Capital Region

Venues gradually getting back to in-person concerts

Sarah Craig, executive director, is pictured at Caffe Lena in a file photo.
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Sarah Craig, executive director, is pictured at Caffe Lena in a file photo.

As Caffe Lena has welcomed audience members back for in-person concerts again, executive director Sarah Craig has heard some encouraging stories from people who have missed the experience.

“I had an amazing number of people say that other than going to the grocery store, this was the first thing that they had gone out and done since the start of the pandemic. For them to choose an event at Caffe Lena, for them to choose music, was very touching to me. [It’s] an act of trust and an indication of just how much live music really means to people,” Craig said.

The Saratoga Springs coffee house has hosted in-person concerts, along with live-streamed shows, since early April, when restrictions in New York State loosened to allow arts venues to host programs at 33% capacity.

For the first month, Caffe Lena capped tickets at 24, below the mandated capacity, though there are plans to open it up to 34 people next month.

“We capped it at 24 and the idea was for the staff, and the artists, and the audience to just start to get used to being around each other again because it’s been a long time for everybody,” Craig said. “It’s a little more overwhelming for people who have been very quarantined than they expect and for the musicians too, for everybody; it’s just a little bit intimidating to be in a roomful of people again so we just wanted to make [the transition] feel as gentle as possible.”

Craig hopes that as the year progresses, restrictions regarding limited capacity will lift. It will allow the venue to bring in more artists and will help to cover the cost of doing so. With the current limited capacity, ticket sales do not cover that cost, though the live-streaming does help as viewers can donate during the shows.

“I want as much as possible to get the most illustrious roster of artists that I possibly can. So I am assuming that by July, we’ll probably be up to maybe 50% [capacity] and I’m hoping that by September we might be up to 75% and that by the end of the year we might be back to full capacity,” Craig said.

While there’s no guarantee that will be the case, Craig said that there’s a general assumption across the music industry that that’s the direction things are heading.

At this time, venues in New York can host events with up to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors. However, if all attendees present proof of completed vaccination or negative test results, the capacity can increase up to 150 people indoors and 500 outdoors. Social distancing, face coverings and health screenings will be required as well.

For larger venues, particularly ones like Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, there’s still a bit of uncertainty surrounding the season. Representatives said they’re cautiously optimistic for a 2021 pavilion concert season. They recently postponed a James Taylor concert from July to Aug. 21 and announced that they’ll present Chris Stapleton on September 23.

CEO Eric Frances told The Gazette earlier this year that the Center was working on developing multiple scenarios when it comes to safety measures.

“We are really optimistic about the summer, especially after recent amendments to restrictions, the increased availability of tests, and vaccination numbers. We think that will put us in a positive position for the upcoming summer given our outdoor venue of over 16,000 capacity. Ultimately, it comes down to following the state mandate and accommodating our guests safely. We are very eager to open up our doors and will be doing so the first chance we get,” Frances said.

When it comes to Live Nation concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, there’s no word yet on what new health/safety rules there will be or what exactly the season will look like. There are shows on the calendar, including mainstays like Dave Matthews Band, which announced last week that it would be returning to the venue in September. The Gazette reached out to Live Nation for more information but did not receive a response.

Some non-traditional venues, like Schenectady’s Frog Alley Brewing, are opting to host live music this summer and rearranging their space to do so.

While the brewery has hosted indoor incidental music during the pandemic, last weekend the venue held two outdoor concerts, featuring Annie in the Water, Rich Ortiz and The Wheel.

Organizers turned part of the parking lot into a performance space, with a stage placed in front of socially distanced tables. Capacity was capped at 200, to fit the state requirements.

It’s a model Frog Alley plans to use throughout the summer, with a season-long concert series (the line-up has yet to be announced).

Financial relief

Though many questions remain about what the summer concert season will look like, financial relief may be in sight for some performing arts venues. Earlier this week leaders were finally able to apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, which are being distributed through the Small Business Administration. They are part of the COVID-19 relief legislation passed earlier this year, allocating $15 billion for independent venues, ranging from music to theater and more.

However, when venue leaders attempted to apply for the funding several weeks ago, the application portal crashed and no applications were accepted.

Craig said that for venues in serious financial need, that experience was excruciating “because they were just trying to survive to that moment when the portal opened. Then it didn’t open and there was so much discouragement.”

On Monday a revamped portal opened and Caffe Lena and the Palace Theatre, among other local venues, were able to apply for the grants. It will be another few weeks until they find out whether or not they’re approved, but it does offer a sense of encouragement for the months ahead.

Categories: Entertainment

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