‘Like a rebirth’: Americans pack reopened concert halls for a summer of music

Americans pack concert halls as live music makes its post-COVID debut
Pamela and Tom Pickens of Madison, Indiana, enjoy live music as coronavirus restrictions are eased at blues bar Kingston Mines in Chicago, Illinois.
REUTERS/Eileen T. Meslar

By Brendan O’Brien, Rich McKay, Andrew Hay and Gabriella Borter

Pamela Pickens swayed her hips as her husband Tom led her in an impromptu dance to the strumming of guitarist Studebaker John at Chicago’s famed blues bar, Kingston Mines.

The couple, wearing fedora hats and wide smiles, had driven five hours from their home in southeast Indiana to visit their favorite blues club, which had recently reopened for live performances after a year of shutdown due to COVID-19.

“It’s so great to be back,” said Pickens, 66, taking a drag from a cigarette outside the venue on a dancing break. “It makes me feel alive.”

Inside the bar in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, a diverse crowd filled long tables, where they threw back cold beer and baskets of fried food while bopping along to the music.

At concert venues across the United States, from Denver to Philadelphia, similar scenes have played out in recent weeks as cities lift COVID-19 restrictions and newly vaccinated music lovers return to their old haunts for the thrill of live music in public company. It is one of the unmistakable sights – and sounds – of American life returning to normal, or closer to it.

Venues large and small are seeing demand soar for performers of all genres, who are scrambling to fine-tune their acts after a year of inaction.

“When we started playing again, it was an out-of-body experience,” said blues guitarist Joanna Connor, gearing up for her show at Kingston Mines one June evening. “It’s reaffirmed that I need to do this for my soul.”

In interviews, concert lovers described the invigorating experience of hearing live music in a crowded room once again. It felt like the antithesis of the homebound isolation they endured over the past year, and for many, it felt like an antidote.

In Alexandria, Virginia, a mostly middle-aged, Black crowd of more than 200 people swayed their arms in time with a wailing trombone at the Birchmere Music Hall’s tribute to Motown concert. It was the first of many summer concerts that Lynette Shingler and her husband Earl planned to attend, now that they were vaccinated against COVID-19.

“If you are a music fanatic, listening to it on the radio is not the same,” said Shingler, a 52-year-old federal employee in a floor-length blue dress. “You’ve really got to be in the atmosphere.”

In Denver, New Age guitarist Victor Towle has already played more than twice as many gigs as he did in 2020 since local bars restarted live entertainment in May.

Towle spent the last year recording a solo instrumental album since he could not play live. His return to the stage and to his typical three-hour performances has felt abrupt but “exhilarating,” he said.

“I’m noticing that I’m out of shape, you know. I’ve got to get my voice and my chops back,” he said.


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