There was a fleeting moment where we thought that even if we weren’t exactly home free — that life as we knew it in the world of live concerts was on the way back — we thought we were headed in that direction. Not anymore.
Once again, the concert scene — nationally and locally — is in flux, caught up in a COVID whirlwind, as the more contagious and dangerous delta variant spreads. Major national concert promoter AEG Presents cancelled its popular New Orleans Jazz Fest in October; Stevie Nicks, Limp Bizkit and Counting Crows have cancelled tours; James Taylor and Jackson Browne are completing their U.S. tour, but Taylor and Bonnie Raitt have cancelled their September Canadian tour; Garth Brooks is reassessing his stadium tour.
If all this seems absurd and surreal to you — considering the early eagerness of people to take the shots, the stunning progress made with vaccination efficacy, and the ever-lowering counts of disease and death this spring and early summer — you’re not alone. “If anyone said we’d have these conversations five weeks ago, we’d never have believed them,” says Dennis Dennehy, an executive at AEG. “We thought this was behind us.”
The Foo Fighters were ahead of the curve, requiring vaccine proof for its concert at Madison Square Garden in June, as did the organizers of Lollapalooza, the multi-day festival in Chicago in July and August. Jason Isbell, who is playing Boston’s Wang Theatre Sept. 18 with his band The 400 Unit, is requiring vaccination passports or negative COVID tests from concert goers.
“I’m all for freedom,” Isbell said on MSNBC Monday. “But if you’re dead, you don’t have any freedoms at all, so it’s probably important to stay alive before you start questioning your liberty. It’s life, and then it’s liberty, and then it’s the pursuit of happiness, and those are in order of priority.”
Japanese Breakfast, the hot act fronted by singer Michelle Zauner is booked at Royale Sept. 9 and 10, requires that all audience members show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Dead & Company, which starts a tour Aug. 16 and plays the Xfinity Center Sept. 2 and 3, just announced the same regulations on Wednesday.
There should be some sort of universal mandate, with no variation from city to city or state to state. There’s no big picture, no long-term thinking. It betrays the last year and a half. Have we learned nothing?David Bieber
Alice Cooper launches a tour next month that stops at Leader Bank Pavilion Sept. 21. Cooper’s management is trying to figure out how to handle it. “We’re requiring all tour personnel to be vaxxed, and already have all the cards,” says Toby Mamis, a member of Cooper’s management team. “Masks are required at all times backstage and onstage except while eating or performing. Like most [other] tours, we’re bringing a COVID compliance person and [conducting] regular testing.”
On Cooper’s next tour in 2022, fans at the show will likely need vaccine passports or show a negative COVID test. It’s currently under discussion. But not this year. Mamis explains that with thousands of tickets sold prior to the current situation – when the all-clear signal had sounded – the logistics of requiring passports or offering refunds for those without vaccinations would be a nightmare. “You can’t backtrack and add that requirement,” he says.
This undoubtedly could pertain to other big acts who’ve sold scads of advance tickets to optimistic fans. Still, a high-level concert promoter, who wished to remain nameless, said it was more a matter of how much work the artist’s team was willing to work with its fans. “How much does an artist want to take on?” he asked, rhetorically. “Are you willing to deal with the possibility of refunds? I think an artist can make any decision they want as long as they can deal with some of their fans saying ‘No thanks, I’m not coming.’”
The country’s largest promoter, Live Nation, seems to be playing it down the middle, or, if you will, passing the buck to the bands. In a statement last week, CEO Michael Rapino mandated vaccinations for employees, but stopped short of requiring them for entrance to events at Live Nation venues. In the Boston area, that includes the Paradise Rock Club, the Brighton Music Hall, the Orpheum and Opera House, Leader Bank Pavilion and the Xfinity Center. Reached by email, the Boston Live Nation office had no comment.
“That’s showing no leadership position in the concert market business,” says David Bieber, longtime Boston media consultant and archivist, of Live Nation’s decision. “Now that we have a realistic resolution to the problem, the fact that some people don’t want to participate, that should exclude them from participating, whether it’s the bands or the patrons.”
“Why do you need to create that vulnerability for employees, patrons, crew and performers coming into the venue? In ten minutes, you can be inoculated. There should be some sort of universal mandate, with no variation from city to city or state to state. There’s no big picture, no long-term thinking. It betrays the last year and a half. Have we learned nothing?”
