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Kentucky music venues Rupp, Norton thriving despite COVID

It’s Saturday night in early September at the Lexington Opera House and the ’80s rock troupe The Fixx is winding its way through one its biggest hits, “One Thing Leads to Another.” The audience — not a sellout but still quite robust in size — is singing along, a mass of smiling faces enjoying a weekend night out.

Then, a few rows back, you see a reminder of the times — a patron wearing a mask. She is one of the very few still doing so. A year ago at this time, the number of masked attendees at a live music event would likely have been significantly higher. Two years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered. Back then, concert venues were silent.

That’s when COVID-19 hit and changed the world. One thing, most definitely, led to another.

When the lockdown surrounding the initial COVID outbreak began in March 2020, it was a grimly accepted fact that clubs, theatres, arenas and even festivals would suffer greatly. “We were the first to close, we will be the last to re-open” was the widely-quoted prediction as the lockdown took hold. In business terms for the concert industry, doomsday had arrived.

But watching The Fixx perform offered an affirmation of a pre-pandemic return to the presentation of live music. Indeed, local and regional venues are again as active, if not more so, than before COVID broke. Life is normal again, right? Well, sort of.

The Backstreet Boys perform at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Live music shows have come back strong 2 1/2 years into the COVID pandemic that shut down all events in March 2020. Ryan C. Hermens

Fans watch as the Backstreet Boys perform at Rupp Arena on Sept. 6, 2022. The arena was packed for the show, even though it was a Tuesday night. Ryan C. Hermens

Crowds bigger than before COVID?

“COVID has changed the landscape of how we do things,” said Sam Karr, organizer of the inaugural Spirit in the Bluegrass festival, which will play the Kentucky Horse Park next summer. He also oversees the popular Ohio bluegrass gathering SamJam. “Safety is always first at a festival, or any event, really. COVID is still hanging around, but it’s not as prevalent. Audiences are just not worried about it. I’ve seen bigger crowds this year at some of the festivals I’ve been going to, bigger than even before COVID hit. I think people were just tired of being shut down and wanted to get out and have an outlet.

“Still, you’ve always got to be aware of your audience. You’ve got to respect that people from different parts of the country still are treating this differently than in other parts of the country. We had 28 states at SamJam represented. You can’t just say, ‘Here it is. This is what you get. If you don’t like it, don’t come.’ You need to cater to the different aspects of it, because COVID is real. Still. It’s out there. People fear it, but they also want to get out. They just want to know they’re going to be safe and that you’re going to have precautions in place if you’re going to have an event. Having those in place has changed the landscape for live music in general.”

What made music venues so susceptible to COVID was the very thing that fueled the concert industry in the first place — people. Specifically, large numbers of patrons placed in a contained and often indoor environment.

But big outdoor events have come back strong. The Concert for Kentucky at Kroger Field in April, a make-up event for Chris Stapleton with Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, drew tens of thousands to the first-ever concert at the University of Kentucky football stadium. The event had been planned before the pandemic and many fans had two years of pent-up excitement.

Chris Stapleton played a packed Kroger Field during “A Concert for Kentucky” on April 23, 2022. The concert was delayed for two years by the COVID pandemic so crowds were eager to return to live concerts. Photo by Mark Cornelison Mark Cornelison Mark Cornelison

Martha Eastman, left, and Dee Schreur cheered on Willie Nelson during Chris Stapleton “A Concert for Kentucky “ at Kroger Field on April 23, 2022. Mark Cornelison Mark Cornelison

And that demand has not slowed down: The Bourbon and Beyond music festival in Louisville earlier this month are drawing record crowds. More than 41,000 people turned out on Saturday and about 130,000 attended the four-day event that was expected to pump $9 million into the local economy.

Smaller venues: Innovate or die

“We did everything the CDC told us to do,” said Nick King, general manager of The Green Lantern, the small but immensely popular bar and music club on Third Street that has long been a performance haven for local artists and touring indie acts. “We’ve did that during the whole pandemic. To this day, if the CDC said, ‘Hey, masks on at all times,’ that would be our policy. That’s the only way we’ve felt when it came to doing shows this whole time.

