With performance venues shuttered and summer music festivals cancelled fans are lamenting the loss of the communal experience known as the concert. But socially-distanced performances are cropping up at drive-ins, in parks, and at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
The indie band Yo La Tengo traveled from New York to North Adams to play two shows on August 7 and 8 in the museum's courtyard. We were curious to see what the experience would be like.
To start, there was no herd-like line of concert-goers streaming into the outdoor venue. Ticket check was contactless and holders received an email beforehand detailing the protocols. As the sun prepared to set on a perfect summer night, a recording played over the sound system to remind us how different the rest of evening promised to be.
“Please wear a mask unless you are eating or drinking. Please remain in your square unless you have to use the restroom or purchase food and beverage,” a mellow voice intoned.
White, spray-painted squares — 60 of them — filled a courtyard that's flanked by 19th-century mill buildings on the museum's sprawling campus. The little zones were being populated by a relative handful of people.
“Normally, when we would be doing events before, we would be able to hold up to 3,900 – now we're max at 100,” Sue Killam explained. She's the museum's longtime performing arts director and has been working at Mass MoCA since 1998. “So there's a lot of space and a lot of room to breathe . . . by yourself,” Killam said acknowledging that the vibe “feels kind of eerie at times.”
Fans of the experimental rock band Yo La Tengo unfolded portable camping chairs and set them up inside their squares. Most hold up to four people with some larger ones for families in the back. Everyone's closest neighbor was six feet away.
North Adams resident Doug Jones knew he was in for a surreal experience when he purchased tickets to surprise his wife. “It's a little odd,” he admitted as they settled into their pod, “but it also makes you feel all right with being here. You don't have to worry about anything for that hour-and-a-half that you're just listening to a great band.”
In the before times the couple would drive all over to see concerts and were regulars at Mass MoCA's performances that used to happen 40 weekends out of the year. Like so many diehard music fans they've been bereft without shows since March. Being back at it in this new way made them miss in-person music even more than they already did.
It took time for Killam's production team to figure out a distance show model that worked. She said audio visual technician Tim McEvoy was instrumental in designing the layout and adapting the acoustics. On July 15 the museum hosted its first live performance for the public since reopening in June with the Northhampton band SayReal. Others have followed, including the annual new music festival Bang on a Can. Killam has felt waves of emotion run through the audiences at those shows.
“We've had people in tears,” she said, “people are just so grateful that we are doing this.”
That includes the musicians who've been deprived of making music for an in-the-flesh audience.
When Killam decided to invite Yo La Tengo to perform she knew she needed to reassure the musicians that the museum bent over backwards to make the venue safe. The band has played at Mass MoCA before, most recently at the Solid Sound Music Festival in the very same courtyard – except back then it was packed with people. Killam had previously booked Yo La Tengo for this summer, too, before everything was cancelled.
She hoped they'd be willing to do a tiny show that wouldn't bring in much money and sent the musicians a picture of the set up.
“We saw that photo and were like, 'yeah, definitely,'" Ira Kaplan recalled. He's been singing and playing guitar with Yo La Tengo since he co-founded the band with his wife Georgia Hubley in 1984. “You know, it's a really creative, smart solution to a tricky problem,” he said.
The trio just released a new album of ambient music at the end of July and Kaplan said they've been getting together to jam, record and practice throughout the pandemic. “We've been playing so much just for ourselves – and it's been rewarding and really fun – and we couldn't wait for these shows to come because we're dying to do this, too.”
Yo La Tengo is known for conjuring dreamy lyrics and soundscapes, and when the trio brought their aesthetic to the Mass MoCA stage it added a fitting soundtrack to the strangeness. The bass player, drummer and guitarist were perched in a massive doorway on the second story of a mill building. It framed the musicians like a dramatically lit picture window. The museum uses the opening to load large-scale sculptures into an upstairs gallery the size of a football field.
“The biggest difference for the musicians is the pure distance they have from the audience,” Killam said. “They're singing out a big garage door.”
On stage Kaplan joked with the audience, “Thanks for coming this close to us – and no closer.” Then the audience sat back and took it all in – the music, the stars, even the bats that darted around the night sky over their heads. One even slipped inside the white gallery behind the musicians.
It was definitely unusual to play a distance show, Kaplan said, but he hopes there are some positives to the weirdness of it all. “You know, it's like wearing a mask,” he said, “Nobody is like, 'Yeah. I love wearing a mask!' But if you're not a creep you wear one. This may not be the best setting for a show, but it's the only setting for a show.”
After a set of songs pulled from Yo La Tengo's vast catalog – with a bunch of covers sprinkled in – Kaplan closed the night by telling the audience, “Hope the next time we see you we're a little closer together.”
He wasn't alone with that wish. As Henry Thomas of Rhinebeck, New York packed up his chair he agreed the experience was – well – distant. “It felt a little more impersonal than the live music experience I'm used to,” Thomas said, adding, “But I'm kind of used to weird at this point, so it wasn't all that different. You know everything's weird nowadays, so I really enjoyed it.”
His friend Sarah Marlin who's from Saratoga Springs agreed. “Normally concerts I feel are like super communal things, and you get to talk to the people you're sitting next to,” she said.
At a pre-coronavirus show Doug Jones said he'd be shoulder-to-shoulder with other fans as close to the stage as possible. But here he was perfectly happy to be sequestered in his little square with a band he loves doing what it does best. “Yo La Tango's music just takes up so much space that it sort of fills everything up,” he said. “It feels very intimate. And we're all together in the music – even if we're arm's length away.”
Jones's wife Paula Buxbaum was grateful he was able to score tickets to a rare event that sold out in about 30 minutes. “I literally – like five different times – looked up at the stars and was just like, 'Ah, I'm just so lucky to be here,” she said sighing and laughing. “I can't believe it.”
Her husband continued her thought, “Especially with this setup, and this band, and this few people, at this time – you know, all these things aren't going to come together again.”
But if the same stars did align again the show would have to be even smaller. Governor Baker's revised guidelines that went into effect just days after the Yo La Tengo shows reduce outdoor event capacity from 100 people to 50. Sue Killam said her team is planning to roll the even tinier headcount for future shows because it's part of Mass MoCA's mission – even if the economics don't make much sense. Before the pandemic 70% of the museum's revenue was fueled by live performances.
“I think like every business we're trying to get through to the other side,” Killam said. She explained how the museum staff has been asking themselves questions over the past few months including, “What can we hold on to while we're here? And what's important? You know, we're doing something for our community, and we're definitely doing something for the artists.”
Looking ahead Killam doesn't think protocols like masks and distance will stop fans from wanting to commune at shows. “I think people are hungry and craving this live music experience,” she said, “so when the time comes and it makes sense people will come – and artists will play – that's what I am sure about.”
This segment aired on August 12, 2020.