Added singer-guitarist Christian McNeill: “Although I am fully aware of [Live Nation’s] struggles through the pandemic, it is deeply disappointing that they have not stepped up and done the right thing in this situation. I applaud and stand with every single artist and band who will require their audience to be team players right now.”
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Thursday AEG Presents announced that it will be requiring proof of vaccination for entry into its owned and operated clubs, theatres, and festivals. AEG has a partnership stake in Bowery Presents, which in Boston owns Royale and The Sinclair.
In a statement, the company said the vaccination policy will be in full effect nationwide no later than Oct. 1. 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. Leading up to October 1, AEG will be implementing a policy of showing proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of show date where permitted.
“We have come to the conclusion that, as a market leader, it was up to us to take a real stand on vaccination status,” said CEO Jay Marciano. “Just a few weeks ago, we were optimistic about where our business, and country, were heading. The delta variant, combined with vaccine hesitancy, is pushing us in the wrong direction again.” Marciano expects to encounter pushback, but says he’s confident they’re doing what’s best for artists, fans, and live event workers.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a mandate that as of Sept. 13, vaccination proof or a negative COVID test are required for indoor events, including concerts. When Boston’s Acting Mayor Kim Janey was asked whether Boston might consider doing what de Blasio did, a spokesperson responded, but only to say that they continue to ensure vaccine education and access in communities most impacted. She did not address a direct follow-up question about implementing vaccination passports.
In the Boston area, if you want to go to see music at City Winery, the Middle East Club, the Plough & Stars or Club Passim, you must be vaccinated against the COVID virus or, in some cases, have proof of a negative test.
“We will be trying to make it as easy, seamless, and friction-free as possible,” City Winery CEO Michael Dorf said in a statement this week. “You may present a physical or smartphone copy of your vaccine card. Your cooperation will help us to not go back to limited capacity or worse, that tragic state of closing our facilities again.”
On Wednesday, the Boch Center — encompassing the Wang and Shubert Theatres — announced a policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 14, that is, prior to Isbell’s concert. “At this time patrons do not need to show proof of vaccination unless otherwise specified by the artist,” said CEO Joe Spaulding.
This week, veteran Boston singer-guitarist Chris Brokaw — he’s played in Come, Codeine, the Lemonheads and other outfits — put up a query on Facebook asking friends and fans their take on attending concerts. Not his, anyone’s. He says he found “most people seem like they don’t want to go. That’s been the overwhelming sentiment in the last 24 hours. They’re not into it or getting more and more nervous.”
The Chris Brokaw Rock Band has played several outdoor gigs, but makes its indoor debut Saturday at Nova Arts in Keene, New Hampshire. “I’m ambivalent about it right now,” he says, noting he will be double-masked on stage. “It was great a couple of weeks ago playing [solo] at the Plough & Stars and [with Thalia Zedek’s band] at the Midway,” he says, adding ruefully. “I was hugging people and everyone was unmasked. It felt like reentry back into the world.”
Cracker — whose hits include “Teen Angst,” “Euro-Trash Girl” and “Low” — plays the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River on Friday.
“We’re making it a point to set a good example, of course, but regardless of that fact our fans seem to have no problem whatsoever getting vaccinated and carrying their cards to verify it,” says guitarist Johnny Hickman.
“With so many venues requiring that, it seems like a no brainer to us,” he adds. “Our fans are a little older and wiser and I dare say smarter than the fans of a lot of bands. There are no conspiracy theory-spewing idiots or science deniers in our big family — at least none that I’ve seen or heard.”
When WBUR last spoke with Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of Infectious Diseases at South Shore Hospital in South Weymouth, it was late April and he had mixed feelings about vaccine passports. Most of that had to do with vaccine inaccessibility in urban or underserved communities and that requiring passports would be exclusionary. “It’s a hotly charged topic,” he said then, “but it can’t be about the haves and have-nots.”
Ellerin’s position has shifted. “The virus is more aggressive and contagious, and I’m all for vaccine passports and masking indoors,” he says. “I recommend both right now. Look what happened in P-town. Vaccines are available and accessible and you should be able to get vaccinated right now if you want to. It’s very reasonable to ask for vaccine passports [at concerts]. It’s a no-brainer.”