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A Summer of No Live Music? ▶ [With Video] 

Central Oregon's music scene will be severely limited through August. Some local venues will stay shut; others chart a way forward

Usually around this time of year the Source would be putting out its Summer Music Guide, sharing the many live music events coming to Central Oregon for the season. But 2020 is different.

This summer, we won't be going to shows every weekend or setting up chairs early at Les Schwab Amphitheater, just to make sure we get that perfect spot. Nope. There won't be many late nights at the Volcanic Theatre Pub. And I won't be interviewing all of the excellent bands coming to town.

This is the summer of (mostly) no live music, and it's going to be weird.

What the Les Schwab Amphitheater looks like during normal summers. - RYAN ADAMS
  • Ryan Adams
  • What the Les Schwab Amphitheater looks like during normal summers.

Bend's outdoor venue goes dark... for now


While certain businesses are beginning to open up, Gov. Kate Brown has continued to ban gatherings of 25 or more people—at least until the end of September. While this may be a giant bummer for music fans, it also means putting the safety of those around us first. Music venues in town seem determined to help us get back where we were.

Bend's Les Schwab Amphitheater—the city's biggest outdoor venue—was set to have a huge summer of tunes: Brandi Carlile, Bob Dylan & Nathaniel Rateliff, Vampire Weekend, Dave Matthews Band and more. Some shows are postponed; some won't happen at all. 

"All the shows that we have on the calendar we do expect to postpone, reschedule or cancel," Marney Smith, director of Bend Concerts and the Les Schwab Amphitheater told the Source.



While some venues around the globe have been thinking of ways around the concert ban, like drive-up concerts or limited entry (something Smith says a dozen or so concert promoters have approached her about), Les Schwab isn't considering any of those options at the moment. For one, shows at the amphitheater can draw in thousands of people. It's hard to limit entry at a place like that and make it safe for customers, she says.

"It is our stance that the community is doing everything we can to flatten the curve and keep our community safe. Until we can get a plan in place where people can actually get to a port-a-potty and know that it is actually sanitized and safe for them to use, it doesn't feel like a responsible decision on our part to hold any events," Smith says.

Les Schwab is making full refunds available for both cancellations and rescheduled shows.

VIDEO: See Central Oregon venue operators talk about the pending summer closures, and the way forward for some of them:


While both locally and nationally, a lot of music events have been live streamed, watching through a screen doesn't quite capture that spark of being there in person. This is a big reason why Smith says concert-goers and venues will be back stronger than ever.

"For me, personally, it's the emotion behind it," says Smith. "I think you can feel it when you listen to a recorded song that you know has been polished in the studio, but when Brandi Carlile gets up on stage, it's inevitable that I'll have goosebumps from my wrist to my neck because of the power and emotion you can feel in that live performance."

Smith says that the people who love live music will surely miss concerts this summer if they aren't already, but it's those same concert junkies who will keep things alive.

"Live music will be back en masse," adds Smith. "There are of course folks who go to shows who could either take it or leave it. They might choose to stay away. But I think those of us who really consider it a quality-of-life choice to go to these things, when it's safe to do so, we'll come back in spades. We're going to be going to more shows than we might of otherwise."

Thinking outside the theatre box


Throughout the pandemic, venue directors and owners around town have been forced to think outside the box with their event planning. At the Tower Theatre, staff has been constantly churning out new ways to look ahead.

"I hope the Tower can lead with different kinds of performances," Ray Solley, director of the Tower Theatre told the Source. "We think if we can be creative within the restrictions, embrace the restrictions, then we will be able to slowly but surely open up and get people in to enjoy some performances."

Currently the Tower is offering its Curbside Concessions, where people can buy popcorn, soda, candy and wine as a take-home snack to accompany quarantine movie night. Solley also said they're considering a drive-up movie concert, ticketed streaming options for low-capacity shows and silent disco shows, with people socially distanced outside and a band inside playing music. When the governor allows larger numbers to congregate, Solley says the Tower may consider a local musician's showcase.

"The main number for us is the capacity number. Twenty-five people socially-distanced is not enough people to fill the theater. Maybe there’s a way to open up the lobby for First Friday or a Saturday night with food and drink," says Solley. "The key for us I think will be in Phase Three, which is when you get to maybe 100, well I don't know the exact number, but let's say 100 or more. Then we can safely put people in the theater 6 feet apart."

Solley says reopening is not as easy as just opening the doors for 25 people and letting the show go on. For one, in order to put on a successful event, the theater must accommodate staff at the venue, people in the band, the band's crew and more. This adds up to a lot more than the 25 members of the audience. Both financially and logistically it doesn't make sense for a lot of places to open up this way, he says.

Once the capacity number is a little higher, the Tower can begin to implement some of out-of-the-box ideas. Solley says the Tower Theatre plans to announce its upcoming season of shows soon, but that doesn't mean tickets will necessarily go on sale at that time. There has to be a comfortable number of seats available, and Solley's staff doesn't want to risk having to make changes 30 days before a show.

"There are going to be a lot of shows that are quite a draw. We hope by then people will be comfortable with going into a theater," Solley says. "I think it [attendance] will go in waves. I think there will be an initial jump. And then depending on how it feels and what happens, there will probably be a little tapering down. And then it will probably pick back up if there is immunity or a vaccine."

While it's been struggle for businesses throughout the pandemic, the one positive to to all of this is that it's forcing people to think more broadly.

"I don’t know what I thought at the start of all this, but I knew the important thing is that the Tower staff and the mission of the Tower survives... that we don’t go dark. We close because of stay-at-home orders. We don’t close because of mismanagement," adds Solley. "I believe most patrons or fans of live performances are going to be flexible, receptive and patient. People will adapt."



