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Live concerts return to Rochester — an overview

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In some respects, it’s as though the coronavirus pandemic never happened. Over the last couple of weeks, blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland was at Abilene Bar & Lounge. Oliver Wood, lead singer and songwriter of the Wood Brothers, was at Anthology. Rock and country singer-songwriter Steve Earle, an irascible and invaluable social critic, was at Point of the Bluff Vineyards.

This was how it always was, back in the day.

Although I had been hearing scattered news reports that something was in the air, my first real sense of the pandemic came early in March 2020. I was sitting at the bar in a downtown Rochester restaurant and noted that every time a patron would leave, the bartender energetically sprayed the counter with disinfectant.

Throughout the past 15 months or so, some entertainment venues continued to operate with varying degrees of acknowledgment as to what was happening in this country; over 600,000 have now died from COVID-19.

We saw venues try concert versions of drive-in theater, plexiglass between bartenders and clientele, socially distanced tables. Masks were required, except when eating and drinking, although I could never quite square the notion of how sitting in front of a burger and a beer was a virus preventive on the same order as a mask.

And entertainment responded by migrating to virtual platforms. Musicians played live for tips on your laptop computer. The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival stayed alive by moving entirely to the internet.



And now? The sudden blossoming of events this summer has caught me by surprise.

This is an uneven comeback, for sure. Larger touring events are taking more time to reassemble. So the Auditorium Theatre schedule is largely pre-pandemic Rochester Broadway Theatre League postponements and scattered events such as the Aug. 19 “Old School Summer Jam” with Dru Hill, Ginuwine and Montell Jordan. Darien Lake Amphitheater is offering leftovers from its 2020 schedule. Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center has a lineup that edges toward the kind of shows we expected from the venue  before the pandemic: Brandi Carlile, King Crimson, Harry Connick Jr., and the usual country stars.

Uncertainty led to the cancellation of many big summer festivals like the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. The GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance bailed on the summer, only to return with a series of small weekend events; Rochester’s sacred-steel powerhouse, The Campbell Brothers, are featured July 23.

Virtual presentations are not surrendering the territory they fought for over the last 15 months. Writers & Books has been working that vein throughout the pandemic through virtual events with writers. Its next presentation is with acclaimed Rochester novelist Joanna Scott, who has a free presentation on her new collection of short stories, “Excuse Me While I Disappear,” at 7:30 p.m. on July 22.

With a dearth of live opportunities during quarantine, local musicians prepared new music. While his opportunities to play live with the Hi-Risers and Los Straitjackets remained quiet, guitarist Greg Townson created a new in strumental album called "Off in Running!"  He plays its record-release party at Abilene Bar & Lounge on July 23.

What we’re really seeing is life returning to the smaller, less complex outdoor shows.

Finger Lakes Opera, and a cautious but thoughtful summer of “The Marriage of Figaro, with wine, is a highbrow offering at Canandaigua’s Lincoln Hill Farms. Toronto’s Celtic indie rockers, Enter the Haggis, play Lincoln Hill on July 24. It’s one of the new performance spaces — others include the earthy Jurassic Farms and the JCC Canalside Theatre — that have emerged from the pandemic wreckage.

The University of Rochester quietly announced that restrictions on its venues — Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, Kilbourn Hall, and Hatch Recital Hall — have been lifted, which is good news for the Rochester Fringe Festival’s September return. Party in the Park has resumed, with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (and a schedule heavy on tribute bands). Bands on the Bricks is back at the Public Market.

The Bug Jar, Rochester’s home for indie rock, reopens Aug. 6. Geva Theatre Center and Blackfriars Theatre are edging back into the scene; Geva has the Johnny Cash musical “Ring of Fire” on Aug. 3. Downtown’s biggest club, Anthology, has an intriguing Aug. 3 show with Japanese Breakfast, an indie band led by Michelle Zauner, a woman of South Korean heritage whose autobiography became a New York Times best-seller.

The movie theaters are open again. It’s “Cat Video Fest” this weekend at The Little Theatre. Cats are probably fine, I just don’t know how to communicate with them. So for people like me, who can’t subsist on a diet of superhero flicks, there is the usual heady fare back at The Little and The Dryden.

In so many ways, it does feel like the old days. Actor Billy Bob Thornton becomes a musician at Point of the Bluff. Ani DiFranco has a gig there as well. As we ease out of August and into the fall, Abilene Bar & Lounge celebrates the music of George Harrison, Johnny Cash, and John Prine.

But we’re not through with this yet.

Abilene still has a vaccinated-only policy. We’ve lost restaurants and music venues that are distinctive to our community. And with COVID-19 cases soaring again, Los Angeles has just reinstated indoor mask requirements. The pathways seized by COVID-19 remain open for the Delta variant, and whatever may follow.

It’s not over.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.
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