It was a “goal gig” the band had been working toward for a couple of years, booked half a year in advance. Alas, what a half-year it turned out to be.
“It just pained us to have to cancel,” singer Katy Vernon said of her tribute band ABBAsolutely Fab’s socially distanced three-night stand at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres last weekend.
The members got cold feet about performing indoors while COVID-19’s Waterloo still seems a ways off in America: “There are still just too many unknowns for us, and no guarantees,” Vernon said.
Barb Brynstad of the buzzing new folk-rock trio Turn Turn Turn went ahead with a show two weekends ago at Icehouse, but only because it was on an outdoor stage with strict distancing guidelines in place.
“Indoor gigs other than livestreams are off the table,” insisted Brynstad, who has pre-existing health conditions in her family to consider. “Which makes me wonder if I’ll be on hiatus from this fall until next spring.”
It’s a new wrinkle in the now-old news of live music cancellations in 2020: Now that some venues are free to host shows again with extra precautions, it’s the musicians themselves who are sometimes making the hard decision whether to go through with the show.
Duluth-reared indie-rocker Mary Bue abruptly pulled the plug on a gig last month at a resort she likes near Superior, Wis. She did so after finding out the day before the show that it was to happen indoors and not outside.
“It was my bad for misunderstanding the venue when I booked it,” admitted Bue, who feared the cancellation would hurt her reputation. But she also had graver concerns.
“When it came down to it, performing inside a small Wisconsin bar when the corona infection rates are rising felt irresponsible to me,” she said, and half-jokingly added, “I don’t want my asymptomatic projectile singing spittle to kill anyone.”
Singers, in particular, are as concerned about being transmitters of COVID-19 as being a recipient of it. Scientists believe the coronavirus primarily transfers through tiny particles breathed through the mouth and nose, which would especially be a problem coming from someone on a raised stage bellowing into a microphone.
Twin Cities rock vet Curt “Curtiss A” Almsted said he was thinking of his not-so-youthful audience’s well-being when he called off his monthly gig last month at the Schooner Tavern. It’s the one time being nicknamed the “Dean of Scream” isn’t good for his career.
“Even with a mask on, I’m still probably a super-spreader,” said Almsted, referring to his verbose — and thus possibly germy — singing and talking style on stage.
Almsted’s show was to be the historic Minneapolis bar’s first live gig upon reopening, after it suffered extensive damage in rioting along E. Lake Street. Other performances are happening there with a 25% capacity limit, just not any from Almsted yet.
“I love the place and the people, and I want to do everything I can to help them, so that made it even harder,” he said.
In ABBAsolutely Fab’s case, the members were extra eager about their first appearance at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where the ABBA-related musical “Mama Mia” was a big hit last year. They were satisfied with the venue’s extra safety guidelines for its 2020 concert series, which include a mask requirement for everyone, extra-sanitized facilities, and alternately timed arrivals for guests.
The group’s co-vocalist even went a step further and made gold-sequined masks (which she also began selling on the side to benefit Value Our Venues). However, that fun accessory only underlined the members’ uneasy feeling about the gigs.
“The whole point of an ABBA tribute group is for people to get up and dance together, sing along and have a good time, and all of that seems contrary to what’s going on right now,” said Vernon, who also worried about the physical interaction on stage between her and co-vocalist Jenny Russ, the Anni-Frid to her Agnetha.
“We have to be up in each other’s faces throughout the show.”
Oh, and one other worry: “There’s also been a backlash against some of the bands that have performed,” Vernon noted.
That backlash was recently felt by rock and soul singer Mick Sterling, who has taken the lead in bringing back live music to the Twin Cities in recent weeks as both a performer (at venues including St. Michael Cinema’s and Crooners’ outdoor stages), and as co-organizer of the Relief Sessions parking-lot concert series in Burnsville.
After he posted a photo on Facebook from a Burnsville gig showing he and his bandmates huddled together at show’s end to take a bow, Sterling faced heavily circulated criticism by one commenter because only two of them had masks on at the time.
“It was all of 10 seconds, but that was enough to start a ruckus,” lamented Sterling, who otherwise did not downplay the safety concerns at his performances.
“Everybody has their own comfort level, and you have to respect that, whatever it is. I personally have taken every precaution that’s been presented to us about keeping myself safe, and everyone else. So I’ve felt good about performing.”
Those precautions include rehearsals where band members are properly distanced, Sterling said — even including playing from different rooms. Some musicians he has called on for shows, however, are still uncomfortable with playing in a band, and Sterling himself remains uncomfortable about playing indoors at some of the smaller venues he used to frequent.
“I want them to open; it’s just going to be difficult for a while longer certainly,” he said, expressing hope that outdoor gigs can continue late into the fall.
“Break out the heater lamps!” Sterling said.
Brynstad of Turn Turn Turn said she feels bad about her indoor-gig aversion because of her bandmates, who just released a new album with a strong local reception and want to strike while the iron is hot.
“We need to promote it, [so] playing gigs now makes sense,” she said. “It’s helpful if the venue has a great plan, good communication and a proven track record of keeping people safe.”
Vernon of ABBAsolutely Fab also is not entirely against performing again. She feels good about an outdoor show with her original band at the Maple Grove Amphitheater on Wednesday.
“It’s outside on a big stage, and it’ll just be me up there singing my sad little songs while the rest of my band stays in their corners,” Vernon said.
“This is how it’s going to have to be for a while: Judging each show case-by-case and making a judgment call. We’re all still mostly just guessing with this thing.”