Music venues make a cautious return to in-person performances
by Daniel Polleta
After being closed for more than a year due to COVID 19 restrictions, the Happy Dog at W. 58th and Detroit Avenue reopened on June 25, much to the delight of both hot dog lovers, and the patrons who come to hear music and attend other events at the popular Gordon Square spot.
While the doors are reopening, business is not the same as it was pre-pandemic at the Happy Dog or many other places. Clubs and presenters face decisions on how many people to admit, finding bands that are ready to perform, staffing questions, and other issues that will shape what in-person performances will be like over the coming months
The Happy Dog
If opening weekend is any indication, people are ready to return to the Happy Dog. Both of this weekend’s shows are sold out, and tickets are selling quickly for performances scheduled for July 2 featuring Sammy Slims and the July 3 set with Slug Fest.
However, that doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal at the Dog. The club will open to a limited capacity on the weekends, with patrons needing to buy a ticket to the shows.
Co-owner Sean Watterson estimates it will take the Happy Dog being open a full month on the weekends, before they begin gradually adding in weekend days, and weekday service.
“Optimistically, by our 13th anniversary, on August 1, we’d be back to normal, but realistically, it might be September. There’s just so many unknowns we are facing,” Watterson said.
Among those unknowns is assembling a list of performers.
“There are some bands who are ready to play, while others haven’t been able to practice, because they couldn’t afford to maintain their rehearsal space, because they weren’t out making money. Until we can get people back together, we don’t know the full extent of the impact of COVID on the musicians. We don’t know who had to give up music to do something else” Watterson said.
Watterson also indicated sound technicians are in short supply, because like the musicians, many of them had to get other jobs during the pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, Watterson, as the Ohio precinct captain of the National Independent Venue Association, has been active in lobbying state federal leaders to provide funds to help support performance venues that were forced to close or curtail hours.
Watterson’s hard work paid off earlier this week, when he received the news that the Happy Dog would be receiving funding from The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which is being administered by the Small Business Administration
What will it be like when the door finally opens?
“It’s going to be joyous, and a little terrifying. I know the staff has muscle-memory but the first time someone walks to the register to punch in a hot dog order, you’ll have to remind yourself how to do it,” Watterson said.
The Bop Stop
The Music Settlement’s Bop Stop at 2920 Detroit Avenue is making plans to gradually welcome back more music fans.
Currently, the club is presenting a mix of outdoor shows which allow for up to 60 socially distanced patrons, and indoor performances which require concertgoers to purchase a table for the performance, rather than individual tickets.
Bop Stop director Gabe Pollack said the plan is to continue that mix of outdoor and indoor performances, but with more patrons being allowed for the indoor shows as summer progresses.
In June the Bop Stop increased the number of patrons permitted indoors from 25 to 40, with all four of the shows selling out. The plan is to continue to gradually increase that number every few weeks, with the hope of being up to full capacity by August.
As more concertgoers return, the Bop Stop is bringing back its staff, but Pollack said the kitchen will be serving a very limited number of items for the near future, but patrons are permitted to bring their own food.
During the pandemic, the Bop Stop livestreamed the indoor performances, a policy which will continue, even when capacity returns to 100%.
“They are great for getting our name out and growing an archive of performances at the club. Also, for those patrons who can’t make it in for a concert, or aren’t ready to attend, they can tune in to the livestream,” Pollack said.
As he has continued to book shows, Pollack has found that most musicians are anxious to get back on the road and to play in front of as many people as possible.
“My experience is that once band members get vaccinated most of them have no problem going on tour. They are polite about honoring the safety policies in place but would play to full rooms if given the opportunity,” Pollack said.
Jim Wadsworth Productions
After presenting countless shows at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, veteran music promoter Jim Wadsworth, head of Jim Wadsworth Productions, had to find new venues to stage performances, when the popular Cleveland Heights restaurant closed due to COVID-19 in March of 2020, and remained closed after a change of ownership earlier this year.
Wadsworth was scouting new locations, when he received a call from Dennis Barrie, who was working as a consultant to the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Barrie asked Wadsworth if he’d like to present performances in the Center, which offered both outdoor and indoor performing spaces. Wadsworth agreed and booked a month of shows in June.
Wadsworth has been pleased with the crowds who attended the performances, noting “there is a hunger out there to hear live music.”
In addition to the History Center performances, Wadsworth has also booked a series of outdoor shows, in conjunction with BluJazz+ in Akron.
While Wadsworth booked and promoted a few shows during the pandemic, he spent most of his time relaxing and waiting for things to improve. He admits after getting up when he felt like it and, doing what he wanted during the lockdown, getting back into the swing of things had taken him a minute.
“It’s been a radically different lifestyle being in COVID., being locked down and having dinner at home every night, instead of being out 200 nights a year, constantly booking shows and picking up musicians at the airport. I did three shows this past week and thought, ‘Wow, I have to shake off this rust,’” Wadsworth said.
Tri-C JazzFest has a new venue and month for 2021.
The festival, which is normally presented in June in Playhouse Square moves to September 11 and 12, in Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.
The two day event will feature a mix of local and national performers, ranging from brilliant young pianist Emmet Cohen, to saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to a concert billed as “A Moment in Cleveland” featuring trumpeter Dominick Faranaci and saxophonist Ernie Krivda.
After consulting with other jazz festival directors around the country, many of whom said they were pushing their early summer festivals to late summer or early fall, Pontremoli realized it was a good move for JazzFest, to move to September.
However, staging the mix of indoor and outdoor performances in Playhouse Square, given the set of circumstances due to COVID-19, wasn’t going to be feasible.
“If we wanted to do it outside, it didn’t make sense for us to go to the expense and trouble, to build a stage, then if the weather was crummy, nothing would happen, plus there were other events booked for Playhouse Square in September,” Pontremoli said.
Pontremoli said Cain Park provided ideal, because it offered both outdoor and covered seating.
With COVID restrictions now loosened, the festival will be able to welcome more concert goers, although Cain Park will still limit capacity to under 100%.
While the festival isn’t quite the full-scale extravaganza that happens over three days in Playhouse Square, Pontremoli is optimistic that JazzFest goers will still have a great experience.
“This year, it’s not necessarily about the celebrity, but instead about how great, diverse and accessible this music is, “Pontremoli said.
Editor’s Note: This article was produced and provided to the Plain Press by The Land. The Land is an online Newsletter that reports on Cleveland neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. To subscribe to The Land visit: www.thelandcle.org.