After a cautious start, Schenectady County’s live music scene is ramping up — just as concerns about the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus are also on the rise.
Last week the Capital Region recorded the state’s highest seven-day positive test average at 2.9%. Schenectady County’s rate as of Friday was 3.4%, the third-highest in the region, just behind Greene County’s 3.6% and Saratoga County’s 4.5%.
“Obviously it’s a concern,” said Cathy Gatta, president of the Freedom Park Foundation, which runs a seasonal outdoor concert series at the park in Scotia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, Saratoga and Schenectady County’s community transmission rate reached a threshold at which the agency recommended that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors.
“I think we just follow whatever the CDC and the governor say that we have to do, and that’s what we do. I know that they are going with their quote ‘an abundance of caution’ and that’s what we want to do. We don’t want to have concerts that are going to put people at risk,” Gatta said.
Like many series, plans for Freedom Park’s were in flux for much of the spring and early summer. With COVID-19 restrictions, organizers planned to cap attendance and rope off designated areas for families to help with social distancing. However, the series kicked off just as COVID-19 restrictions lifted in New York state. So far the shows have attracted decent-sized crowds, ranging from 250 for a small show to 850 for the bigger bands, according to Gatta.
“Shows have been really well attended, not like they were in 2018, 2019 and before, but better than I assumed they would be because of COVID and the weather. All those things combining is not a really great sequence of events to happen,” Gatta said.
Overall, Schenectady’s music scene has been quieter than in prepandemic days. While regional concert series such as Albany’s Alive at Five series and Park Theater’s summer music series in Crandall Park in Glens Falls returned earlier this season, some popular Schenectady music traditions have been canceled or reduced.
Central Park’s Music Haven, which traditionally presents bands from all over the world, is slated to return with a shortened season of three performances starting Aug. 15 with blues guitarist Albert Cummings.
Schenectady County SummerNight, a celebration that featured bands such as Blues Traveler, and which draws 20,000 people to downtown, was not held at all this summer. Neither was the weekly Harbor Jam series, which brought in popular cover bands like CSN Songs as well as artists like John Waite.
COVID-19 has largely been to blame for the shift, organizers said.
“Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the timing and logistics made it too difficult to put on our Harbor Jam summer concert series. We’re optimistic that we will be able to bring back Harbor Jam and its full run of shows next year,” according to Rivers Casino & Resort, which organizes the series.
When it came to SummerNight, Gatta, who is also a Schenectady County legislator, questioned whether or not people would feel comfortable coming out to what has traditionally been a packed event.
But the music scene has not been silent this season. After a year of little to no live music in 2020, venues around Schenectady have brought it back this summer, some in small, measured steps, others in bolder ways.
Frog Alley Brewing Company falls into the latter category. Starting in late spring, the venue created an outdoor space to host music and continued to host bands in its taproom. While in the past the venue presented mainly regional bands, this season it also brought in national acts such as Little River Band and Air Supply.
“After a year of this mess we’ve been trying as much as we can to get people back out and get live music back, especially into Schenectady because Mohawk Harbor [amphitheater], right now they’re not doing as many shows as they have been in the past. So there’s kind of, we feel, a bit of a missed opportunity in the live music sector in Schenectady,” said Charley Pollard, who organizes shows at Frog Alley.
“We’re trying to expand that so some of that older crowd can have a place to go as well, because if you want to go see shows like that it’s limited to Proctors, which is an indoor venue, beautiful venue, but maybe you want to go outside and do something more like you might get on the lawn at SPAC or something like that. We’ll get rid of that drive for you, you guys can have a place to come in Schenectady and have a place to come and enjoy that live music as well,” Pollard said.
This week, the brewery will host acts like cover band Almost Queen and country singer Granger Smith later in the season.
On Wednesday, the Downtown Schenectady Business Improvement Corp. and Schenectady County kick off a live music and movie series just outside City Hall. The new series will feature bands such as Running the River and The E-Block Band.
While Harbor Jam won’t be held this year, Rivers Casino & Resort is bringing two crowd-pleasing shows later this month, Journeyman and The Lords of 52nd Street.
“We’re thrilled to bring back free live music to the magnificent Mohawk Harbor amphitheater for what’s sure to be two fun and unforgettable nights,” said General Manager Rick Richards. “The music of Eric Clapton and Billy Joel fits right in with our goal to bring top-quality entertainment to the Capital Region.”
Nearby at The Landing Hotel, manager Laura Primiano has also been keeping up a steady stream of live music. Through a new free series called Sunset Sips, Primiano has been inviting regional and sometimes national musicians to perform daily.
“What I had originally thought is we had such a beautiful outdoor space on the patio that we haven’t really utilized to its full capacity,” Primiano said.
After a bit of reorganizing, she created more of a performance space and a lounge area.
Right from the first performance, Primiano said, “We had a full house and it was great. It stayed, and we’ve had such great entertainment. We’ve had a lot of local people come and it’s family-friendly, too. . . . It’s an outdoor space, so families can come and enjoy the live music.”
Not far away, Katie O’Byrnes Irish Pub has been taking a cautious approach to bringing back live music. They’ve had mostly regional soloists and duos perform so far this year, partly because the bigger party bands are now harder to book.
“We’re going to be a little more patient about it and let it ease back, and let Union College get back and let Proctors theater get back,” said co-owner John Keller. “When that starts dumping thousands of people back into downtown then we can maybe ramp up the acts a little heavier, but right now we’ll stay a little more conservative through summer.”
While they’re missing the big events such as Harbor Jam and SummerNight, Keller said he’s pleased with the turnout they’ve seen regularly this season.
“I think it’s a combination of the weather and people have been locked up so long that they’re coming out harder than ever,” Keller said.
Later this year, they’re looking to bring in the Dropkick Murphys for an outdoor party, but as Keller puts it, “There’s no guarantee that this COVID thing is going to allow everything we want to do as it takes another turn.”