Waxahatchee at Union Transfer | photo by Michelle Montgomery for WXPN
Ready Or Not, Here Concerts Come! As fans vax up, in-person shows make a hopeful return to 2021 calendars
Spring has broken and warm weather has swept across the region in recent weeks, with another wave alongside it: the first announcements of indoor, in-person concerts that Philly music fans have heard since before the Coronavirus pandemic.
It began at a tentative pace; a Dinosaur Jr. show at Union Transfer announced for November, a Julien Baker show at Franklin Music Hall coming in September. Outdoor events trickled in as well, with a save-the-date for Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival, a teasing of WXPN’s own XPoNential Music Festival, and a summer series at Sunflower Philly.
By early April, the proverbial seal had broken, and Ardmore Music Hall rolled out a massive list of 31 indoor, full-capacity gigs starting in late summer and featuring Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears on September 17th, KRS-One on October 8th, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers on November 20th, and KT Tunstall on December 8th. (The venue followed it up on April 20th with 30 more limited-capacity indoor shows beginning next month, including two nights with G. Love and Chuck Treece, and a solo show by Jordan Caiola of Mo Lowda and the Humble.)
At this time, Philadelphia’s COVID-19 guidelines are a bit stricter than Pennsylvania’s at large, allowing for some suburban venues to open sooner and allow larger crowds than city venues, especially for outdoor concerts. As of April 1st, state guidelines have been lifted to 25% capacity for indoor events and 50% capacity for outdoor events, regardless of venue size. Venues in Philly would still have to operate at 15% capacity for indoor events and 20% capacity for outdoor events, regardless of size. (By comparison, New Jersey’s guidelines will shift on May 10th to allow up to 50% venue capacity, but will cap attendance at 250 people for all indoor shows, 500 for all outdoor shows.) And with all these guidelines come a variety of mandates about physical distancing and mask-wearing, though Philly’s guidelines include the greatest amount of specifics.
The thing is, all this can and will change. As more and more people get vaccinated, COVID-19 cases are beginning to drop across the region; the Philadelphia Inquirer reported this morning that Philadelphia is averaging 456 new cases per day, an 18% drop from last week’s average; Pennsylvania at large is averaging 3,824 new cases per day, a 21% drop, while New Jersey is down 29% with an average of 2,279 new cases per day, and Delaware down 27% with 278 new cases per day.
Things are looking optimistic, and the region’s live music venues are embracing that optimism and looking to get back to work. The earliest show on Union Transfer’s calendar is an August 6th tour kickoff by Japanese Breakfast; the previously-announced August 7th show sold out, and came with a disclaimer: “We are quite hopeful to welcome everyone safely back to Union Transfer with our good pals Japanese Breakfast! However, if city or state regulations do not allow us to re-open in August, we do have backup date(s) reserved for later in the year. Let’s cross our fingers, hands and toes, and everybody go get vaccinated!” Union Transfer also rolled out a night with Lucy Dacus on October 20th, added an October 19th performance by Waxahatchee after the first show on the 15th sold out, and just announced a September 11th show with Slaughter Beach, Dog and Gladie. XPN Artists to Watch are getting in the mix around the city as well, with Courtney Marie Andrews headlining Johnny Brenda’s on October 4th and Arlo Parks playing The Foundry of The Fillmore Philadelphia on October 27th.
And over at Ardmore Music Hall, things will have a new look when it re-opens to the public on May 6th; the venue’s Chris Perella told The Key that renovations and upgrades this winter added new balcony seating “with the best seats in the house,” more space on the dance floor, an expanded general admission area at the side of the stage, new bathrooms and artist green rooms, a new box office, and a new marquee. “We’re so fortunate to have planned and funded these renovations prior to the pandemic, which gave us a fighting chance to tackle them during the downtime in spite of our massive revenue losses,” says Perella. “Every bit of the space is improved, with the goal purely to make the room better, not to increase capacity.”
