Indoor music can return in April, but local venues say capacity limits make opening unprofitable

The outside area at The Falcon in Marlboro. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

When I interviewed David Baron in February of 2021, the respected Woodstock producer/composer/arranger predicted that, with regards to live music, the upcoming temperate seasons would be our version of the roaring ’20s: an epic, flamboyant and perhaps somewhat carnal renewal and release of energy. The flashy, unstable tenor of that period is often attributed to the end of the Great War and its unprecedented social and psychological traumas, but as the Bardavon’s director of hospitality Mike Nickerson pointed out to me, it may have had as much to do with the passing of a global pandemic, the once-and-still heavyweight champion of the form, the Spanish Flu.

Here we are in the transitional period, and the shape of what is to come could not be more obscure. In assembling a cast of local venue owners and bookers for this story, I reached out to the owner and curator of one of my very favorite local rooms in which to play and listen. I was chilled by the tone of the response as my friend elected not to participate: The gist of it was far more “if” than “when” for this venue, and in that brief exchange my own spirit of recovery was soundly doused. The sense of damage and doubt was palpable: Economic damage to both venues and patronage, doubts about the still unclear course of the pandemic and the vaccine as well as about the attitudes, wherewithal, and tolerances of this imminent new collective psyche of ours, of which we still understand so little.

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In early March, our embattled governor announced that as of April 2, limited live entertainment—plays and music specifically—would be permitted. Venues can reopen at 33 percent capacity with indoor audiences of up to 100. If this were 30 years ago, when he was booking and managing and bartending at the legendary Rhinecliff Hotel—the little dive that could—Mike Nickerson might have been chuffed with those numbers. Today, his concerns are the grand theaters in Poughkeepsie and Kingston. He did the math for me. That formula equals an effective 10 percent capacity allowed for the Bardavon, less for UPAC, an audience size that would barely provide enough revenue to pay a union electrician to turn on the lights.

Inside the Bardavon Opera House (Photo courtesy of the Bardavon)

The grand theaters will be dark for the foreseeable feature, and while Nickerson did mention a few optimistic bookings later in 2021, he, like everyone I spoke to, was reluctant to predict when full capacity, full facilities, and normal booking activities would resume.

With no convenient outdoor options, no restaurant, and a business that is less scalable than that of smaller venues, Year Covid has been especially hard on Bardavon Presents. “We have done mostly free online programming just to keep our name out there and keep people conscious of Bardavon Presents,” Nickerson said. “We did the Classic Albums Revisited series and curated a bunch of video performances, from which we earn a small amount in donations. The biggest thing we did was rebroadcast The Nutcracker from the New Paltz Ballet. That got half a million views on YouTube. Live at the Met [opera simulcasts shown live at the Bardavon] shut down the same time as everything else, so we have had to do without that.”

Regarding the Bardavon’s organizational stance on reopening and what the window on that might be, Nickerson said, “A lot of us have gotten the vaccination and we’re getting pretty excited, but perhaps we’re putting our hearts before the science of it all. Right now, we have stuff we have been kicking down the road since last March. We have an end-of-August show that might be the first feasible one if everything is going as it seems to be going. That’s Brit Floyd at UPAC [a theatrical Pink Floyd tribute show from the UK].”

The size and booking purview of the big theatres introduces additional instability to booking. “It depends on the acts too, because if we’re one of the only theaters saying yes, their tour is not going to be feasible,” said Nickerson. “The booking world got turned upside down too. A lot of agencies closed or downsized. Some agents are starting their own new thing. It’s a brave new world out there and no one knows what is going to happen.”

The Colony in Woodstock. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Two of the region’s premiere mid-sized music clubs at opposite ends of the mid-Hudson valley, Colony in Woodstock and The Falcon in Marlboro, enjoyed an atypically busy summer and fall because of their robust outdoor facilities. In fact, both venues had been developing their outdoor performance spaces before Covid was a word any of us knew.

Along with booking director Mike Campbell, Colony owners Neil and Alexa Howard were planning to develop their spacious back yard as a no-cover beer garden and venue with an emphasis on local talent to complement their nationally-focused indoor stage, as early as 2019. Throughout summer and fall, Colony provided an excellent socially-distanced release for local music fans and musicians. Campbell says live music will return outdoors this spring and will be part of Colony’s future plans. “We are about reopen outdoor operation. We’ll be announcing April dates next week,” he said. As to indoor booking, Campbell, a veteran touring musician himself who is desperate to play, speaks with the cautious vagueness that’s become the default voice of a generation.

“Even though the state says that limited capacity indoor events can happen, we as an organization don’t feel comfortable doing that just because it is lawful to. Something this whole year has shown us is that we need to roll with the punches. We have examples in the world of how it can be done well. Israel is having 500-person live events. There’s infrastructure built into those things: proving vaccination or proving negative testing. All this stuff is still unfolding, and since it is so unprecedented, I don’t think there can be a concrete answer. I will say I have been booking and taking holds for national touring acts in the fall. Right now, the risk/reward of opening at 30 percent capacity for a venue our size is not worth it. It’s not worth potentially putting people at risk for little to no profit.”

The Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Midtown Kingston. (Photo by Tim Lee)

Tony Falco had been using the Falcon’s byzantine labyrinth of decks, patios and table boxes as additional performance space for several years, adding a third stage to the jazz, blues, and roots-focused music multiplex on the Hudson. With the space to skip tables, the Falcon enjoyed a lively season of patronage well into the fall, and as a restaurant, has continued with strict capacity restrictions through the winter.
The Dean of the local jazz scene, Falco is upbeat about the coming season and the effect of Covid on music making generally. “Creativity seems to have gone up quite a few notches in this past year,” he said. “Lots of time and pent-up creative energy has been spent in their home studios, and lots of hungry musicians have been hunkering down together with projects. Expect great material and interesting concepts coming to our Hudson Valley stages as things open up.”

The Falcon’s plan is specific in the short term and as contingent as everyone else’s in the longer view. “We’re moving things outside in May and will continue our Falcon Waterfalls Series that was really successful last year. I’m trying to book the coolest most interesting stuff that I can at the Falcon. People are needing to break loose from their screens, to get out and hang at a happening scene. As it becomes safer, we will open up more of our stages.”

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