We Talked To Two Bands About Performing During A Pandemic And The Creative Solutions They Dreamed Up To Compensate For Canceled Tours
“You know the feeling of waking up on your birthday and getting a new puppy? Well, imagine months later that puppy being forcefully taken away from you due to a puppy pandemic.”
That was the delightful analogy Ben Atkind, a member of the Connecticut-based jam band Goose, pulled out recently when talking to me about the impact the COVID-19 outbreak has had on his way of life. “A puppy pandemic” sounds absolutely horrible and I may never forgive him for putting that image in my head and potentially giving 2020 some inspiration in its quest to figure out how to make an already terrible year even worse.
Goose was gearing up for what would’ve been the most intensive slate of shows it’s ever played, as the quartet was poised to spend the warmest months of the year traversing the United States to perform at festivals including Electric Forest, Lock’n, High Sierra, Sea.Hear. Now, and Forecastle. “There were actually a few weekends where we would have to get on a plane multiple times in order to make the number of festivals we had,” Atkind’s bandmate Peter Anspach said.
The band was in Kentucky wrapping up its winter tour in March when it came to an abrupt and premature end after Goose was forced to cancel the rest of the shows on the schedule and call off all of the ones it had locked in for the spring after it became clear concerts were essentially incompatible with the state of the world. As a result, the members of the ensemble found themselves spinning their wheels while stuck at home trying to figure out what the hell they were supposed to do now.
If this situation has taught us anything, it’s that we should never underestimate people’s ability to adapt. It didn’t take long for restaurants to pivot to curbside pickup (and, more recently, to outside dining) and many bars started whipping up cocktails to go in an attempt to survive and continued to innovate when confronted with other hurdles.
It should come as no surprise that musicians are just as capable of improvising and they dreamed up a number of ways to adjust when the pandemic arrived. With shows suddenly canceled, fans had plenty of live streams to turn to as artists experimented with ways to perform within the confines of our new reality. A lot of them simply posted up in front of a computer by their lonesome or linked up with bandmates who were also sequestered in their homes on Zoom but others upped the production value a bit, with certain DJs using homemade lighting rigs to take their nighty sets to the next level and Coldplay’s Chris Martin opting for a backdrop that gave his “Together At Home” shows a coffee house vibe as opposed to the one found at the stadium shows he’s more accustomed to.
Goose was no exception, as the band mobilized fairly quickly once they came to terms with the fact that they’d been grounded. “I believe we were one of the first bands to live stream once shows were officially shut down by doing one only three days after our winter tour was canceled,” Anspach said. However, as others followed suit, the band realized it wasn’t content settling with what everyone else was doing, and after kicking around some ideas, they were reminded of a concept they’d dreamed up before the world went to hell that they realized could work in a virtual setting.
“We first had the idea to do a Bingo-themed show back in December 2019,” Anspach said. “The idea was to have the bingo balls represent different songs in our catalog and generate the setlist randomly by pulling balls. It wasn’t until we were prompted to cancel our entire spring and summer that we really started exploring the idea in a virtual spectrum.”
“Exploring the idea” meant multiple Zoom calls where they hammered out details and dove into the wonderful world of logistics—albeit a different sort of logistics than they were used to. Instead of having to take the geographic factors of touring into consideration, they had to map out a plan that could give fans a concert experience after almost all of the traditional elements were removed from the equation. They even recruited the services of a Bingo consultant—a job that apparently exists—to refine that particular aspect of the shows, because everybody knows incorporating the unofficial pastime of retirement communities into your gigs isn’t something you can half-ass.
They eventually opted to fill a Bingo cage with balls that weren’t just labeled with the names of songs but ideas to add twists to the performance like “no drums” or “20-minute jam.” They also hooked up with a professional light and sound company to deck out the barn they rented in rural Connecticut with gear you wouldn’t typically find in the home offices where so many other musicians opted to set up shop.
What was eventually dubbed “The Bingo Tour” kicked off in June and fans who paid $15 to stream one of the five shows (or dropped $60 for access to all of them) were each provided with a unique card that gave them the opportunity to win free merch and get a VIP concert experience when human interaction is no longer frowned upon. During the run, the band also fostered that coveted online engagement by hosting cooking shows and workout videos, which they said helped them create “a festival-type vibe over the course of 10 days.”
Goose did have a few friends hanging out in the barn where they performed but the absence of an actual living, breathing audience was definitely felt. How could it not be? There’s a unique, almost palpable energy at live shows thanks to the connection between musicians and the people they’re performing for that everyone in the venue feeds off of, so when you’re accustomed to playing in front of a crowd you could reach out and touch and suddenly can’t even see your audience, there’s only so much you can do to compensate. Anspach echoed this sentiment, saying, “in a live show, we feed so much off the energy of the crowd. We did have a small group of close friends in attendance, but it wasn’t the same as the sold-out shows we played earlier in the year.”