We convened a virtual roundtable of promoters in Philadelphia to talk about the return of concerts, what they’re looking forward to as live music returns, and what they’re doing to keep their audiences safe.
How does it feel to finally be able to announce shows again?
Sean Agnew, Union Transfer: It feels WEIRD. I have spent the last year begging our customers to hold on to their tickets and opt for vouchers instead of refunds (and lucky thousands have – which literally saved UT!). We had to close our other venue, Boot & Saddle, sell its sound system and other assets. Everything up to this point has been about SURVIVAL. And then suddenly without warning – we casually make the switch from the mindset to do whatever it takes to make it to the fall, to just go back to announcing shows again.
Barrett Lindgren, Johnny Brenda’s: Strange. The work never really stopped in the sense that we’ve been moving shows around all year, but it’s exciting to start letting people in on a few and to think they may actually happen this time.
Jeff Meyers, World Cafe Live: Cautiously optimistic. I feel like I’ve been in the movie Groundhog’s Day since even before March 2020. Ned Ryerson is essentially every email / call I receive to move a date. Rescheduling show after show. The fact that PA and other states now have eligibility for anyone over 16 to receive the vaccine makes me feel in a couple months we’ll be in a much better place. I constantly made predictions in the beginning, probably for attempting to have some semblance of clarity, and eventually I just stopped. It wasn’t worth the anxiety of it all and I just decided it was best to let things fall into place as they will.
Chris Perella, Ardmore Music Hall: It’s both exhilarating and nerve-racking! We’ve received such intensely enthusiastic and joyful feedback on our fall calendar announce for Ardmore, and it has given rejuvenated energy to my team and hope for a bright future. At the same time, we’re not out of the woods yet on the pandemic and we’ve had to undo SO much work in the past 14 months, so praying that COVID cooperates in the months ahead.
Can you talk about how you decided to roll out your calendar, and why you are taking the approach you did?
SA, UT: To be honest, there wasn’t a grand strategy. A lot of bands and artists are announcing their late summer / fall shows – so we were supporting the idea and going along with a “okay, lets see what happens!”. We have backup plans in place in case things are not safe to open – but emotionally we are all in – hoping for an August opening.
BL, JB: We’ve only announced two new shows so far, so there isn’t really a calendar roll out. We’re hoping that will happen in the fall.
JM, WCL: We’re taking it slow and steady. When a national tour is announced, we’ll announce our show, but I would say we haven’t been as aggressive as other venues at rolling out the calendar. No one knows how to properly come back from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, so I don’t fault anyone for having different approaches.
CP, AMH: We announced 30+ shows for fall and beyond all at once, hoping that rising optimism for fall + post-renovation excitement surrounding AMH would = strong early sales that might beat out market competition a little bit. We expect tons of entertainment saturation when things get rolling fully again, and Philly is already a tough market, so the more we could make a splash with our announcement the better we felt about it. The response indicates that people are, indeed, ready to rock again! We’ll now be announcing another 30 shows this week — limited capacity (25%), socially distant, elevated ticket prices — for May to July, hoping that pent-up demand and vaccine rollout progress will translate into a string of intimate sellouts that let us get our engine turned back on while giving musicians and staff a chance to work.
What are some shows on your calendar you’re particularly excited for?
SA, UT: We have over 100 confirmed shows and 95% haven’t been announced yet but there’s going to be a bunch of big / notable shows coming up, especially around the holidays this year. Super excited for our kickoff show with Japanese Breakfast. They are actual FRIENDS and it’s pretty special to have them slated for our first (hopeful) night. I think everyone is going to feel totally crazy that night.
BL, JB: It’s not announced yet, but our Philly Music Fest show is shaping up to be a great one.
JM, WCL: All of them…ha. I feel, as the buyer, I try to be subjective; that my main purpose is to serve the music community at large. Personally, I’ve always been a big Nada Surf fan so I’m psyched that it was one of the first shows we announced. We definitely have some big shows that we will eventually announce and I’m always excited to host artists whose never played the room before.
