Puuluup Crowd Swimming. Photo by Kirke Kuiv.
Your scribe had just landed in NYC on March 10, 2020. He savored five days of live music before the first lockdown fell. Cramming multiple gigs into each evening, most of these were documented in a Rail review, May 2020 edition. On the sixth night, he ventured out to Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia loft, but that planned Jens Brand performance had swiftly transmogrified, becoming an early pandemic livestream. Walking the streets of Manhattan, forlorn and gig-less, making a long circuit from Grand Street up to Central Park, and downtown again, revealed a city already deserted in preparation for the official shelter-in-place edict on Tuesday, March 17.
In July and August of this year, once the double-vaccinated were allowed smooth entries, your scribe spent two months on the European road, visiting festivals and individual gigs, lapping up live music after eight months of an almost-drought, but also monitoring the situation, as all lands were, in their different ways, timescales, and degrees of caution, resuming live performances on a fuller scale than at any time during 2020.
Ultimately, everyone who is returning to attending gigs is attempting to jolt themselves back to the way things were at the beginning of the pandemic. Overheard afterward, audiences invariably express enthusiasm for the renewed experience, but mostly don’t shout out about it during the event itself. Sometimes they seem surprisingly subdued. Ecstatic expression will only begin to happen when restrictions are completely lifted, and folks are free to physically interact, drink and smoke unselfconsciously, randomly mix with friends, and even actually dance during performances. At the time of writing, this was just beginning to happen at large festivals in the US and the UK. Stumbling slightly, we have to start afresh, hazily remembering all the gut reactions, the chance socializing, the sheer improvisatory thoughtlessness that transpires at some gigs, particularly the louder and faster. The true hedonistic live performance explosion will arrive when everyone present feels confident that the vaccinating drive is coping with the virus variants, but even so, progress will be measured among some quarters, and a rapid rush for others.
Following two months of mostly indoor living, there were signs of activity sprouting in Germany, May of 2020. The uncompromising folks at the Moers Festival were determined to maintain their program as a physical happening, with artists performing inside its accustomed venue. At this stage of the pandemic, German anti-virus tactics were making the country one of the chief resistors of the virus’s effects. As the festival neared, it soon became apparent that most of the visiting international acts were being forced to abort, so the schedule eventually became dominated by native German performers. No Moers public audience was allowed, aside from a tiny cluster of crew, musicians, and journalists, but the sets went ahead, slickly and imaginatively filmed by the French-German ARTE television network, alternating on two stages. It was the most advanced livestream of its time, showing the onward path for the rest of the year. In May of 2021, the Moers Festival was destined to be a forerunner once again.
In August 2020, your scribe attended Tallinn Music Week, in the Baltic State of Estonia. Where was the virus? Cases remained incredibly light in Estonia during 2020, only eventually rearing up in early 2021, but soon coming under control after only a few months. At TMW—and by no means scientifically proven—many of the musicians and delegates were relating anecdotal tales of having already caught the virus early in the pandemic. For most of the performances, it was like shunting back in time before the first lockdown, with few of the familiar restrictions in place.
This was a disorientating experience, but it also held a kind of illusory forgetting of the situation in most other European countries. Hearing avant metal dynamics—via close-proximity, gut-quaking speaker stacks—was an almost lost experience in the six months prior. Estonia is a small land, with a small population, but has a heavy governmental digital infrastructure in place for testing and corralling, plus it had few tourists present during the lockdown periods. During the same week there was Station Narva, a two-day rock/electronic festival right next to the Russian border. There were even fewer cases there, though in 2021, there have been infections spilling across the Narva River fence.
Brussels was fully firing in October 2020, with nearly all venues open and running full calendars, though applying audience number restrictions, and mostly sticking to native Belgian artists. The multimedia Artonov festival was able to stage performances in historic buildings, melding music, dance, narrative, and installation art. Usually, audiences are quite small for these events, so Artonov wasn’t massively compromised, aside from being unable to invite performers from far lands. Yes, the restrictions placed a rigid fence of self-consciousness around these October Brussels shows, but we all felt grateful for live action, even under strictness.
In September 2020, the live remix Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, solved some of its problems by staging itself on the top floor of the hotel where its artists were staying. Recently renovated, there was now a panoramic space named Stup, which was just right for a reduced-size festival, acoustically primed for the crystalline Punkt sound system.
