So it was with relief that local music fans greeted Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Sept. 25 announcement that six venues — City Winery, GALA Hispanic Theatre, the Hamilton, the Kennedy Center, Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage — were participating in the District’s “Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot,” allowing them to resume in-person shows, subject to restrictions, through Oct. 30. After all, across the Potomac, Jammin Java began hosting free outdoor live concerts in its Vienna parking lot in June, and the Birchmere in Alexandria held its first indoor show July 10, shortly after the state entered Phase 3. And on the same day of Bowser’s announcement, Anne Arundel County allowed entertainment venues, including Annapolis’ Rams Head On Stage, to reopen.
But owners of the selected D.C. music venues say they hadn’t realized how restrictive the government rules would actually be. Chief among them: No more than 50 people are allowed inside a venue at one time — a number that includes performers, servers, bartenders and kitchen staff as well as audience members. Patrons must be seated at tables, and those tables must be 20 to 30 feet from the stage, depending on whether there’s singing, in addition to being six feet apart from other tables. Performers onstage must also remain six feet from each other.
The capacity limit, which applies regardless of the venue’s square footage or pre-pandemic fire capacity, has proved the most controversial aspect of the District’s pilot program. “Once you have the band and the staff, we’ll have about 35 people in the joint,” says Pearl Street Warehouse’s Bruce Gates. “We’re not going to get through to April having 35-person concerts. But look, it’s a step. I’d like to think they’ll come out with a second pilot that will have slightly more workable rules.”
Daniel Brindley has seen both sides, booking larger outdoor shows at Jammin Java, and now arranging for much smaller indoor gigs at D.C.’s Union Stage. “It does rub me the wrong way when there’s like this little bit of opening, and you’re like, ‘Ooh, a ray of light.’ But that kind of flips back into torture,” Brindley says. “You’re just giving me this little bit of hope, and then if you look at the ramifications of what you’re asking me to do, I’m very likely going to lose money doing this and not create an experience that is correct.”
For others, the selection was a poisoned chalice: City Winery vice president of marketing Rachel Insler says the Ivy City winery and concert venue was “encouraged by the mayor’s announcement,” but declined to participate because City Winery wasn’t aware of the 50-person limit before the mayor’s announcement. “It is not economically viable for us to reopen with a capacity restriction of 50 people that includes attendees, performers, and staff,” she says.
Despite venues worrying about the laundry list of do’s and don’ts, music fans seem eager to come back. The Hamilton has scheduled just three shows, all of which have sold out. Tickets for blues and roots singer Samantha Fish’s Oct. 19 show at the Birchmere sold out, then a second night did too. Renowned ’90s cover band White Ford Bronco sold out all 35 tickets for its Oct. 16 concert at Union Stage in the blink of an eye, and are simulcasting the event at the Bullpen, an outdoor beer garden near Nationals Park, where a socially distant table for six costs $150.
And yet, the specter of the coronavirus looms over everything: Beyond capacity restrictions, clubs are trying to figure out seating layouts that allow as many customers as possible while keeping tables six feet apart. Some are installing physical barriers, worried that artists could transmit the virus to audience members, or vice versa, and using UV lights and industrial foggers as disinfectants.
For those returning to indoor concert halls, it comes down to one question: Is seeing a band worth the risk of getting sick? Even if venues are wiping everything down, that’s only lessening the risk, not removing it completely.
Artists are wrestling with the situation, too. White Ford Bronco singer Gretchen Gustafson says she and her bandmates didn’t get together to rehearse until May out of caution — “It’s not like our parents are super-young anymore,” she says — and debated whether they should play outdoor shows during a pandemic. After all, this is a band that can easily sell out the 9:30 Club, and “we were terrified that people would hear there was a White Ford Bronco concert, and maybe 3,000 people would show up,” Gustafson says, not unrealistically. “We’d want people to be smart, and socially distanced.” Besides, Gustafson also knows that some fans still aren’t ready to go out at all, so the band is live-streaming the Union Stage show straight into living rooms for $15.
Despite the stress over the pilot program, which city officials have said is a test that officials “can learn from for future guidance,” Brindley is trying to remain optimistic.
“You just have to hold out hope,” he says. “And I also just refuse to believe that we’re in a climate where the local and federal governments would knowingly refuse aid to a huge swath of businesses, knowing they’re going to go extinct. Because it would decimate so much more than those individuals,” he adds, noting how a busy night at Union Stage drives traffic to other bars and eateries at the Wharf. “You have to hold out that some element of reason is going to shine through. The pilot program is some indication that there’s something going on in that direction.”
The venues that have reopened are each taking different approaches to live music. Here’s what to expect if you attend.
The Kennedy Center returned to live performances in late September with a novel format, seating the audience on the Opera House’s stage, while members of the National Symphony Orchestra performed on a platform in front of the rows of seats. (Upcoming performances on Oct. 20 and 30 are sold out.)
