No more encores Few people could have predicted that one year ago this week, COVID-19 would call it curtains on live concerts
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2021 (817 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Every now and again Stu Reid, who jokingly refers to himself as a semi-professional music nerd, posts a rundown on his Facebook page citing concerts he’s attended through the years under a variety of categories.
One entry, “First concert — Kiss w/Cheap Trick 1977,” will obviously never differ. Others, such as “Most surprising — Hall & Oates, Toronto 1981,” haven’t varied in a while. There’s even a listing for “Loudest concert — Motörhead 2005” — that Reid’s 58-year-old ears hope doesn’t change any time soon.
Still, the longtime host of Twang Trust, a roots-rock radio show that airs on CKUW 95.9 FM, finds it difficult to believe it’s been 365 days and counting since he’s been able to update the “last concert” portion of things.
“Has it only been a year? To me it feels more like 10,” Reid says when reached at home, fresh off a stroll with his and his wife’s husky-shepherd cross.
To answer his question, yes, this week marks the one-year anniversary of American alt-rock band Wilco’s headlining gig at the Centennial Concert Hall, which turned out to be the final arena-style show staged in Winnipeg before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Sure, there were a few club dates here and there last summer and fall — Reid attended a socially distanced affair at the Park Theatre featuring Winnipeg singer/songwriter Scott Nolan in early October — but as for full-blown, cry-out-for-Free Bird-as-the-encore, go-grab-a-beer-during-the-here’s-a-cut-from-our-new-album portion of the evening, Wilco’s 26-song, two-hour set was it.
We miss music, but also concerts' communal rush
I collect ticket stubs. Those little artifacts from all the concerts I waited months for, all the concerts I nearly missed getting tickets for, all the concerts I travelled great distances for.
I have exactly one ticket stub (a piece of paper, really) from 2020: Wilco at the Centennial Concert Hall, which, like many others, was my last concert before everything was cancelled and live music venues became the first to close (and likely the last to reopen).
My colleague Dave Sanderson got us thinking about our most memorable concerts — the big-ticket ones. Seeing Pearl Jam for the first time in Fargo when I was 18, weeks before high school graduation, ranks up there. So does being a dancer onstage at a Flaming Lips concert. Seeing Bowie at the old arena. Seeing Prince at the new one.
But some of my big-concert memories are a bit different because, from 2013 to 2015, it was my job was to tell you how they were in the pages and pixels of this newspaper.
Reid, who attended the Wilco show on his own, doesn’t recall feeling the least bit apprehensive when he left the house that evening to go be in a room with 2,000 strangers. What he does remember is it being “a real production” to get through the concert hall’s front doors, which, in a roundabout way, contributed to what he calls “one of my favourite moments related to live music, ever.”
“Kacy & Clayton, an old-school folk duo, opened the show and there was a guy in the audience sitting fairly close to the front of the stage who took it upon himself to strike up a conversation with them,” says Reid, who, in a “normal” world, hosts intimate monthly house concerts at his Crescentwood abode, affectionately dubbed the StuDome. “There weren’t many people in the hall yet because of the issues associated with getting inside, so you could clearly hear every word coming out of his mouth. It finally got to the point where Kacy came right to the lip of the stage and, practically swallowing the microphone, said in a really, loud whisper, ‘I am going to kill you.’”
Free Press writer Erin Lebar was also in the crowd that evening, albeit in a professional role. In a review she penned for the next day’s paper, she mentioned one line from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy that stuck out in particular. A few songs in, he looked out into the audience and deadpanned, “Who knew when I wrote so many lyrics about social distancing they’d come in handy?”
“I remember being in the office that day, reading about all the festivals in the States that had been cancelled and thinking, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ but it not really registering that the same thing would inevitably happen here,” Lebar says. “I do recall being a bit nervous about going and reviewing, but not nervous enough that I wore a mask or used hand sanitizer, neither of which were commonplace yet. I also recall seeing (fellow Free Press writer) Jen Zoratti and her husband at the merch table, and chatting like normal, being more nervous about my ability to navigate the setlist than about an impending pandemic.”
Lebar says while COVID-19 was definitely on her radar that evening — she later patted herself on the back for including news of it in the first line of her writeup, mostly because it coincided with a same-day story about the first announced presumptive case of the virus in Manitoba — she never imagined the Wilco show would be the last shared live-music event she’d attend for what is now a year.
“In a strange way it felt like we entered the theatre in one world and came out in a different one.”– Erin Lebar on seeing Wilco
“I would say, though, there was a distinct tonal shift from the pre-show energy to post show,” she adds. “I think a lot of people maybe checked their phones between the opener and Wilco, and again once the show was over, and saw all the major updates. In a strange way it felt like we entered the theatre in one world and came out in a different one.”
If there’s one person who’s been greatly affected by the dearth of live music these last 12 months it’s Kevin Donnelly, the senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Ordinarily, Donnelly would be checking his phone umpteen times a day for news of one tour or another, in an attempt to lure a certain act to Winnipeg. These days, yeah, not so much.
