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Ready to rock?

As the Finger Lakes wends through the reopening process, venues are looking ahead to when — and how — they can host live music again

L. David Wheeler
dwheeler@messengerpostmedia.com
A view of the Abilene Bar and Lounge stage -- which could be described as "cozy" -- during a Richard Thompson tribute show last December.

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Last year was a good one for Brian Mastrosimone and Lincoln Hill Farms.

Opening the all-inclusive venue and agricultural attraction just the year before, Mastrosimone booked a full season of concerts in 2019 on the outdoor stage at the working farm off Route 247 just east of Canandaigua — local acts, regional bands, nationally known musicians like Rusted Root’s Michael Glabicki and rising stars like Adam Ezra Group — for patrons to take in the music while enjoying farm-to-table fare from the venue’s food truck and craft beverages from the 36-tap outdoor silo bar. That’s in addition to the weddings, festivals and assorted special events Lincoln Hill hosted on its 95-acre property.

This year was poised to be just as successful, with some 30 dates scheduled. And then — in a common refrain for businesses and venues everywhere — the world changed, with the rise of the novel coronavirus and the resulting shutdowns.

“It’s affected us tremendously,” Masrosimone said in a recent interview, adding, “If I didn’t own the land outright, there’s no way I’d be able to stay in business.”

Businesses throughout the Finger Lakes are well into Phase 2 of the state’s four-part reopening plan, with Phase 3 soon to start, possibly (though tentatively) as early as Friday. Tattoo parlors, nail salons, massage services, spas — all get to reopen, with assorted rules and restrictions to discourage the virus’ spread. And restaurants and taverns — which had been able to do takeout and curbside service throughout and last week got the OK to offer outdoor dining — get to open up for indoor customers.

As many venues are known for their live entertainment as well as their cuisine, the question arises: When does the music come back? And in what form? How can venues safely accommodate it?

The answers are up in the air, and dependent on direction from the state. As it is, arts/entertainment and cultural venues’ reopenings — theaters, galleries, museums and such — are included in Phase 4, the final stage of the reopening. As to whether and when a restaurant, bar, club or coffeehouse will be able to book a band or solo musician to play for its dinner patrons — that’s not yet clear.

“It’s an area we don’t have any guidance on,” Kelly Bush, president of the Rochester chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, said in a recent phone interview. She noted that guidance from the state on reopening protocols has been a day-by-day — sometimes hour-by-hour — matter: The word about outdoor dining, for instance, came in the afternoon the day before it was allowed.

“We got more than we thought — we didn’t think we’d be able to open at all in Phase 2,” said Bush, who runs Marshall St. Bar and Grill in Rochester and Union Tavern in Irondequoit. While it’s meant some scrambling, it’s also given business owners the ability to critically reassess their space. “We’re really grateful to have this, even,” she said. She said she and others in the industry were also surprised to be allowed groups of 10 — “we thought they might say four.”

“It really seems like the government is trying to be reasonable,” Bush said. “Now the community needs to follow the rules, too.”

As for live music? The only thing known for sure is that it won’t happen until Phase 4 at the earliest, Bush said, and that it will be subject to restrictions and protocols like everything else. The concern would be people getting out of their seats, losing themselves in the excitement of the moment, something that’s been inherent to the live-music experience (and that’s not even mentioning dancing). If there’s any “pushback,” Bush said, it’ll come out of that concern.

“What I’m hearing is that what we don’t want to have is a lot of people standing together, that’s where we are with our planning with outside dining,” Bush said. “They don’t want anyone standing around in groups.”

Some venues are hoping for the best. Montage Music Hall in Rochester, for instance, tentatively has a three-day "Un-Quarantined Festival" planned for July 10-12, according to its Facebook page.

'Roll with the punches'

The uncertainty — and the sometimes surprise caveats the state has given to reopening — can be frustrating to venue operators.

“Unfortunately all of our plans for bands are on hold at this time,” Rich Russ — among the partners behind the Twisted Rail Brewing Company and its Canandaigua, Geneva and Macedon locations — said in an email. “Every time a window of opportunity opens it is followed by another round of restrictions. Most pertain to distancing and occupancy. All music was prohibited the morning of Phase 3 due to concerns of crowds, even when outside. This caused us to cancel three bands eager to play outdoors with us.