But Robert Van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic planning, was also thinking beyond the building’s walls. “We have this incredible campus with the Reach and outdoor areas,” he says. “Our objective is, ‘How can we bring the arts back to more people?’ ”
Last week, a line of 50 music lovers formed at the Reach, the Kennedy Center’s year-old $250 million expansion, waiting to file past a hand-sanitizing station and into a roped-off swath of grass, where 50 chairs had been carefully arranged in socially distant pairs in front of the River Pavilion. Behind the seating area, a larger (but still socially distant) crowd spread out picnics on blankets on a sloping lawn. The glass walls of the pavilion rolled up like garage doors, exposing a stage with a piano.
The occasion was the debut of the Reach’s free, weekly Sunset Concerts, featuring three vocalists from the Cafritz Young Artists of Washington National Opera. Over the course of an hour, the trio performed three mini-sets of arias and songs from operas and musicals, giving the audience a mix of Mozart, Ravel and Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Don’t they have beautiful voices, and isn’t it nice to hear those voices live again?” asked Cafritz director Robert Ainsley during one break, and the applause showed how much the crowd agreed on both counts.
While it makes sense to start the series with one of the Kennedy Center’s best-known programs, Van Leer says other weeks will feature jazz, comedy and other disciplines: “We’re trying to give a selection of what you might find at the Kennedy Center,” he says, which is music to everyone’s ears.
2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. Sunset Concerts take place outdoors once per week Monday through Wednesday at 7 p.m. The next concert is Monday at 7. Advance registration is suggested but not required; everyone, regardless of whether they registered, can line up for chairs around half an hour before the program begins. Free. — F.H.
Pearl Street Warehouse has an indoor/outdoor setup that most venues would envy. There are 11 tables outside on a pedestrianized brick street at the Wharf, each seating two or four customers. Inside, the stage runs along a wall in the main dining room, with a mezzanine providing room for extra-distant tables. But what sets Pearl Street apart is that the garage-door-style walls facing the eponymous Pearl Street roll up, letting customers on the patio see and hear the band, which could double the capacity if every seat is filled. (A few tables near the hostess stand have little or no sightlines, but it’s easy to hear everything.)
Tickets for shows during the pilot program are free, though there’s a $30 per-person minimum. Reservations are required for the eight tables indoors, which range from two to six seats. The tables outside are first-come, first-served, and a half-dozen groups were lingering around the entrance last Friday before the host began seating them at 7 p.m. (The closer you are to the front of the line, the easier it is to get a table looking straight through the “windows” at the band.) Otherwise, Pearl Street is much the same as remembered: The entertainers are Americana-focused, while food and drinks include stacked burgers and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, washed down by margaritas, crushes and micheladas. (The owners also run the nearby dock bar Cantina Bambina.)
33 Pearl St. SW. pearlstreetwarehouse.com. Shows take place indoors Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and some Sundays at 4 p.m. Free admission; $30 food and drink minimum per person. — F.H.
Union Stage has a slightly less cushy setup than its neighbor at the Wharf, Pearl Street Warehouse: It’s in an intimate basement tucked into an alley that’s ill-suited for the socially distanced world. For the time being, Union Stage will host indoor shows that will be limited to a 35-person audience; the shows will also be available for purchase as a live-stream (Friday’s sold out White Ford Bronco show will also be broadcast at the Bullpen across from Nationals Park). Brindley notes that one small upside to the pandemic closure was that it allowed Union Stage the time to build out its performance space to host live-stream shows that give a sense that you’re buying into a well-crafted production.
All shows will be seated, and in addition to the cost of entry, ticket holders will need to fulfill a two-item minimum. This could include something from the club’s reliably local selection of beer, or its outstanding cripsy bar-style pizzas, which are also available through the Union Pie kiosk along the Wharf pier.
740 Water St. SW. unionstage.com. Shows take place indoors Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m. In-person: $20-$50, live-stream: $10-$15. — H.C.
“I’ve been doing this for 55 years now,” says Birchmere owner Gary Oelze. “Strangest time I’ve ever been in.” The legendary Americana music venue shut down in March, “and all my acts went south,” Oelze says, as touring dried up. The Birchmere eventually reopened in July, with its main room at less than half of its 500-person capacity to space out the tables, and additional precautions, including disinfecting the club with an industrial fogger that the Environmental Protection Agency says can kill the coronavirus.
At first, the Birchmere was open only on Friday and Saturday nights, filling the calendar with a mix of locals, such as the Nighthawks and Daryl Davis, as well as tribute bands, but “now we’ll have 25 shows in October, and some of the [national] headliners are coming back.” Oelze says the Alexandria club is offering some acts two-night stands, as a guarantee, though artists have to make a living, too. “A ‘sellout’ for us,” he says, means “we’re breaking even.”
