Even though his audience had to hunker down in jackets under heating lamps on the patio, David Huckfelt sounded extra thankful to play one of the last shows of the season at Icehouse in Minneapolis on Monday night.
Like every other outdoor music gig in the Twin Cities this summer and fall, he was happy it happened at all.
“The outdoor shows have been a lifeline,” said the folk-rock troubadour of the Pines notoriety.
“I won’t be playing indoor concerts while COVID rages,” Huckfelt added. “Unlike the Republican leadership, I’m not inclined to put my needs ahead of keeping people safe and alive.”
Musicians and music venues around Minnesota are again grappling with the politics, science and general desperation around COVID-19 as November has arrived, the outdoor concert season has ended, and the virus is still alive and thriving throughout the Midwest.
At least a few venues around the Twin Cities are planning to host indoor — and in-person — performances. Some are heating up their virtual offerings, too.
Most are just staying shuttered, though, and all are facing great uncertainty and economic pain.
“It’s going to be a long, brutal winter,” said Omar Yamoor, talent booker at Tuttle’s in Hopkins. “It doesn’t make it easier that we’re all in this together.”
Tuttle’s is one of the places opting to keep live music going through winter. Others include Medina Entertainment Center, Crooners, Bogart’s, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and the Minnesota Music Café — all except the latter located in the suburbs, which allow for bigger rooms and better spacing.
Thanks to its bowling-alley setting, Tuttle’s has high ceilings, a large stage and a dance floor now partitioned off with tables. Seats must be reserved ahead of time for its small 50- to 70-person crowds, which are well under the 50% capacity state guidelines for venues with food service. (Bars without food can still only host 25%.)
“We were hoping to be more out of the woods by now with the virus, and are obviously paying close attention,” Yamoor said, noting the state’s rising infections.
“We’re going to keep doing it as long as the state allows.”
Crooners’ big-tent approach
Crooners has not yet given up on the outdoor concert season.
The jazz-centric Fridley supper club — which erected stages in its large parking lot over the summer to great success — now boasts a large tent in its parking lot with tables and a high-tech “fusion” air-circulating heating system. Shows are booked there through Thanksgiving.
“It’s all about comfort and safety, and as long as we have both we’ll keep going,” said Crooners representative Beck Lee.
Still, there’s no fighting subzero temperatures. Crooners is also already hosting downsized shows indoors in its intimate Dunsmore Room. Work is also underway on new ventilation and a redesigned configuration to host half-capacity performances inside Crooners’ main room during the coldest months.
At Chanhassen Dinner Theatres — where the usual Broadway-style productions are postponed until at least spring — a steady lineup of in-person tribute concerts are keeping the seats warm through winter, such as Mary Jane Alm’s Emmylou Harris set this Sunday.
“Our staff has gotten good at making sure everyone is following the guidelines, and the audiences themselves are mostly really good about it now, too,” said marketing manager Nick Haug.
Asked how the concerts are helping out CDT’s finances, Haug said, “We’re not banking any money on them, but they’re keeping us from having to close for now.”
Many of the best-known full-time music venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul still are not ready to try indoor shows, though. Their staffs say the safety risks outweigh the meager economic opportunities in hosting small-capacity crowds.
At First Avenue, for instance, the club went to great lengths to finally welcome back the public last weekend for its annual Halloween dance party. With only 100 tickets sold in allotted time slots, manager Nate Kranz didn’t think their efforts paid off other than in fun for patrons.
“We spent countless hours creating our plan and then going over everything with a fine-toothed comb so we can do this in a way that is safe,” Kranz said.
As a result, First Ave is sticking to plans for a few random virtual concerts that will have “extremely limited” in-person audiences, details still pending. One of the first might be Curtiss A’s John Lennon tribute show on Dec. 8.
The Dakota is working on similar plans for some virtual gigs to keep its stage lit. The Cedar Cultural Center and Hook & Ladder Theatre are sticking to the virtual series they’ve already launched (“SEEN” in the Cedar’s case, “HookStream” at the Hook).
Icehouse, too, will unplug after Saturday night’s finale with Erik Koskinen as the cold weather halts the momentum generated by its popular outdoor series.
Owner Brian Liebeck said Icehouse may host low-key gigs with solo acts or small combos inside later this winter, but for now he and his staff have to focus on getting their indoor restaurant service running smoothly and safely.
“Music is also so much of what we’re about, it hurts not having it,” Liebeck said, while noting how much pain they would have suffered without the outdoor music shows.
“They weren’t big moneymakers, but they kept us going. We obviously knew they couldn’t last, though.”