CP, AMH: There’s a few really hot shows I can’t reveal yet, but I’m overjoyed to be hosting Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and G Love as two of our limited cap events coming up in next couple of weeks — two artists that normally have their sights set on larger rooms, so we’re lucky to have them in these unusual circumstances. In the fall: Del McCoury is a legend that I’ll be honored to host; KRS-One is the best live hip hop show I’ve seen arguably ever and I can’t wait to have him back at the club; Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe for two nights over Halloween will be a monster of a funky party.
How are you planning to address health / safety concerns? Do you anticipate it will be in a lot of flux before reopening?
SA, UT: We will almost certainly enforce masks for the foreseeable future. Lots of states are talking about showing proof of a vaccine OR taking a same day COVID test to attend a concert. We aren’t quite sure yet what to expect, but whatever the state and city decides — we’ll be sure to follow along and welcome everyone back in a SAFE manner.
BL, JB: It’s tough to say at this point, since we still don’t know where things will be at in the fall. All of our protocol will have to be informed by local, state and national guidelines that we just haven’t seen yet.
JM, WCL: Sanitation / health / safety has always been and always will be a majority priority for us. I’d say one of the pros of this horrible situation is being able to spend some time discussing ways we can improve what we do in every aspect of the business. We will be following any guidelines from the Philly Health Department and continue to make sure we keep up with best practices.
CP, AMH: September feels like forever from now, so we’re not trying to predict anything COVID-related at this time; we will follow safety guidelines & industry trends, to ensure maximum safety and comfort for fans & artists alike. For May through July, our limited cap series will be very thoughtfully set up to utilize every corner of the venue and ensure proper social distancing. We will stay at 25% for these shows, even if PA opens up more by July, as a way to ease into gatherings for everyone’s sake. Masks will be required when not actively eating or drinking.
For folks who aren’t personally ready to go to concerts, but still want to support you as you reopen, is there anything they can do?
SA, UT: It sounds easy and maybe silly but the best thing that anyone can do is simply hold on to your tickets. If a show gets canceled or postponed and you are in a financial position to just sit on the tickets — it means THE WORLD to venues. If customers do that simple act and hold on to those tickets, we can get through these last final months!
BL, JB: Supporting the restaurant at JB’s by getting take out is the best way to support the venue right now. And don’t forget to tip heavy!
JM, WCL: For WCL, we’ve been doing Curbside Pickup on Saturdays from a rotating menu that our chef Rob Cottman makes. It’s quite good. We have a merch store with Logowearhouse that we just released new spring merch.
Some people may not be aware but WCL became a non-profit business as of Dec 2019. So, any charitable donation to us is tax deductible. We’ve been promoting livestreams at locations all over the country through services like Mandolin, NoonChorus where a portion of sales go back to us.
Also, simple buying concert tickets for any of our upcoming shows. It is definitely reassuring to see people excited to go back to concerts. And of course, continue to support NIVA and all of their efforts. What NIVA has provided to the independent music community has completely changed the trajectory of what could have been an even worse situation for all of us. There will never be a proper amount of “thank you’s” to NIVA and the people behind the scenes.
CP, AMH: We will live stream a significant portion of our May to July limited cap series, since access for fans will still be so limited. Tuning in and supporting AMH and our visiting artists through tips is a huge way to support; our product, produced by partners Nugs.net, is second to none for streaming quality so this is a great way for fans to still connect. Ardmore Music Hall does have a new logo and merchandise store that we launched during the pandemic, and certainly we appreciate support in that way as well.
You can follow concert announcements as they roll in here at The Key, or bookmark the WXPN Concert Calendar, which is updated every weekday with new concert announcements.
Sarah Hojsak, Regina Schliep, John Vettese, and Sammi-Jo Wall contributed to reporting on this story.