Goose started building the foundation for The Bingo Tour back in the spring, a time when Tiger King still dominated the cultural conversation and leaving the safety of your home to walk around your neighborhood for 20 minutes was the most exciting thing you did in a typical week. It was the product of a band doing everything it could to keep bringing music to its fans when presented with a set of circumstances that made it damn near impossible to do so in a way anyone was used to. However, when faced with the option of a virtual relationship or none at all, there’s not much you can do but compromise until those circumstances change.
2020 has presented musicians with an incredibly unique set of issues but people across the entertainment industry have been forced to confront a variety of barriers that were erected almost overnight. John Moore, who runs Narrow Gauge Cinemas in Farmington, Maine, was already grappling with the challenges that come with operating a drive-in theater prior to the pandemic only to find himself burdened with even more upon its arrival.
After being forced to close down in March, Moore got some good news in May when Maine gave drive-ins permission to begin showing movies once again. However, the development was bittersweet, as getting permission to screen movies doesn’t mean much when there aren’t any new ones for you to show. With Hollywood opting to postpone the release of many of this year’s most notable titles (and subjecting the less notable ones to the indignity of a digital rollout), drive-ins were forced to resort to whatever classics and cult favorites they felt would be the biggest draw.
It was a serviceable solution for the short-term but Moore quickly realized he’d have to get creative if he wanted to weather a storm with no immediate end in sight. “With Hollywood not releasing anything, we’re definitely pivoting,” he said while discussing the alternatives he’s dreamed up in recent months, the first of which involved recruiting Maine comedian Bob Marley to perform a handful of sold-out shows at the theater in late May.
Moore then turned his attention to some bigger acts around the world of entertainment in the hopes he’d find some willing to make the trek to the heart of Maine to perform at what he claims is America’s smallest drive-in, and while you’d think people would jump at any opportunity to perform right now, he failed to get any responses to his inquires.
Undeterred, Moore decided to shift his focus to attracting homegrown talent and eventually reached out to The Ghosts of Paul Revere, a band that got their start around 80 miles to the south in Portland.
Like Goose, The Ghost of Paul Revere saw a busy spring and summer schedule wiped out by the outbreak and the five-piece “holler-folk/roots” band had been preparing to head over to Europe for a month-and-a-half of shows before travel restrictions and quarantine policies began to pop up that made such a trek impossible. “All of a sudden, our plans had been turned on their heads,” vocalist and guitarist Griffin Sherry said. “We immediately got to work, though. It was clear that with large public gatherings becoming impossible, we needed to build a much bigger digital presence and revenue source.”
The band quickly started learning the ins and outs of streaming while upgrading their equipment in an effort to provide a virtual audience with the same sound they’d encounter at a live show. The members also dealt with some casual abandonment issues, as they went from seeing each other on a near-daily basis to not interacting in person for months, and after performing together remotely on a few occasions, they ultimately reunited on stage in June to perform to an empty State Theater for the venue’s Conclave series.
“Getting back together for Conclave was almost magical—just getting together with your friends—and being loud helped us all forget about the months of worry and stress and isolation,” Sherry said.
A few weeks later, the band made the trek up to Farmington for a gig at Narrow Gauge, where they performed on a stage constructed in front of the theater’s main screen that Moore hopes to harness for similar events in the summers to come.
Safety was a top priority at the four sold-out shows The Ghost of Paul Revere played at the venue at the end of June, with Moore limiting capacity to 55 cars to provide people in attendance with a secure environment. “Each spot fit a car with six feet on either side, and when fans left to go to the concessions or the bathrooms they were required to wear a mask. We had employees from the cinema walking around making sure everyone was adhering to our guidelines,” Sherry said. “We also transitioned to an online-only, zero-contact merch store that people could access from their phones.”
Jody Winant was one of the people who appreciated the efforts that gave him and his fellow concertgoers some peace of mind, saying, “Everyone I saw wore masks. It’s the first show where I’ve seen staff cleaning a port-a-potty. Cleanest one I’ve ever seen.”
Clean shitters are one thing but the true test was whether or not the show could actually sound like a concert. In order to achieve that goal, the band tapped Ocean Sound and Lighting’s Jack Murray in the hope he could produce the same sound he’d helped engineer at some of their other gigs in the past in a venue that presented him with a few more logistical hurdles than he’d encountered at the others. The layout presented some unique challenges but Murray managed to construct an environment where the band could feel at home and fans could be immersed in the show with a multi-camera set-up that was used to project footage from the stage on the big screen above it.
The group still had some doubts heading into the run, because even though they weren’t as removed from their audience as Goose was during their virtual sets, they were still concerned about the impact the relative isolation could have. The various issues they encountered during tech runs and rehearsals only worsened the pre-show jitters and there was a slight sense of unease in the air before they took the stage on the first night.