“At this point we have to wait for a list of ‘what is allowed’ knowing that everything else is prohibited,” Russ continued. “The state has released extra restrictions every time that a new phase opens. I cannot imagine Phase 4 to be any different. All we can do is roll with the punches and be ready to turn on a dime to satisfy the governor’s mandates. We are as anxious to turn the corner as everyone.”

In the meantime, venue owners are exploring their options for responsible staging of live music in ways that minimize the dangers. They’re tentatively booking for the fall and into next year — and in the short term, figuring that when music is allowed, it’s going to require starting small.

Music has always been a central element of The Lovin’ Cup in Henrietta — the place is named after a Rolling Stones song, after all, and many of its dishes’ and drinks’ names are band- or song-based puns or references (the “Flank Zappa,” the “U2-Na,” the “Instant Karmal” latte). The venue generally has hosted musicians, from locals to big-name acts, at least three times a week, and periodically hosts “Lovin’ Cup Idol” competitions.

The venue in the Park Point complex near the Rochester Institute of Technology campus is a restaurant, bar, coffeehouse, live-music venue and host of assorted public and private events, and owner Leslie Z. Ward, her partners and staff have been busily preparing for each aspect of the business as it reopens.

“It’s almost like we have to take each of these (aspects) one by one and create building steps of what we do,” Ward said. She called it “a week-by-week adjustment process,” noting, “We’re just kind of limping through this, and we’re trying to do that very carefully.“

One thing they’re planning is to make more use of the outdoor patio. While she doesn’t expect to host any music indoors until late summer at the earliest, she figures if it’s allowed, it’ll start outdoors, where social distancing is easier. And it’ll start with local acts, either individuals or couples or small combos.

“We’re going to have to spruce that up and make it as beautiful as possible; tent a portion of it,” Ward said. “... We have a small stage out there. That’s kind of our starting point — small shows, featuring our local bands. That’s kind of our first step in the process. I can’t even wrap my head around what it’s going to look like.”

Danny Deutsch has the same idea in mind for his venue, Abilene Bar and Lounge on Liberty Pole Way in Rochester, known for being among the area’s premier hosts of roots and Americana acts. While most of the bands he books in the small tavern play the indoor first-floor stage, Abilene has an upstairs performing space, plus a patio.

“One of the reasons I bought it was a beautiful outdoor patio,” said Deutsch, who’s owned Abilene for a dozen years now. “We’ve got time because of this to spruce it up, clean the whole place up, painting. … This is not going to be what it was — that’s going to take a while. I think there’s a realization that everyone’s in it together, from booking agents to bands to venues like ours.”

Like Ward, Deutsch figures he’ll need to start small, and slow: Probably no five- or six-show weeks to start with, which weren’t outside the norm for Abilene. And since the touring-musician model is in flux as much as anything, probably not a lot of big names — and this is a venue that’s hosted acts the caliber of Rosie Flores, Jonathan Richman and The Sadies.

“Like others, we are trying to figure out how to fit in,” Deutsch said. “We have such limited capacity, and we’ll be cutting it in half. I understand it completely. … There’ll be hand sanitizer; we have a small staff and we’ll check temperatures every day.”

He added: “It’s a matter of doing what we do, but doing it differently. I imagine there’ll be a lot of solo acts, maybe duos. We’re all crossing our fingers and hoping for a vaccine. … Our overhead is not tremendous — which doesn’t mean we don’t need anybody.”

Deutsch had a “robust” summer schedule planned, one that’s no more, though he does have a number of shows tentatively rescheduled for the fall, such as Dead Horses on Sept. 10, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys on Sept. 16, and Miss Tess and the Talkbacks on Oct. 21 for an album release show. He’s also got some dates set for the spring and summer of 2021, he said.

In Canandaigua, José & Willy's manager Nick Laskowski is also exploring options for Phase 4 and beyond. He said the bands Friday and Saturday nights, as well as karaoke Wednesdays and Sundays, are a big aspect of the venue's identity and appeal. "We've been trying to figure that out — it's a big part of who we are, but it's also a big expense, paying all the bands," he said. Moving into Phase 3 means 50% capacity, he said — and the most recent information he's heard suggests that's likely to continue into Phase 4.

