The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a year without live music for the most part. If you looked hard enough, you could find a house show, the occasional outdoor gig and plenty of live-streamed performances. But the ability to buy a ticket and sit inside a venue with a can of beer all but disappeared.
It made for a long, long year for music lovers.
Fortunately, live music has started to make its long-awaited comeback.
“We started at the end of February,” says Christian Hee, senior marketing manager for Z2 Entertainment, which operates the Boulder Theater in Boulder. “People are hungry for live music.”
Z2 Entertainment still hasn’t reopened its other Boulder venue, the Fox Theatre — a July opening is a possibility — but they are now allowed to seat 150 people at the Boulder Theater. It’s a fraction of the venue’s normal capacity, but Hee says her company plans wide-ranging shows this summer including EDM, bluegrass, country, reggae and indie rock. More artists are starting to schedule shows at the venue this year and into next.
The Boulder Symphony is also scheduled to perform its 2021 season at the Boulder Theater.
“They started in March,” she says. “That’s going through August. It’s pretty tough for them having such a big change for their regular patrons but people have been coming out to enjoy the shows, and the music is beautiful.”
Hee says the venue could go back to full capacity as early as late May, but it could also be later in the summer or early fall, depending on what course COVID takes. Face masks in venues probably won’t go away as soon, however. The company is working closely with Boulder County health officials to incrementally increase attendance. Hee says the company is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Our operations manager is on calls with (health officials) every week to see what the latest news on guidelines and precautions are,” Hee says.
According to the Dickens Opera House Facebook page, the Longmont venue has live music scheduled beginning in late May.
Outside of Boulder County, Red Rocks Amphitheatre has resumed live music as well as drive-in movies and high school graduations, and the Ball Arena in Denver has live music scheduled this year, beginning with Tame Impala on July 30, according to the venue’s respective websites.
Boulder’s eTown Hall recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and an induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Host and co-founder Nick Forster says the venue so far doesn’t have concrete plans to bring back live music.
“We are envisioning some half-capacity events starting in June or July,” Forster says. “We are just going to take it easy and play it by ear. It’s hard to say how things are going to roll as more and more people get vaccinated and as things start to open up.”
Forster wants to see eTown restored to some level of its former place and relevance in the Boulder venue community.
“It was a busy place prior to the pandemic,” he says. “There are lots of different kinds of events. We weren’t just a music venue. We have a recording studio, we have a film festival we partner with. We have classical music and meetings and parties and other things, too.”
The venue kept busy during the pandemic with live-streamed events, its radio shows, web series and other community programs like one that helped formerly homeless youth with their own songwriting.
Forster says COVID has given the folks at eTown an opportunity to think about how they want to move forward.
“I’m not looking forward to going back to the way things were,” he says. “I don’t feel like it. Part of it is that for 30 years we just worked too hard making eTown shows, cranking them out, feeding the beast … That was a lot of work.”
He says eTown is launching a new series of radio shows that highlight the past 30 years and is talking with potential partners about developing a television show. He plans on resurrecting Nick Forster’s Hippie Bluegrass Church, a Sunday sing-along with a live band and poetry readings.
“We are bringing those back this summer,” he says. “We are doing them at the Boulder bandshell starting in July.”
He adds that the folks at eTown are not currently motivated by commerce or anxiety, so they are brainstorming ways to make the venue as busy as possible.
“We just want to do good stuff,” he says. “And we want to do it safely.”
Danny Cohen, public events manager at the Colorado Chautauqua Association, says that a full season of live music is planned at the famous landmark in the foothills west of Boulder.
“We’re also very excited to host Boulder International Film Festival at Chautauqua for the very first time,” Cohen says. “Their weekend of events will open up our Auditorium season on June 25 to 27.”
He says that some of the events will be limited capacity to reflect the COVID pandemic, and some shows are rescheduled events that were canceled last year. Events are still subject to change based on how the pandemic plays out moving forward.
Nonetheless, Cohen says there is a sense of cautious optimism about the return of live shows.
“It’s exciting news to be able to work on shows again,” Cohen says. “For everyone involved, that is our life’s work. But this will be a different year than any we’ve operated in, so we are taking care to do it right, that is to say safely and properly. We haven’t hosted an event at Chautauqua in a year, and the anticipation to return is high.”
Grace Barrett, a spokeswoman for Planet Bluegrass, says the Lyons-based venue that also hosts the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass and Folks Festival has been going “pretty full steam ahead” in recent months.
“We’ve been approved to do all of our events this year,” Barrett says. “Right now we are focused on Telluride, which we have split into two weekends instead of our traditional one long weekend. We are going to be at a super reduced capacity.”
In Lyons, Planet Bluegrass has already brought back live music and, as of early May, has hosted more than 20 socially distanced live shows, “Spring Grass,” on its main stage. They plan on another half dozen or so before Memorial Day.
“We are able to do events with about 500 people,” she says. “We have live music in Lyons except for Mondays.”
Barrett says Planet Bluegrass has a small team, and the past year and its uncertainty have been kind of surreal. Staff have taken on new roles and are trying to make sense of an ever-shifting landscape.
‘We are so grateful to be working together and learning together,” she says. “This is all new to everyone. We don’t know what the future holds in terms of COVID or the pandemic or anything like that.”