However, there’s nothing quite like staring into an idyllic New England sunset to calm the nerves a bit, which is exactly what the members of the band did when they climbed atop a roof at Narrow Gauge prior to their initial performance. What would follow is best described as a cathartic cleansing of the soul both for the band and the people in attendance; a brief but welcome respite from months of isolation and the frustration and anxiety that accompanied it in the form of a magical evening at a tiny drive-in tucked away in the middle of Maine.
“The vibe was amazing,” Katy Lemelin said after attending a show. “It felt like all was right in the world for a few hours!” She had previously seen The Ghost of Paul Revere play on plenty of different occasions in a variety of settings but said that there was something special about this one, noting “you could feel how excited they were to be playing again.”
Sherry echoed that feeling, saying “the performances were some of the best we’ve ever done. There was so much stress to shake off. It was like a breath of fresh air to be making noise with each other again.” Bassist Sean McCarthy agreed, adding that the show was “obviously pretty different than the way we’d normally do things, but it was so much fun playing for a live audience in person with the other guys.”
After the four-night run at Narrow Gauge, the band hit up other drive-ins and similar venues in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. They even played a gig in a bar’s backyard in eastern Massachusettes and live streamed from an empty room at Daryl’s House Club in Pawling, New York. They plan to continue performing shows wherever and however they can, especially with a new album, Good At Losing Everything, set to be released at the end of August.
The band has already learned plenty of lessons over the course of their travels, and while Narrow Gauge managed to pull things off without much of a hitch, drive-ins probably aren’t going to be the saving grace of the music industry for a few reasons. The infrastructural demands of pulling off a concert in such a venue result in an amount of heavy lifting a lot of places aren’t willing to burden, and while some have managed to pull off similar events, there have also been some notable hiccups.
These shows obviously can’t exist if drive-ins and the bands that play at them don’t put in the effort needed to stage them in the first place, but in the end, their success is contingent on the people who come to them. The Ghost of Paul Revere and Narrow Gauge went to great lengths to ensure that the people attending were able to do so safely, but they also had to have trust that the audience would adhere to the guidelines and restrictions put in place. Thankfully, they didn’t run into any issues but there’s some sort of saying about apples and bunches that probably applies here.
Drive-ins might also be a feasible solution for the summer months (assuming the weather cooperates) but they’re not exactly optimal if you’re looking for a year-round fix. You might be able to swing it in certain parts of the country but you’re going to run into some issues when it comes to regions with discernable seasons.
Bands are going to have to continue to adapt as the current situation continues to develop, and even though the ultimate goal is to eventually get back to the way things used to be, it’s hard to imagine COVID-related restrictions will be going away any time soon. Alicia Bentley saw The Ghost of Paul Revere perform at a venue in New Hampshire, and while she appreciated the steps they took to promote safety, she said she’d need “COVID numbers to go way down” before she’d consider attending a show in a more traditional concert setting, noting, “I work in healthcare so health and safety is a big concern for me. A lot of people don’t respect mask-wearing when you’re within six feet of each other and I am not ready for that yet.”
What this ultimately all means is bands and their fans likely have to prepare for a future that focuses more on the virtual shows Goose performed as opposed to in-person gigs regardless of the steps that are taken to mitigate the risks. According to Sherry, The Ghost of Paul Revere is doing exactly based on how they’re planning to approach the coming months, saying, “We’re playing around with the idea of doing virtual touring; full band streamable concerts for all of the cities we’ll miss out touring through this fall.” McCarthy put it a bit more succinctly when he added, “We’ll be on the Internet!”
Ah yes. The internet. The best friend a quarantined society could ask for.
Bands have definitely enjoyed the reprieve from isolation performing together has provided them with and the same can be said for the people who’ve seen them live who had always looked at concerts as a way to escape from the real world; an opportunity to forget about everything that’s going outside of the venue for a short but wonderful period of time. Lemelin says those feelings where only magnified in light of all the madness currently raging and said, “Seeing Ghost play literally made me shed a tear with how crazy the world is right now. Seeing them brought so much peace and happiness to my world!”
Barring a miracle breakthrough and the availability of a vaccine much sooner than is generally expected, the internet is going to be the primary venue for live music for the foreseeable future, whether it means more runs like The Bingo Tour or the route Phish and Lollapalooza have taken by digging into the archives and breaking up their live streams with rare and unseen footage of old performances.
We’ve had to come to terms with countless new realities this year and adopting a “something is better than nothing” mentality has become an almost essential coping mechanism in these current times. The state of music may not be to your liking, but in the end, the creative stopgaps acts have dreamed up are certainly better than the alternative. If fans don’t support these endeavors, some musicians may not be able to continue to perform in any capacity, so enjoy those drive-in concerts while you can and embrace those virtual shows for the time being, because if you don’t, we might end up with a brand new crisis on our hands.