Hope sings eternal in Winnipeg concert biz

Local venues cautiously optimistic shows will return as vaccinations pick up


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A handful of concert announcements scheduled for Winnipeg this fall and early 2022 offer light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for fans of live entertainment events.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/05/2021 (736 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A handful of concert announcements scheduled for Winnipeg this fall and early 2022 offer light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for fans of live entertainment events.

The only problem is the pandemic tunnel keeps growing a little longer every day.

The third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Manitoba hard, and it’s difficult to imagine crowding into an arena or theatre when it’s standing-room-only at intensive-care units in Winnipeg’s hospitals.

Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press Céline Dion’s postponed Courage World Tour is scheduled to kick off in Winnipeg on Aug. 16, health regulations permitting.

But Kevin Donnelly, the senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, the owner of Bell MTS Place and Burton Cummings Theatre, imagines the day of welcoming concert-goers or hockey fans is growing nearer.

“I’ve spent 15 months dreaming about that,” Donnelly says.

“There is something special about these gatherings, whether it’s around sports or around music events. (They) are a very powerful, emotionally charged experience. There’s a ton of pride in doing these events correctly and pulling them off without a hitch. I look forward to them every day.”

His hopes, and the hopes of those who fantasize about attending entertainment events with large gatherings of people, are raised when National Hockey League playoff games held in arenas in the United States are playing to bigger audiences.

The hopes also build when bands and theatre companies — both of whom are as desperate for the energy and income from gigs as concert venues and promoters — schedule summer shows south of the border at outdoor stadiums and amphitheatres or Broadway productions in the fall.

Donnelly says the success of the vaccination campaign in the U.S. is a big reason for stages being reopened; he believes the same will happen in Canada soon, too.

For instance, the Montreal Canadiens announced earlier this week up to 2,500 fans would be allowed in the Bell Centre — about 12 per cent capacity — for playoff games beginning May 28. Game 6 of the team’s series against Toronto is scheduled take place at that arena May 29.

“Our vaccine campaign is succeeding. It is getting into people’s arms. It is moving in the right direction very quickly,” Donnelly says. “I hope to see hockey in the fall here at capacity. I hope to see concerts at big buildings, small buildings, outdoor gatherings in the very near future, but it happens with time, it happens with people getting vaccinations.”

A busy summer of vaccinating Manitobans will make fall concerts a reality, he believes. That would include a Bell MTS Place concert by country giant Eric Church set for Oct. 2 and the recently announced 2021-22 seasons from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Both organizations include concerts or plays in the fall with full audiences, with a livestream component in place as a Plan B if the pandemic continues to linger.

Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP Eric Church performs at the 56th annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Friday April 16, 2021 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The awards show airs on April 18 with both live and prerecorded segments.

“That is absolutely the challenge, the issue of timing.” Donnelly says.

“We recognize the realities of today but we have every confidence that at some point we will look at all of this in the rear-view mirror and we will be back to, air quotations, normal times and normal activity.”

In the meantime, True North’s main focus, with regards to concerts, is making sure those scheduled for 2020 and postponed for 2021 and 2022 keep Winnipeg on their itineraries, despite the lure of venues in American cities that have opened earlier than ones in Canada.

“I’m thinking about the likes of James Taylor and Rage Against the Machine and Céline Dion — these shows have been moved once or twice already — that the artists and the planners don’t get impatient,” Donnelly says.



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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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