Music Revival

Post-COVID, live music returns to East Bay concert venues

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Sure, it’s been a painfully slow and an often uneven ride, but live music has returned to the region. More than a year and a half after the COVID pandemic struck, performance venues, restaurants, and bars are returning to some semblance of normalcy, although it’s clear in the words of Bob Dylan, “things have changed.”

Around the East Bay, organizers are planning for live music this season and beyond. With COVID and the Delta variant still a concern, most venues have implemented mandatory masking and proof of vaccination, a policy which has become standard in the industry. It’s an important regulation as shows move inside after a summer of mainly outdoor concerts.

VENUE PIVOTS

A popular spot for live music in Warren, Galactic Theatre on Main Street is getting back on track. David Podsnap, founder and owner, is a leader in the regional music and arts scene. He’s helping to “Keep Warren Weird,” a key marketing point for a town that enjoys promoting its funky persona.

Podsnap took initiative when the pandemic hit, rapidly pivoting his venue in the spring of 2020. “A few days after the lockdown was lifted and I was done hiding, I had a very intense brainstorming session,” he recalls. “I called my dad and asked if he could quickly build a door with plywood and plexiglass so I could install a takeout window inside our front door.” He then called Warwick Ice Cream and asked about starting an account. “I wrote a sundae menu in one day and went live with it days later with hardly any kitchen testing,” Podsnap shares. “I’m crazy and that is how we are still standing. Being sane during the apocalypse is no way for survival. Ice cream saves lives.”

The Galactic finally reopened for music this fall, featuring mainly local artists on weekends. “There is a music-loving, organic community that dwells in this area,” says Podsnap. “We don’t have an over-saturation of venues. With both of those ingredients, artists can thrive in a room that appreciates an
intimate experience.”

Bristol’s Stone Church Coffeehouse, now in its 15th season, is “the little coffeehouse that could.” Against the odds, the music venue remained open during much of the pandemic.

“Rather than go crazy, we followed the state’s and CDC’s COVID guidelines,” explains Roger Dubord, Stone Church director. “To the best of my knowledge, we were the only local music venue to continue to provide live music last season. We had six live shows in a safe environment following the guidelines for social distancing and masking.”

“We started the Coffeehouse in September 2007,” Dubord explains. “Our mission is to provide monthly opportunities
for local, regional, and national musicians to perform, entertain, educate, and interact with audiences in an affordable, handicap-accessible, family-friendly environment. We love what we have created for the community and look forward to many more years and continued sold-out
shows in the future.”

One way to ease back into pre-pandemic programming mode (and fill seats) is to diversify offerings. That’s what’s happened in Newport at Jane Pickens Theatre, rebranded The JPT Film & Event Center, which is widely known for showing a range of independent movies. JPT has a pair of November concerts planned that include legendary singer-songwriter Tom Rush on the 4th and indie-folk band Laden Valley on the 18th.

October saw concerts return to Common Fence Music in Portsmouth, and future shows are scheduled right into 2022. After a season of virtual events in 2020-21, CFM has lineups planned that include folk artist Laney Jones at Channing Memorial Church on November 20, former Carolina Chocolate Drop band member Hubby Jenkins on December 4, and cabaret star Nellie McKay at Newport’s Casino Theatre on December 18.

ARTISTS WEIGH IN

No one has missed live music as much as the artists who play it. Award-winning guitar-great Neal Vitullo is a long-time East Bay resident with a busy schedule. His band Neal and the Vipers typically played over 150 shows a year in a pre-COVID world.

“When the pandemic shut everything down the second weekend of March 2020, we were completely without work,” Vitullo explains. It was the longest he had gone without performing live since 1982 and he is certainly glad to be playing gigs around the region again. “I went from 15 to 20 shows a month down to zero. Nothing until July of that year but a webcast for Venmo contributions or the occasional small outdoor gig that didn’t amount to much at all.”

“I am very grateful that things are starting to get back to normal,” Vitullo says. “But I think we will not see things back to the way that they were for a long time. There are a lot of venues that are gone, and there are still venues that are not yet booking full schedules due to the impact of
the Delta variant.”

Another local performer, singer-songwriter Beth Baron, agrees with Galactic’s Podsnap, “It’s all about the community. The East Bay supports original artists. It’s so refreshing to have a community that supports local and original music.”

One segment of the music industry that saw some success during the pandemic was the record business. Both nationally and locally, the sale of vinyl music continues to expand. Chris Zingg, owner of In Your Ear Records in Warren, explains, “The pandemic forced us to shift our focus to our mail order business which, luckily, already represented a healthy percentage of what we did. About a month into the pandemic, when people realized they might be staying home for an extended period, our mail orders [of LPs and CDs] shot up and carried us through until we were able to physically reopen on a limited basis in the summer.”

“Since then, our business has expanded with the addition of our second store which opened in February of this year,” says Zingg. “Having known people who were vaccinated but still contracted COVID, we are asking our customers to wear a mask while shopping. We’ve added other preventative measures including an air filtration system.” Zingg adds that he expects big crowds on Black Friday, when the store will stock special Record Store Day releases.

NEXT GENERATION

Many famous musicians got their start at local music schools, those mom-and-pop businesses that nurture talent while serving the community. Several in the region have reopened including Rob Coyne School of Music Education in Warren.

Coyne explains how things shifted for his business. “The main difference is that virtual lessons have become an integral part of our school since the pandemic hit. We were able to continue teaching when we couldn’t use our facility. Now, as we get back to in-person lessons, it has been nice to have the virtual option – it’s been a game-changer and life saver for our business – but we value the experience that in-person lessons provide to our students,” says Coyne. “Sharing the love of music, whether in-person or virtually, will always be our goal.”

Perhaps the largest music school in the state is the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School in East Providence. When COVID struck, the music school shut down for two weeks before reopening with virtual lessons and classes.

“Like the RI Philharmonic Orchestra, which continued performing live throughout the pandemic, the RI Philharmonic Music School continued to provide access to music education programs of the highest quality,” says Jack Van Leer, the Philharmonic’s director of marketing and communications. Over the 2020-2021 school year, the school retained over 80 percent of its pre-COVID private lesson enrollments, and added new students. “Additionally, the Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensembles performed two virtual concerts during the 20-21 school year.”

The Galactic’s Podsnap reflects on the moment we are all living through. “My ultimate expectation is to keep original music alive while giving new artists a stage and a crowd to build their craft and move onto bigger things. Be crazy and be polite at the same time. Sit back, shut up, and enjoy the show.” 

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