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For concert fans, signs of hope are resurfacing -- cautiously

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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During a recent Zoom call, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons spoke of checking out a recent show by some friends in Austin, Texas.

"We stumbled in to hear live music what a kind of refreshing experience that turned out to be, needless to say," Gibbons noted, adding it "lit the fuse" for his own desire to get back on stage and on the road.

"I think it's fair to say most folks are ready to get out and whoop and holler a bit," he noted. "It's time to click the heels and make the loud noise come back."

That's happening now in some places, and appears to be on the horizon for the Detroit area and its massive music industry, though optimism is still expressed with caution.

Live entertainment, particularly music, was shut down cold by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, causing severe economic damage to venues, musicians and their supports staff, especially road crews. Projections that it would be the last industry to reopen have proven true.

Now there's a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Touring acts are flocking to states such as Texas and Florida, which have done away with most if not all pandemic protocols. New York and California are opening venues, with limited capacities, in coming weeks. The famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver is hosting concerts again, also with reduced attendance.

Michigan still restricts the size of gatherings indoors and out, but a recent influx of concert announcements for summer and into the fall has buoyed hopes that the "loud noise" Gibbons described will be back on area stages in the near future.

Though attendance restrictions remain in place, 313 Presents is selling tickets for new 2021 shows at full capacity Dave Matthews Band and Chris Stapleton at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, and the Brothers Osborne at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre in addition to rescheduled concerts from 2020 that remain on the venues' schedules. The Michigan Opera Theatre also will present a socially distanced performance of Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" on June 12 (moved from May 15) at the Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, while Genesis, Andrea Bocelli and others have late-year dates at Little Caesars Arena.

Machine Gun Kelly is headed to Detroit's Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre at Chene Park on Sept. 21, and Slipknot's Corey Taylor and former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach have June dates set for Harpos Concert Theatre.

And while a great many acts including Elton John, Rage Against the Machine, Barenaked Ladies and Roger Waters have postponed into 2022, the James Taylor/Jackson Browne pairing and Primus pushed their itineraries to later summer (Aug. 1 at DTE and Sept. 22 at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre, respectively).

More locally focused live music is happening in smaller venues outdoors at the Hotel Royal Oak, Detroit's Cadieux Cafe, the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester and Wildwood Amphitheater in Lake Orion and even indoors with limited capacities at the Token Lounge in Westland, the Diesel Concert Lounge in Chesterfield, Coyote Joes in Shelby Township and other spots.

Fans and those in the business are encouraged by the recent announcement of Broadway in Detroit's 2021-22 season to start in November, mostly at the Fisher Theatre, along with concerts on the books at indoor venues of all sizes.

"There's definitely optimism in the air," says Carey Denha, who hopes to open his Magic Bag in Ferndale in September. "With vaccines out and case numbers coming down ... the trajectory is very positive. It was a rough go. You'd look at your email some days and, nothing. Now we're getting 10 to 20 emails a day, people asking for (date) holds, for offers."

Dan McGowan of Pontiac's Crofoot complex, who's also involved with the new Riverside Station Detroit, adds that, "It looks like things are moving in the right direction, and we're excited to start anew. Some people are very optimistic and believe it's going to happen ... this year. And then some people are a little more cautious and understand it may take longer."

That sense of extreme caution is palpable despite the appearance of forward progress including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's recent targets, based on vaccination rates, for loosening COVID-19 restrictions. National promoters such as Live Nation and AEG are refraining from comment, though earlier this year executives with the former predicted a "robust" return this summer. Hopeful signs are tempered by the knowledge that any surge in cases could keep precautions in place, or even reinstate stricter measures.

"We are still very much in this pandemic," notes Lynn Sutfin of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "MDHHS continues to monitor data closely, including ... case rates, percent positivity and hospitalizations. While many states across the country have dropped basic health protocols altogether, the state of Michigan continues to implement smart health policies and mitigations measures ... to help us slow the spread of this virus."

Since the start of the pandemic, Michigan has reported 829,520 COVID cases, with 17,429 deaths. Last week the state was averaging 13.3 percent positive tests.

"At the end of the day, when it comes to concerts or other outdoor gatherings, we're going to follow the lead of the state," says Oakland County spokesman Bill Mullan. "They want to see the (positivity rate) below 5 percent ... so we're still a long way from that. Even though the surge is declining, we're still seeing several hundred cases a day."

Under the current MDHHS Epidemic Order, Comerica Park has been able to host about 8,300 fans for Detroit Tigers baseball games, with about 750 permitted into Little Caesars Arena for Red Wings and Pistons games. Venues with capacity of 5,000-10,000 may admit up to 375 patrons, and all are required to establish and publicly post protocol guidelines.

Outdoor venues with fixed seating for at least 5,000 are capped at 20 percent. That's about 3,000 at DTE and 1,400 for Meadow Brook and the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre.

"It's kind of that interim period, where it's just unsafe enough that things still have to cancel, but it gets better every day," Denha notes. Events such as Movement festival in Detroit, the St. Mary's Polish Country Fair in Orchard Lake and the Electric Forest festival in Rothbury have all canceled for 2021. The recent surge also forced Riverside Station Detroit to postpone its first concerts (Update: Shows slated for the venue will now be staged in Pontiac municipal parking lot No. 9, across from the Crofoot comples, starting May 7).

Meanwhile Detroit's Concert of Colors and the Faster Horses country music festival in Brooklyn are waiting to determine the fates of mid-July events, while the Detroit Jazz Festival, Arts, Beats & Eats and other Labor Day Weekend festivals are hoping eased restrictions will make them viable this year. Some national events, such as the Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival, have moved from summer to fall in hopes of a more favorable environment. Las Vegas also is reopening swiftly, with artist residencies returning late summer.

Other countries are experiencing favorable results in restarting concerts. An April show with 5,000 masked and tested fans in Barcelona, Spain, led to no signs of increased infections. Just six fans tested positive two weeks later, and four were exposed somewhere other than the concert. In Auckland, N.Z., the band SIX60 played before 50,000 people in the country's National Stadium also livestreamed via TikTok for the largest concert in the world since the pandemic started.

Those territories also are establishing precautions including masks, testing, proof of vaccination and/or proof of antibodies.

"I think best practice will not be just about vaccinations. It will be a holistic approach ... other protocols," Douglas Emslie of the Atlanta-based Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) said during the recent Collision 2021 conference. In addition to events in Europe, SISO oversaw a recent fashion trade show in Florida and has one coming to Las Vegas during the summer. "I think the basic approach is you're going to need two bits of paper now your ticket and ... proof of vaccination or a (negative) test or (antibodies)."

But Emslie added, "We have a lot of confidence that the market in the second half of this year is going to be open."

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