However, Oelze says, that’s okay in the grand scheme. “The reason I opened is because I’m trying to keep my staff together — your sound crew, your kitchen crew, your box office crew,” he explains. “They’ve been with me for 30 years. We own the property, we’re debt-free. My goal is, we’re going to survive and show people the Birchmere’s still around.”
3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. birchmere.com. Shows take place indoors throughout the week at various times. Ticket prices vary. — F.H.
When Northern Virginia entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan on July 8, Jammin Java was gearing up to open its stage to local bands on July 19. But the pandemic continued: First came an upward tick of new cases of the novel coronavirus, then came trepidation from fans and bands, seeking refunds and rescheduled dates. And within 11 days, the Vienna music venue pulled the plug on its indoor reopening plan.
Instead, it focused on its outdoor programming. Jammin Java, located in a strip mall, took over a parking lot from a couple of its neighbors and morphed into a stage and pizza joint. But Brindley, one of three brothers who owns Jammin Java as well as Union Stage, did not want to scour the market for outdoor heaters, so as the colder months approach, the club will head back indoors, starting with a comedy show on Oct. 23 and a concert on Nov. 12. There will be limited capacity, and all attendees will be seated at banquet-style tables, which run parallel to the stage and can be reconfigured.
Brindley and company have kept in close contact with the Birchmere to gauge audience demand and effectiveness of cleaning protocols. The shift is also a byproduct of the harsh financial realities that venues are facing as government-assistance legislation continues to languish.
“It was early to mid-April that the [Paycheck Protection Program] came in and that money is gone,” Brindley says of the small business loan that Jammin Java was able to secure. “We are just skating by with incredible sacrifices being made behind the scenes.”
If Jammin Java makes it through to the other side of the pandemic, the silver lining for Brindley has been the response to the outdoor concerts, which he hopes to be able to continue in the future.
227 Maple Ave., Vienna. jamminjava.com . Shows take place outdoors on various days at 6 p.m. through Nov. 7. Free. — H.C.
Even if you haven’t checked out the programming at the State Theatre — think an eclectic mix of tribute bands, stand up comedians and the occasional legendary rock, blues and jazz artists — you would be drawn to its marquee. A trip through Falls Church’s downtown wouldn’t be complete without peeking at its classical-styled lettering announcing such performances, but in this dire era, the top line simply reads: “HELP OUR STAFF.”
The State Theatre started hosting outdoor shows over the summer. While some outdoor operations can feel charmingly makeshift, the State’s setup felt like stumbling onto a long-running neighborhood block party. The venue transformed its parking lot into a stage and the audience area offers well-spaced table seating along with full-service food and drink options.
But if you end up anywhere along Park Place (off Lee Highway), you can soak up the sounds and some semblance of the concert experience. Miss visiting a nearby bar before heading into a show? Seek out a table and an orange crush across the street at the long-running tropical-themed Clare & Don’s Beach Shack, which has its own outdoor stage with an early performance (6 p.m. on weekends) that gives way to State Theatre’s nighttime festivities. Or even if you’re just passing by, there’s street parking and a nearby parking lot where you can pop in and out — on a recent visit, the scene was captivating enough to lure random neighbors out of their dwellings with folding chairs in tow.
220 N. Washington St., Falls Church. thestatetheatre.com. Shows take place outdoors on Wednesdays through Sundays at various times through Nov. 7. Free. — H.C.
Anne Arundel County allowed movie theaters and performance spaces to reopen their doors at 9 a.m. on Sept. 25. That night, local Irish rock band Dublin 5 played the Rams Head’s first show in six months. Director of marketing Laura Price says the venerable Annapolis music hall will be “starting smaller,” focusing on local and regional acts on Fridays and Saturdays, and then expanding to Thursdays in the future. It’s hard to do much planning, she adds, since many big-name headliners aren’t touring until 2021, and other events, originally scheduled for March through May, “have moved around two or three times” already.
Change is evident: Around two-thirds of the tables have been removed, says Price, leaving 100 seats, and a seven-foot plexiglass screen now surrounds the stage. (It’s not required, Price says, but it “helps protect the artists and the crowd.”) You might notice other enhancements, too: Entry is now contactless, with patrons scanning tickets from their phones at the front door. An antimicrobial blue light is used to disinfect the room at intermission. When the show finishes, servers allow different sections of the room to exit one at a time, which prevents crowding at the door, but is also reminiscent of being dismissed from a middle school cafeteria.
One important note for couples who want to attend a show: Of the 27 tables available at Rams Head, nine are for two people. If those have sold out, and you pick a table with four seats, you’ll have to pay for four tickets. (Parties of three are in the same boat.) The venue says this is to maximize capacity without having to seat groups from different households at the same table. Your best option is to purchase early.
33 West St., Annapolis. ramsheadonstage.com. Shows take place indoors Fridays and Saturdays at 7 or 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices vary. — FH
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the blues and roots singer who has sold out two shows at the Birchmere. This version has been updated.