Past nights at the Volcanic. - DANIEL ROBBINS
  • Daniel Robbins
  • Past nights at the Volcanic.

A small, vibrant local venue sees a way forward


Another indoor venue, Volcanic Theatre Pub, has the potential to hold smaller shows—but doing so isn't an easy decision.

"Now that businesses are allowed to open with restrictions, it's possible that Volcanic can open with limited capacity," said owner Derek Sitter. "We're thinking properly distanced tables and chairs inside and outside, along with health protocols set up by state and county standards will be the most effective."

However, Sitter notes that most national tours have moved to the fall or winter, with many looking ahead to 2021—meaning there probably won't be many events right away. Eventually, Sitter sees it being similar to a brewery setup.

"As we move into summer, we can look at having local events on stage with the same seated set-up to keep everyone safe. However, we just don't know what will be allowed in Phase Two," says Sitter. "We've been closed since March 9. We can't continue to keep our doors open if we're forced to stay closed all summer. We will have to adapt."

The Volcanic serves a hub for the arts, so Sitter is painfully aware of the toll this having on both artists and consumers.

"I think it's terribly tragic to lose any live entertainment... ever. It breaks my heart that all the artists, staff, crew, vendors, owners, promoters, advertisers, etc., will be out of work," adds Sitter. "Bend really booms with live music all summer and I'm afraid these large concerts and festivals just won't happen."

One positive thing to come out of the pandemic, Sitter said, is all of the newly recorded and innovative material—a reflection of this time period in art. While Sitter thinks things will eventually go back to normal for the entertainment industry, he still sees it as a far off reality.

"I do think it will eventually return to prior COVID-19. But, the timeline for that is uncertain. It could be years before we see things like they were before the pandemic," says Sitter.

"When you imagine hundreds and thousands of people shoulder to shoulder with not a care in the world experiencing live music while dancing, singing and laughing together... it really seems like a dream. It's no longer reality. I'm watching old concert footage along with film and TV series where people are gathered together and I immediately think that this will never be like that again. It's terrifying, actually."

Tapping local talent


Tapping local musicians will be a huge part of keeping live music alive this summer. They don't need to travel far to play, and will have access to equipment and locations that will allow for a safe experience.

click to enlarge Joseph playing at the Tower Theatre on March 8, 2020. - ISAAC BIEHL
  • Isaac Biehl
  • Joseph playing at the Tower Theatre on March 8, 2020.
The Sisters Folk Festival is already utilizing the local core, starting the SFF Bandwagon a few weeks ago. Artists like Pete Kartsounes, Beth Wood, Benji Nagel and more have taken part. Musicians get set up with appropriate social distancing on a flatbed trailer playing tunes through generator-powered amps.

"I think it's really important that community-based arts organizations like ours figure out ways to continue to delivering programming during these times, even if it's on a smaller, safer scale and not necessarily revenue-producing," said Crista Munro, director at SFF. "It's been fun to watch people come out of their homes, sometimes with a beverage in hand, to enjoy these surprise concerts. One gentleman said 'I didn't realize how much I missed live music until now!'"

While SFF's summer-programming has been greatly affected, they still may be able to look ahead to its big festival in September. Gov. Brown's mandates state that no large gatherings can take place through September, but Brown also mentioned that larger events may be able to go on through proper modifications.

"We are still exploring all of our options for Sisters Folk Festival 2020," says Munro.

"We are currently looking into what those modifications might look like for the Folk Festival, as well as surveying our volunteers before we make a decision. The last thing we want is to either A), plan for for a modified event and then not be able to do it because cases spike and we go into another wave of closures, or B) we hold a modified live event before it is safe to do so and cause harm to our community."

It's a toss-up whether or not we will be experiencing music on a large scale even come fall, or when organizers of larger national festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo are able to even think about returning. Munro says this means people may be looking closer to home for these experiences, and that could potentially benefit local scenes in the long run.

"The music organizations that survive this crisis will be the ones that work creatively to take the best components of their events and deliver them in a different but meaningful way," says Munro. "Most of all, when we get through this and can once again gather to share experiences, I think you'll see audiences who really appreciate being together and not taking that opportunity for granted."
While venues and music organizations like SFF will be able to serve as incubators for music in the community, local artists and bands will truly keep the spirit of the Central Oregon scene alive.

We've already seen a countless number of musicians holding live streams, whether it be on their own time or through different series, like Worthy Brewing's or own Home Concerts Series. And musicians have even started going to the extra mile.

Eric Leadbetter has started the #StCharlesMealMission, partnering with different artists and restaurants in the community to feed staff at St. Charles meals during the pandemic. Look for the hashtag on any Facebook live performance.

Bend Music Collective and Bend Roots Revival are creating "High Desert Calling," the first volume of a compilation album highlighting the diverse sounds and talents of musician in Central Oregon. The album itself will be free to play digitally, but all royalties created through streams will go to each artist. The album itself will be released on July 11. (Interested artists can email Jeshua Marshall at bendmusiccollective@gmail.com. Submissions are due by June 11.)

"I've just been with the guitar in my hand, spending all that time alone just trying to come up with new music. In a way that's been a pretty fortunate side-effect of all of this," says Joey Vaughn, vocalist of local band Night Channels. "I have a lot of faith that the music scene here is going to continue after this. I really do feel that they're resilient."

Live music might look different the rest of the year, but it's not over. It's just on a break.

About The Author

Isaac Biehl

Isaac is living proof that "Iowa Nice" is actually a thing. A journalism graduate from Iowa State University, he regularly writes about music, the outdoors and the arts/culture scene. Isaac loves the Trail Blazers, backpacking and a good IPA. He plans to one day win Survivor. Your move, Jeff Probst...
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