“At first, no one knew what to do. No one knew how to react to it. We were all like, ‘We’ve lost the music.’ We were just trying to keep all our friends safe while keeping the place open. When the CDC lifted their mask mandate, all of our staff was still masked. We were still making people working at the bar wear masks probably longer than any other bar in town did. We were like, ‘What else are we supposed to do?’ A lot of the college bars that don’t even do shows did their own thing, which is going to be on them. But we followed the CDC the whole time.”

One of the first Lexington venues to explore new ways of presenting live music as the pandemic wore on was The Burl, the Distillery District music club that has become one of Lexington’s busiest and most visible music venues since opening six years ago. With social distancing being the requisite for any kind of public gathering facility during the heart of the pandemic, The Burl opened its doors but kept its audience outside. Sections were marked out in the parking lot, bands played on the porch area leading to the club’s entrance and shows were offered in the great outdoors.

“When we built The Burl in 2016, our vision was to do outdoor shows. That was already in the cards. But to the scale we’re doing now? No. To that end, necessity was the father of invention. It was like, ‘What can we do to actually bring in shows? Here are the parameters we’re allowed to work with.’ After we worked with those parameters, it did and it did not change our mindset on outdoor shows. It certainly made us see what was possible quicker than we would have done otherwise. It was do or die.”

Rupp Arena, Opera House busy again

For Rupp Arena, Lexington’s largest indoor facility, a return to pre-lockdown normalcy came quicker. A few country music shows with considerable restrictions — mask mandates, social distancing and greatly reduced seating capacity — got the ball rolling in January 2021.

By the fall, full seating was in place for concerts by Eric Church, Jason Aldean and a three-night sold out engagement with Morgan Wallen (all country artists). Masks were recommended for attendees at these performances, but few could be seen in the seas of eager fans.

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Eric Church in concert on Friday, September 17th, 2021. Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky was the location of long awaited opening night of the 21/22 tour. Estill Robinson

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Eric Church in concert on Friday, September 17th, 2021. Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky was the location of long awaited opening night of the 21/22 tour. Estill Robinson

Today, Rupp’s numbers are in many ways better than ever and its calendar, which balances concerts with many non-music events including, of course, University of Kentucky basketball, is again bursting.

Concerts featuring Elton John and the Backstreet Boys recently drew big crowds.

Fans listen as Elton John performs at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, April 9, 2022. Ryan C. Hermens

Elton John performs at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, April 9, 2022. Ryan C. Hermens

“Obviously, COVID is not behind us,” said Brian Sipe, general manager of Central Bank Center, which oversees Rupp as well as the Opera House. “Obviously, people are still getting sick. We have to be careful with our staff, too, to make sure they’re healthy. But for the most part, I think the public has moved past COVID and has accepted it as a way of life at the moment. They want to come out and have fun.”

Sipe also cited another reason for why concert activity at Rupp and the Opera House is currently so healthy — a backlog of touring acts looking for work.

“A lot of those acts had to be off the road for a year, year-and-a-half or two years, and they’re all coming back at the same time. That is resulting in everyone’s calendars being busy. Add to that the fact the public is wanting to be active and it’s a great formula.”

Shoulder to shoulder for Yo-Yo Ma in Danville

Steve Hoffman, executive director for the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and chairman of the Kentucky Presenters Network, is similarly encouraged by a revitalized and somewhat retuned concert industry.

“The impressions I get are that people are genuinely excited to be out and are thrilled to be having the experiences they’re having. There are a small number of people who come to each show at the Norton Center and ask if they can sit in a section where there are few people or where tickets haven’t been sold. They don’t mind having a seat that might be far back or off to the side because they just want to be farther away from others because of COVID. And we try to accommodate that. But when we presented Yo-Yo Ma (in April 2022), it was shoulder-to-shoulder, standing ovation after standing ovation and you could tell the audience was engaged.

“As human beings, being social creatures, we’re finally able to do that again.”

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