a change. People seemed to appreciate hearing live music for the first time in a long time. I think playing for people who are in the same room is an experience like nothing else. I don’t think I fully appreciated just how unique it really was until I couldn’t do it anymore.”
CHRIS COLLINS (Guitarist for Grand Rapids’ King Biscuit Trio): “It was fantastic (playing Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill’s first live-music show in months before the bar decided to close again). Didn’t really know what to expect, but (co-owner) Ted Smith was buttoned up and we just went with the flow. Everyone in the club was respectful … We each brought our own mic that we own and we tried to stay pretty much on stage afterwards and talk to people with us on the stage and them being on the floor. It was amazing how great people were.”
DREW BEHRINGER (Grandville singer-guitarist): “I’m definitely excited to be back. Entertaining is my full-time job, so it has flat out sucked both financially as well as mentally to not be able to get out and perform. I feel somewhat re-energized after such a long break, but that is also mixed with needing to shake off some of the rust from not performing as frequently, and re-acclimate to playing in front of a crowd. Hearing actual applause is far more rewarding than any amount of ‘thumbs ups’ that you’d get on Facebook (during a live-stream show).”
JOEL KRAUSS (Member of Kalamazoo’s Out of Favor Boys): “We were very concerned about abiding by the governor’s order. We believe in what she was doing and we did not want to appear to violate her orders in any way. All of our shows were appropriately socially distant. No handshakes or hugs. No masks, really, but in all cases, the people who were around were quarantining together in one way or another. We always use our own mics. We were very careful around each other, I would say. We didn’t bump into each other a lot or handle things for one another. It was slightly unnatural to be that distant, but the music made up for it. being mindful of keeping distance from, well, everyone, is uncomfortable, as well. Music brings people together and I’m used to close conversations about songs and artists and whatever with people after a set or after a show. To have those conversations from a distance and with an invisible wall (or sneezeshield) between us wasn’t nearly the same.”
DELILAH DEWYLDE (Singer and standup bassist from Saugatuck): “Generally by the end of February, our whole summer is booked. Now, I’m having to cancel, reschedule or take whatever happens to come along. So it’s been like doing twice the booking work for less shows. Also, don’t laugh, but one small issue has been trying to not mess up my lipstick when I’m wearing a mask during load-in.”
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