By the end of October and the beginning of November, most countries across the northern hemisphere went into a long-term lockdown. When a gradual opening up began in May 2021, the Moers Festival was at the vanguard again, facilitating the very first invasion of vaccinated American players, and suddenly being allowed an in-person audience of 500, just days before its start. John Scofield, Fred Frith, Ava Mendoza, Chris Pitsiokos, Gerald Cleaver, Hamid Drake, Joe McPhee, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Myra Melford were among the seeming multitude of cross-Atlantic arrivals. Everything ran smoothly, with daily on-site testing, and no cancelations. The UK Afro-electro band Nihiloxica urged the 500 to get up and dance in the park, at the same time as security staff moved in to forbid such movement. This was the way it had to be, a frustrating compromise to facilitate the live resurgence.
In July 2021, your scribe attended the Rīgas Ritmi Festivāl in Latvia. Virus cases were dipping, and restrictions were lifting, but this is the only country visited where there seems to be a susurrus of reluctance to get vaccinated. Once again this was an anecdotal impression. Even so, there were several gigs during the festival in Rīga that were only open to vaccinated punters, so there could be a societal divide on the way. This probably applies to most other countries as well, to varying extents. The late jazz jam sessions at the M/Darbnīca venue held an aura of prohibition release, as tables were filled in its courtyard, around midnight, curfew lifted.
In July and August 2021, Belgium and Portugal also had measures in place that were very similar to those from the preceding summer, despite high vaccination rates. Presumably this will change soon. The Brosella festival happened outdoors, as usual, with its park amphitheater facilitating relaxation in spacing-out, but the Gent Jazz festival was staged under a high-roofed tent, open all around its sides, with the audience seated at tables, attended by servers. Virus etiquette was stricter here, with more folks in a tighter space. In Gent, though, the numbers allowed were fourfold, compared to the 400-maximum 2020 edition. At this time, some of the bands were just learning to project further, to a seated crowd that was more spread out than expected, having to almost re-learn their stagecraft. Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto managed to grab a pair of Stateside bands, Broken Shadows and the James Brandon Lewis Quartet, but ironically this only happened due to the cancellation by surer bets from Norway. Both Lewis and the expanded Fire! quintet were emanating sheer joy at finally getting to play album material not heard live so far, premiering their Molecular and Defeat albums, respectively. Lewis made a light-hearted remark about the pandemic, but in the next sentence mentioned that he’d lost a pair of folks to the virus. This duality probably best sums up the blended mind-state of many audience members.
In July 2021, Estonia’s cases had dropped once more, making the Viljandi Folk Music Festival a realistic possibility. It’s normally a massive event, in the south of the country, happening on an idyllic site around castle ruins, overlooking a vast lake. The audience count was significantly reduced, but this prompted another back-to-the-old days experience. The folk was quite hardcore, with only a few fusions, but the organizers still managed to bring in outfits from Hungary, Georgia, Italy, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Ireland, and Belgium. One striking moment came during the set by the besuited Estonian hardcore folktronica duo Puuluup, as they suddenly fell into the audience for a bout of face-down crowd-swimming. Something not witnessed for around 18 months.
Generally, audiences have been somewhat subdued: separated, masked, often not allowed alcoholic beverages, or dancing, or circulation around venues, and maybe just rusty on old-school gig behavior. We can still sense the ecstasy, blanketed though it is by uncertainty and (usually necessary) authoritarianism. Now that in many countries restrictions have been lifted, crowds will tentatively start to relax, improvise, and return to a desired state of abstraction. Hopefully.
Since March 2020, whatever the individual graph fluctuations in each land, ultimately the virus came for everyone. Holding off, shutting borders, only deferred the inevitable, the final solution only being provided by vaccinations. Nothing else can presently hope to vanquish the virus. New York City itself has fluctuated on-and-briefly-off with the requirement for proof-of-jabbing, but this is steadily becoming a global demand for musicians crossing borders, and for listeners attending gigs. Versions of “freedom” have to be chosen. In the UK, no vaccination proof is currently required for gigs, but changes are on the way. In France, passes are needed for all live performances. In Latvia and Portugal, documentation was needed even to enter bars. It looks like large festivals will be either forced, or will volunteer to check certificates.
As vaccinations have radically increased around Europe, the atmosphere is one of permanent return, and an acceptance of the here-forever virus. In the USA, variant spread is ensuring a complete return to vaccination-checking for gigs and festivals. Live music is rapidly returning to full force, but swift adaptation will now be needed from the audiences, a skill that promoters and bookers have already been dealing with for much of the last 20 months. And all of this has been only about North America and Europe, the Red Zones are a radically different case.