“My calendar is a mess and has been for a year,” Donnelly says when reached at the office. “When I think of the James Taylor with Bonnie Raitt show, originally slated for mid-April 2020 (at Bell MTS Place), efforts were made with the promoter and performers to shift the show into June or July 2020. Many people, myself included, mistakenly thought (COVID-19) would be a 12-week intermission. Attention then shifted to relocate the date into October 2020, and now the show is scheduled to take place in September ‘21… and I think there is still some speculation as to whether that is feasible to do at full capacity.”
Donnelly is currently in discussions with representatives of artists whose Winnipeg shows were shelved in 2020. That list includes country singer Toby Keith, American rock band Rage Against the Machine and Quebecois chanteuse Céline Dion, who was slated to bring her Courage World Tour to the downtown rink last August.
“While we have a healthy list of performers who had targeted fall and early winter of ‘21 for shows in Canada, including stops in Winnipeg, many are now looking at 2022 as the more bankable time period to restart their touring plans,” he says.
“Many people, myself included, mistakenly thought (COVID-19) would be a 12-week intermission.”– Kevin Donnelly, True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
From a personal standpoint, Donnelly stresses that he misses live music “as much as anyone.”
“The thrill of seeing all the prep work come together for that ‘lights out, curtains up’ moment… there’s nothing like it. It’s five years ago (this month) I saw (Bruce) Springsteen in St. Paul. I don’t get to sit and enjoy many shows but that one was fantastic (and) I hope to see the Boss touring again soon.”
For those of you starved for live music of any kind — Reid, for instance, tells us he “can’t wait” to be at a show where there’s the ever-present danger of the person next to you “puking on your shoes” — the one-year anniversary of the Wilco show is undoubtedly bittersweet. Nonetheless, we decided to toast the occasion by asking Free Press writers to chime in, letting us know about the last great concert they attended before the world as we know it changed, one year ago.
Here’s what everybody had to say. (Personally, we still go on about how much fun we had at the old barn in 1988, when John Mellencamp played two sold-out shows on consecutive nights. “Outside the club Cherry Bomb, our hearts were really thumpin’”)
Memorable shows, pre-pandemic
The last big shows I saw happened on a road trip to see Bob Dylan in Ames, Iowa, and Mankato, Minn., on Oct. 23 and Oct. 24, 2019, respectively.
I underwent kidney-transplant surgery on June 20 that year and I remember finding out the next day the new kidney was working well.
While lying in the hospital in recovery and trying to sleep, I started to think that Dylan, whom I’d seen 36 times before but not once since going on dialysis in 2017, usually tours across the States in the fall. If he were to come anywhere within driving distance of Winnipeg, I would, and should, be there.
Dylan’s not getting any younger — he turns 80 in May — and kidney disease showed me I’m not getting any younger either.
About six weeks later, after a clinic checkup, news came out that Dylan was indeed touring in the fall, and the nearest concerts to see him for a 37th and 38th time were at these two Midwest college towns.
“The setlist was the same, but the dopamine rush was bigger.”– Alan Small on Bob Dylan
In Ames, in a concert hall, I noticed Dylan had a couple of new guys in his band and had adjusted his concert sound once again. There were ASL translators, busily interpreting his flurry of lyrics, adding to the evening’s fascination.
His singing was clearer than I had remembered — his raspy voice polarizes audiences in the 21st century just as he did when he went electric in the 1960s — and he was most memorable in two quiet, almost hushed, performances of Girl From the North Country and a deep track, Lenny Bruce, his ode to the controversial comedian who died in 1966.
The next night was at Mankato Civic Center, the city’s main hockey rink. It was Dylan’s only stop in his home state on the tour and some 8,000 people, mostly from the nearby Twin Cities, jammed the joint. The place was electric, unlike his arena shows I’ve seen here in Winnipeg.
The setlist was the same, but the dopamine rush was bigger.
While many people who have lost ones seek closure, these two shows were a reopening, a new chapter, a return to normal that I had lost while on dialysis and during my recovery.
It’s a reopening I can’t wait to relive.
— Alan Small
As much as I remember Wilco being my last concert, the more vivid memory for me is of it being my last handshakes.
I’ve seen Wilco seven or eight times, in Winnipeg and elsewhere, so I knew where to sit — as close as possible (in this case the second row), stage right, in front of guitarist Nels Cline, in order to have my face and ears properly melted by his incredible axesmanship.
That security-related lineup outside the front doors was one of the only hitches in what was one of the better sets I’ve seen by the Chicago sextet — memorable even without the underlying tension around COVID-19. My date and I were a bit apprehensive about being in such a large crowd; the coronavirus was out there, sure, but it wasn’t yet something that was on our turf yet. (Knowing what we know now, we’d likely never have left the house.)
As we were leaving the Centennial Concert Hall — ears and faces appropriately melted off — we stopped in the foyer on the way out. I quickly glanced at my phone, and saw on Twitter that the NBA had cancelled its season. Scary stuff, but still pretty far removed from Winnipeg. Regardless, time to go.
