Come for the hummus, enjoy the incidental show
Danny Deutsch is watching the charts. Not the Billboard magazine charts. But The New York Times charts, tracking the new COVID-19 cases. And the COVID-19 deaths.
“It’s not something to trifle with,” he says.
Deutsch is the owner of Abilene Bar & Lounge, the tiny downtown Rochester club that’s offered a stage to local musicians -- and small but intriguing national acts -- for more than a dozen years now. But Abilene has been open and closed and open again throughout this coronavirus pandemic year. And closed again since November.
Soon, it will be open again. Deutsch has just posted a schedule of acts starting April 30. Locals such as blues icon Joe Beard. Small national acts. Birthday tribute shows for George Harrison and Johnny Cash that didn’t happen in February when the club was closed are now on the schedule for August. A John Prine tribute is set for October.
But Deutsch says he’s moving forward with caution, especially after Monday, when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that she felt a sense of impending doom over the uptick in COVID-19 cases.
“And I trust them more than the previous directors in things, under the previous regime,” Deutsch says. “It continues to be scary, there’s no question about it, and it calls for vigilance, you know.”
The current entertainment landscape is less science than it is instinct and hope and economics and confusion. Some small music venues have remained open throughout the pandemic, and they follow state guidelines to varying degrees. It’s a business calculation as much as it is a public health crisis: Will a restaurant or club that shuts its doors for the pandemic, cutting off its revenue stream, be lost for good?
From small venues to large, and festivals in between, the responses have been on a case-by-case basis. Like many club owners, Deutsch did not find it economically feasible to remain open. The big venues share his pain. This is, as Rochester Broadway Theatre League Chief Operating Officer John Parkhurst said in February, “the longest intermission of our lives.”
The RBTL had hoped to emerge from the pandemic with “Dear Evan Hanson” opening on April 13. But that play has been postponed for a second time, with no new date in sight. Next up was the big one, “Hamilton,” scheduled to open April 24. It's also been postponed. Same for the June dates for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Everything is caught in the same holding pattern.
April’s Rochester Music Hall of Fame ceremony and concert was postponed earlier this week.
“We’re playing the waiting game, like everyone else, it seems,” said Hall of Fame President Jack Whittier. “The challenge we have, I think -- and it’s not a unique one, but it’s our challenge, too -- is that as we get everybody vaccinated, I think there’s going to be a segment of people that are really looking forward to going out and going to live music and live events. And there’s also going to be a segment of people that are probably going to take it a little slower.”
The GrassRoots Music and Dance Festival in Trumansburg announced last week that it will not be happening this summer. Other events have made adjustments. The Lilac Festival will be three weekends of three days each, with no live music. The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival plans on moving to an outdoor show on the Rochester Institute of Technology campus.
Everyone’s fiddling with their own Rubik's Cube, trying to find the correct match. Even movie theaters. Deutsch says that until the local indie theaters The Little and The Dryden announced they were reopening in May, he was venturing into the big chain cinemas about once a week. Not a lot of people shared his enthusiasm for the big screen.
“Two people, in a room that holds 500,” he says. “I don’t know how that business model is going to work. But then again, I’m not too good with business models, as evidenced by this place.”
This place, Abilene Bar & Lounge, will be open four nights a week, Thursday through Saturday. In some respects, it hardly looks like anything has changed.
But that familiarity is deceptive. To hold off any exchange of COVID-19, last fall Deutsch set up a Plexiglas wall between the bands and the audience. Under the current capacity guidelines, his upcoming shows will be limited to 38 people in the room. That may result, he admits, in higher ticket and drink prices.
It’s a matter of reading the audience, and its concerns. Deutsch sees his young audiences looking for a looser experience. But on the nights he draws an older crowd, “they’re cautious,” Deutsch says.
“And I’m respectful of that,” he adds. “I think that we’ve just gotta go slowly.”
It has to be “small, intimate, safe, and then live music going forward,” Deutsch says.
Three weeks ago, he went forward, to Geneva’s Linden Social Club to see the local singer-songwriter Aaron Lipp.
“I hadn’t seen live music since the last thing we did here at the end of November,” Deutsch says, “And that was two sold-out shows with Chris Trapper.”
Watching Lipp was invigorating, Deutsch says. Maybe it was time for him to get back into the game, he thought. But socially distanced, masked, and vaccinated.
And there does seem to be some movement by musicians to get out and tour. That may not happen until late summer or the fall for big shows. But smaller acts can gas up the Ford Econoline and go.
“I’ve seen a flurry of requests for offers in the last two weeks,” Deutsch says. “The majority of them are from this side of the country.”
Cruz Contreras is one of them. He's the lead singer of one of Deutsch’s favorite bands to play his club, The Black Lillies. But for his May 20 show, Contreras is going solo.
“I think you’re going to see that sort of model take place more and more in the next, in the summer, and maybe fall,” Deutsch says. “Solo tours, duo tours. And that’s what this is, he’s dying to get out on the road, a little hiatus, as opposed to being in a van with six guys, or five guys and a woman, and hitting the road. And being jammed onstage.”
Guidance from New York state has been shaky and often open to individual interpretation. To keep virus-spreading crowds in check, the state guidelines insisted that venues could advertise that they are serving food, but not music. Live music was only to be “incidental.”
“I don’t know if I understand that, or what it really means,” Deutsch admits.
Truthfully, no one can really claim to know what any of this means. Most venues and musicians are interpreting “incidental music” as meaning they can promote shows on Facebook, since social media posts are free; advertising costs, right? And while Abilene doesn’t have a kitchen, this summer, Deutsch was offering fresh fruit and chips and plates of hummus with pita bread.
“Come for the hummus,” he says, “enjoy some great alt-country and Americana or roots music.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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