Musicians reflect on COVID-friendly summer concerts in Vail, Beaver Creek
Special to the Daily
When an artist steps onto the stage of a venue that holds thousands and is faced with an audience of 175, normally it would be demoralizing. During summer 2020, it was beyond uplifting.
This summer, Vail became one of few places in America where an audience – albeit one drastically diminished due to the COVID-19 pandemic – could still show up in person to see a live concert. Despite these guardrails, when Robert Randolph of Robert Randolph and the Family Band received the invitation to come play in Vail, he was beside himself with joy and relief.
“We’ve been playing Zoom screens, Facebook screens, it felt really great to finally play in front of live people,” Randolph said. “By the numbers it was a small crowd, but it felt like it was 5,000 people.”
While live music events everywhere came to a grinding halt back in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vail Valley Foundation and its two venues, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail and the Vilar Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Beaver Creek, scrambled to keep some of its concert calendar intact.
In a normal season, The Amp can hold a crowd of at least 2,600; the VPAC can hold more than 500. Per public health guidelines, all shows at both venues took place with the majority of seats empty, and with a long list of social distancing protocols in place.
At first, outdoor concert crowds at The Amp were limited to 500, then to 350, and finally to 175, forcing organizers to pivot, and pivot, and pivot once again, splitting the already booked (sold out in a matter of minutes) shows into two separate gigs.
“Considering that back in my hometown in New York there are 500 people inside Costco, it’s weird to see so few people inside this huge amphitheater, but the whole band had a blast,” Randolph said, referring to Nigel Hall and Eric Bloom of Lettuce, Nikki Glaspie, drummer for Beyoncé’s original, all-female band and The Motet bassist Garrett Sayers.
“In a way, not having played a show in so long, you feel like you’re a professional athlete, you feel out of shape, but watching people dance and have a great time brings you right back,” Randolph said. “We all know as musicians that music is therapy. It’s healing.”
The Vail performances largely featured collections of popular local and regional artists, such as members of beloved Colorado-based Elephant Revival, who performed indoors at Beaver Creek’s VPAC. The venue was restricted to 20% capacity, meaning that each party in the audience had several rows of seats to themselves. As a result, the acoustics soared and every note and word reverberated throughout the space.
“You feel so big and connected to us,” violinist/fiddler Bridget Law told the audience during the show. “The vibes are incredible in here.”
Law, who had performed at the venue earlier in the summer with Tierro Band, afterward pointed out that the circumstances of performing during the pandemic might alter the experience of live music indefinitely.
“Live music is medicine and to be in a big room with a few people only feels that much more special,” she said. “You feel everybody in the room. It’s more vivid. I would be down for more smaller shows with fewer people in beautiful places, also more localized. I toured relentlessly for 15 years of my life. I spread myself thin across so many miles. One thing that’s nice about this situation is if we could service our communities more and get to play multiple times at the same place. There’s potential for the art experienced to be enhanced that way. Musicians can go to bed in their own beds and build lives without being on the road all the time.”
Vail local musician Scott Rednor, who performed with a number of bands over the summer, including sitting in for the Kyle Hollingsworth show at the Ford Amphitheater, agrees that that the stripped down nature of the performances led to a more authentic live music experience for both musicians and audiences.
“I think it’s the ultimate way to see a concert,” Rednor said. “I was never a fan of being overcrowded. We’ve been having the times of our lives this summer. We’ve had some of the best gigs we’ve ever played.”
What’s abundantly clear is that live music is something neither musicians nor fans will ever again take for granted.
“Usually when May starts, by September I’ve played 60 to 100 shows. I’m hoarse, my throat hurts, my liver hurts and I’m begging to go home,” Randolph said. “Now it’s the total opposite. I want to play five times a day. At the beginning of this [pandemic], I was writing a lot of music. But the whole point of writing music is to go play live.”
There’s still a lot of uncertainty for venues across the country as they weigh the pros and cons of opening under limited conditions, hosting drive-in concerts where possible, or just waiting it out until full reopening is an option. For artists big and small, the more time that goes by, the more they are willing to do almost anything to get out and perform again.
In Vail, at least there is some sign that live performances are still possible in the time of COVID-19.
Former Vail Daily Entertainment Editor Shauna Farnell is a freelance journalist living in Colorado. Farnell wrote this article on behalf of the Vail Valley Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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