Then my date and I saw a guy we both knew from our University of Winnipeg days. He and I cheerily shared hellos and, without hesitation, thrust out our arms and shook hands. We both sort of stopped, looked at each other, withdrew our hands and recoiled a bit. “Oh,” I said, “I… I guess we weren’t supposed to do that.”
Not even two minutes later, the guy’s pal came over, and introductions were made. Without thinking, the pal and I shook hands, then looked at each other apologetically, clumsily apologized and had a short, slightly bewildered conversation, about which I remember nothing.
The next few days, as news about the pandemic got increasingly worse, my date and I spent a lot of time wringing our (well-washed) hands about whether we should have gone to see Wilco at all. The band was great, as always, but it’s those final handshakes I remember most vividly.
— Ben Sigurdson
Like a few thousand other Winnipeggers, including many of my Free Press co-workers, Wilco was my last pre-pandemic concert (unless you count Prairie Theatre Exchange’s presentation of the theatrical concert/dance hybrid, By Grand Central Station, which I was lucky to see March 12, before its run was curtailed by COVID-19).
The Chicago alt-rock band’s show was indeed memorable, both for the performance and for the sense of narrowly having avoided a potential superspreader event that followed in its wake. But prior to that, another concert stands out in retrospect.
In early 2020, I won a writing prize from the North American Travel Journalists’ Association — a four-day trip to Bethlehem, Pa., a town founded by Moravian settlers and once home to the famed Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Not exactly a Tahitian getaway, perhaps, but Pennsylvania in the fall is gorgeous and I have a soft spot for blue-collar history, so my sister and I booked an early November stay.
The former steel plant looms large over the city, both literally and figuratively. In a remarkable feat of civic reinvention, some of the land surrounding it has been transformed into SteelStacks, a 10-acre campus that includes a fantastic industrial museum and a cultural centre with an art-house theatre and a live music venue. The giant black stacks with their precarious walkways dominate the skyline, looking like something out of the movie Brazil, though lit here and there with fairy lights.
I went online to see who might be playing while we were in town and discovered there was a Steven Page show on the Friday night of our visit, so I booked us a couple of tickets to see the former Barenaked Ladies frontman. The show was funny and intimate, the crowd was responsive, and Page’s band, cellist Kevin Fox and Odds guitarist Craig Northey, were both great comedic foils and deft harmonizers.
But what I remember most is the walk back to our hotel through the crisp fall night. We crossed the Lehigh River on a bridge studded with reminders that though Bethlehem Steel is no more, the structures it built live on. Once we reached the historic district, old-fashioned streetlights lit the way through avenues lined with Germanic-style stone buildings, and the sidewalks were covered with giant maple leaves. On many front porches, a Moravian star — a distinctive 25-point symbol — served as a lightshade. It was a beautiful evening in a place I’d never planned to visit.
I’ve seen a hundred shows at the concert hall, but I’ve only seen one in Bethlehem. I look forward to the day I can see one there — or in some other town with some other story — again.
— Jill Wilson
The last great show I attended prior to lockdown (and not including the Wilco show I reviewed on March 11, which seems to have been a lot of people’s last show) was from local songstress Begonia at the West End Cultural Centre for one of her five sold-out album-release shows at the end of February 2020.
Begonia (Alexa Dirks) released her debut solo record Fear in the fall of 2019, but saved her hometown shows for the back leg of her tour, when her performance was at its most polished. This is one of the reasons this concert was great; on a purely technical level, the band was tight and the vocals were outstanding in both power and emotion, as anyone familiar with Begonia would expect. It was clear those previous weeks on the road had everyone in a great groove on stage.
But what really stood out, even more than the performance itself, was the energy in the room. Very rarely — if ever — have I attended a show where the love for the artist onstage is that palpable. As people danced and sang along and even cried at some points, it was almost overwhelming to see how connected they were, not just to the music, but to Dirks herself. She has become a beacon of inclusivity, creativity and collaboration in our arts scene, and it was a beautiful thing to see the community supporting her in return.
If you missed out on seeing these concerts in person, Begonia recently released The Fear Tour Live, which has both a concert video and album component that compile tracks from various nights of her five-night stint. You can rent or buy the 77-minute film on Vimeo, and the album is available to buy or stream on various music purchasing/streaming sites.
— Erin Lebar
To Kill a Mockingbird
Three months before the pandemic reached Manitoba, I was sitting with my dad in the second last row of the historic Shubert Theatre in New York City, watching To Kill a Mockingbird, my first-ever Broadway play.
We weren’t sure whether we should go. Over lunch, my dad said something like, “Why not? How often will we get the chance to do this?”
Thank goodness we went: 15 months later, I’m still clinging to the electricity of the performance and the buzz on the street afterward, with the marquee glowing and throngs of tourists like me looking up, starry-eyed.
I exchanged smartphones with a stranger: I took a picture of him and his wife, and he took a picture of me and my dad in front of the Shubert, a picture I just framed. When next will we get the chance to do that?
— Ben Waldman
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Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.