Among options he said are being explored is setting performers up on a wagon in front of the venue sign on Lakeshore Drive, running power out to the wagon — it would serve to distance them, both for safety's sake and to keep from further impeding on the number of customers the venue can handle. They're still trying to figure out how karaoke will work, as singers obviously can't share a microphone.

It's an important component to the business — a big weekend draw, Laskowski noted.

"People come out on Fridays and Saturdays for the bands," he said. "Without the bands, it's going to be mediocre, I feel."

Staying relevant, and afloat

Over at Lincoln Hill, Mastrosimone is taking the tack of trying to book some of the larger-profile acts for later in the year and into next year. That’s important for a venue that’s trying to establish itself as a major player.

“I want to work with a lot of the bigger names, and raise the venue’s status. They won’t be doing regular tours; we’ll work with them to get them for the fall,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing for us, to try to stay relevant, get some bigger bands so we can stay relevant.”

In the meantime, he doesn’t anticipate realistically doing any concerts until August, and is looking at options. He’s fortunate in having an outdoor venue, which allows for a certain degree of social distancing, especially if he sells admission at half- or quarter-capacity. He has also pondered a portable stage that can be driven around; he’s run electricity out to the back end of the parking lot for such an option. And he’s spent close to $10,000 to boost the farm’s sanitation — portable sinks, sanitizer stations, etc. — for farm workers and future patrons alike.

Obviously, booking right now is hard, even aside from the uncertainty over just when live music can return. Venues that are geared toward major touring acts, for instance, found themselves high and dry when all artists canceled their tours — leading venues like Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center (CMAC) to cancel the summer season. And tours don’t just re-start on a dime once an OK is given; there are contracts to work out, schedules to arrange, logistics regarding differing rules and restrictions from one state to another.

The grounding of tours and of live music in general isn’t just an inconvenience to venues; it’s a devastating — in some cases, crippling and potentially fatal — blow, depending on how much a business plan relies on music-derived revenues.

Ward noted that the loan received from the Paycheck Protection Program has been instrumental in keeping the doors open during the shutdown to the extent that it has — without it, they would have been better off staying closed, she said.

In a release issued Tuesday, the National Independent Venue Association — formed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with some 2,000 members nationally — said 90% of its members said they will “be forced to shutter forever if the shutdown lasts six months or longer.” NIVA said the PPP alone is not sufficient — venues have many fixed costs ranging from mortgages to utilities to insurance — and is lobbying Congress for a number of supports, including loan forgiveness, tax credits and more.

Even for those venues not in immediate danger, these have been trying times, with the need to trim to skeletal staffs. “Which is very hard,” Ward said. “I call my staff my crew, they’re my family. It’s very emotional.”

'People have just been great'

There is scrambling, and there is uncertainty, and there are frustrations and fears. But there is also gratitude for the support and goodwill of venues’ patrons and the community.

“I’ve got an audience of great, great patrons. They’ve been very supporting. We’ve had so many people saying how much this place matters to them,” Deutsch said — and also checking in with him during the days of heaviest recent unrest in Rochester, as Abilene’s not far from a clothing store that was looted.

“People have just been great,” Deutsch said. “I’ve been impressed with them, and there are some people in state government and local government who have been tremendous.”

“Oh my gosh, the business community is amazing,” Ward said, looking back on a meeting among restaurants, breweries, music venues and others to voice concerns, make connections and pass on frustrations and questions for the government.” She gives Bush a lot of credit for providing insight and guidance as well.

“We’re in constant contact with each other,” Ward said of herself and her counterparts. “The only thing I can say that’s of comfort during this time — we’re all in this together. I personally have been looking for ways to collaborate with other local businesses, so it’s advantageous to everyone." (Among recent collaborations: A pop-up beer event outside Three Heads Brewing in Rochester, with pizza made by Lovin’ Cup’s kitchen staff.)

“We’re lucky to have a reasonable amount of space," she said. "We’ve always been a place for intimate music shows — it’s going to be even more intimate for a while. We’re just forced to be really creative."

Adam Ezra Group performs at Lincoln Hill Farms near Canandaigua last year.