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St. Louis and Metro East Music Venues Ask If The Time Is Right To Reopen

Ryan Marquez Trio plays an outdoor, socially distanced show co-produced by the Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Ryan Marquez Trio plays an outdoor, socially distanced show co-produced by the Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis.

At 5:30 p.m. on a sunny Friday in Grand Center, 30 people sat at outdoor tables for an event that once was commonplace in this neighborhood but is now a novelty: a live concert.

The Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis co-produced the Aug. 21 performance by the Ryan Marquez Trio, under a white tent in the parking lot next to the Dark Room.

The vibe was a lot different from the last shows there, or at Ferring Jazz Bistro around the corner, before the shutdown in March.

Tables were spaced to allow for social distancing. There was a wide gap between the stage and the closest audience members. When patrons wanted to order a drink, they did so online on their smartphones, or waved a fan in the air to get the attention of wait staff.

Music venues have been hit hard by the pandemic. An indoor space, packed with people, is an environment where the coronavirus can spread widely. Temporary limits on audience capacity and social distancing requirements make it difficult for venues to reopen safely and still earn a profit.

The parking lot show next to the Dark Room was part of a series that runs into October. It was Marquez’s first time in front of an audience since then.

“Just to be playing music, and to see other people, even from a distance — it’s just good to be amongst other souls and spirits,” he said, standing behind the tent before his first of two sets.

‘We’d lose money every night’

Though venue owners lose money by keeping their doors closed while expenses like rent and insurance payments keep accruing, many would lose even more money by rehiring staff and hosting events under the current restrictions.

“We’d lose money every night,” said Off Broadway owner Steve Pohlman about the prospect of producing rock shows with an audience capacity reduced enough to allow for social distancing.

“We’ve come to the conclusion after thinking about this over and over again and talking to other people in the business, that it doesn’t really seem feasible,” he said.

Pohlman is a member of the newly formed National Independent Venues Association, which warned in a June statement that 90% of its members will go out of business within six months if they remain closed and don’t receive direct federal aid. The Save Our Stages Act, introduced in Congress in July, would authorize $10 billion in direct grants to independent venues.

While spaced-out tables and other safety restrictions may work for a jazz show, not all venue operators think they can open safely while offering the environment their patrons desire.

There's hand sanitizer aplenty and audience members must follow new safety rules for live concerts during a pandemic.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
There's hand sanitizer aplenty, and audience members must follow new safety rules for live concerts during a pandemic.

Ryan Kelley, manager of Pop’s nightclub and music venue in Saget, said he could resume shows and turn a small profit, but the audience experience would be too compromised.

“If you are open at 25% capacity, it has to be reserved tables. Nobody is allowed to stand up, so that would eliminate dancing or standing at the bar,” he said. “It wouldn’t even be worth it to reopen, and no one would have any fun.”

Performers have their own choice to make. John Harrington, of rap-rock group Midwest Avengers, said his group has a new album ready to go but is holding off on playing any shows.

“We can’t have a CD release party and have all these people come ,and then somebody gets sick and dies because we wanted to have a CD release party,” Harrington said.

St. Louis concert promoter Jamo Presents announced a series of outdoor concerts in late July — and postponed the shows the next day, after the White House coronavirus task force warned that Missouri was a red zone for spread of the virus.

Finding solutions through trial and error

Some venues are revamping their operations to bring back live performance in a safe way.

At the Monocle in the Grove, the path to its recent reopening wasn’t smooth. After shutting down in March, the venue reopened for one weekend in June. Four key staff members said they weren’t comfortable working with the setup, and the venue put things back on pause.

“We’re such a small space that relies on being able to really pack people in there to make it work,” co-owner Kyle Hustedt said.

He spent most of the summer rethinking the space and its eclectic programming. Club employees built an outdoor stage on a newly expanded patio. Hustedt also installed Plexiglas dividers at the indoor bar.

The burlesque and magic acts that worked well indoors aren't a great fit for a social distancing and outdoor performance, so the venue put more emphasis on booking bands. The louder acts bring an advantage: Some patrons at Urban Chestnut’s the Grove Bierhall wander over after hearing the music.

But another reinvention of the venue will be due once the weather starts turning colder.

The live music these days comes with masks, gloves and social distancing. Here, the Ryan Marquez Trio performs at a show co-produced by the Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Live music these days comes with masks, gloves and social distancing. Here, the Ryan Marquez Trio performs at a show coproduced by the Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis.

The Dark Room and Jazz St. Louis also experienced trial and error as they reworked their operations for outdoor performances. They conducted a test run one weekend in July. It was clear that the new setup puts additional strain on the staff, said Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, which runs the Dark Room.

“What I learned is just how hard it is to do the job that used to be easy to do,” he said. “You have to think about everything you touch. Everybody that gets near you. Every step that they make, they have to think about. It’s not like riding the same bike.”

Hansen said he ordered more staff for each event and is working on a plan to bring the new procedures indoors for staggered seatings and performances in the Dark Room.

Music in the air

Other venues have returned to live music as well.

At the Cigar Inn Jazz Club in Belleville, owner Chuck Hess brought back live jazz to the basement venue in June. The National Blues Museum has been presenting free, outdoor concerts near its Washington Avenue location since July.

St. Louis venue the Old Rock House announced a concert series that will begin in September, with strict coronavirus safety measures in place. Co-owner Tim Weber wrote, in a letter to city government posted on the club’s website, that the venue spent $40,000 on alterations to the space and new staff expenses.

The POWERplex youth sports complex operated a nine-week series of drive-in concerts and movies on its Hazelwood property over the summer. Managing partner Dan Buck said that 58,000 people attended over the course of the series and that 32 bands performed. He’s working on plans for a fall series, likely including tailgating parties and screenings of football games.

“We need to stay human during this process,” he said, “and part of humanity is being interactive and social and to interact with what we love — music and movies and sports.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.