The death of Foo Fighters' drummer Taylor Hawkins while on tour in South Americana is a sad reminder that musicians are back on the road after the global pandemic brought concert performances to a virtual halt.
The impact of COVID on musicians relying on live music for income came at probably the worst time for an industry which has seen the distribution of revenue upended in recent years by the impact of music streaming.
Now the old and the young of all genres – from The Who to Billy Strings, from The Zombies to Father John Misty – are touring again.
Americana favourite Vince Gill captured the moment when announcing concerts with his own band for the first time since the outbreak. “I’ve got a lot of guys who have played with me for most of their lives, and they could stand to make a little money and come back to work,” he told Variety.
Gill has spent much of the past five years filling the late Glenn Frey’s shoes with the Eagles. He chose to do his own touring knowing that the supergroup would not be on the road at the time.
“It dawned on me in the middle of the pandemic that I hadn’t had a break in 47 years,” Gill said. “I had always travelled, always toured, always played, always worked, and never, ever stopped. It was a real interesting thing to have happen, and I didn’t spend all my time practicing. I found a blessing in the break, and it was OK. But I miss singing all those songs that I’ve come up with over the last 40, 45 years, so I’m pretty fired up to go out there and sing some of them again.”
Gill told Variety he has never regarded his guesting with the Eagles as the end-all to his long career. “I’m more than willing to chip in and help out and do this gig with Don (Henley) and everybody. But I feel like I have a responsibility to all those people and those crew guys who’ve been with me for 30 and 35 years and more, and people that have bought those records and listened to ‘em and love the songs.”
Gill’s 18-gig summer tour starts in Greensboro, North Carolina, on July 7 and ends in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 28.
Another Americana veteran to go back on the road this U.S. summer is James Taylor. He has announced a 20-date tour with his All-Star Band. Labelled “An Evening with James and the Band,” it will kick-off in Columba, South Carolina, on June 21 and end in Las Vegas on July 30.
The 74-year-old Taylor, a six-time Grammy winner, will then head off to Europe in September for a two-month tour.
Perhaps the largest Americana tour of the U.S. summer has been announced by Willie Nelson, the 88-year-old who made a musical art of being on the road again!
Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival includes a 19-gig schedule across 15 states, kicking off in Missouri on June 24 and closing in New Jersey on September 23.
Along the way, Willie Nelson & Family will be joined by a rotating line-up of stars from a mixture of musical genres – folk, rock, country and blues. The big names include Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers, ZZ Top, Billy Strings, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Steve Earle & The Dukes and more.
“The Outlaw Music Festival Tour has always been about family and friends coming together for a great day of music and fun, and with the amazing groups of artists joining us, this year promises to be our most special Outlaw Tour to date,” Nelson said in a statement. “I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
And the greatest octogenarian of them all, Bob Dylan, has wasted no time in renewing his “Never Ending Tour.” He had been touring each year since 1988 until COVID swept the world in 2020 and forced the cancellation of gigs he had planned in Japan and the U.S. Dylan returned to the road briefly late last year and on March 3 resumed in southern U.S. States. Dates are scheduled through late April. Officially the current tour is known as Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour and most of the set-list includes songs from his 2020 release Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Now that musicians are indeed back on the road, what are the risks both for the performers and audience, especially in large venues and, more alarmingly, at music festivals featuring multi-acts. If one of the first major festivals in the U.S. is any litmus test, then the answer is extremely high!
For the first time in two years, one of America’s major music events, SXSW (South by South West) returned to Austin, the Texas music capital, in early March. In 2020 SXSW shut down as the pandemic took hold and last year, it was a virtual event.
The reopening this year came with some restrictions. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test was needed to pick up credentials and a free COVID-testing centre was established at the Austin Convention Centre. There was mandated masking at conferences and exhibitions, but mask and vaccine rules were at the discretion of owners at music venues, both indoor and outside.
The outcome was not good.
“Yes SXSW was a super-spreader event, and yes my entire band got COVID, as did many others,” tweeted Canadian singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield. “We obviously knew there was a risk going in, but really feeling for everyone whose tours/lives have been derailed by this thing.”
Cornfield’s experience and sentiments were endorsed on social media by several music-industry attendees who also tested positive after attending SXSW.
When pressed by various media, the City of Austin has so far not released any details of exactly how many people tested positive for COVID after attending the festival.
The majority of U.S. states, including New York, California, Illinois and Massachusetts, have recently eliminated mask mandates in public. And so artists around the country have to evaluate the risk of touring, against losing valuable earnings, especially those who rely on performing for their basic income.
The same applies to owners of independent music venues who have seen their income virtually dry up during the past two years. Many venues are choosing to uphold vaccine and mask mandates, with the policy clearly stated at the door and with signage around venues.
Many artists too have made clear to venue operators that they wish to enforce mask and vaccine mandates for attendees. And some tour managers have even taken extreme measures like hiring COVID Compliance Officers (CCO’s) to supervise venue protocols and compliance. However, they risk the backlash of concert-goers who could rightfully invoke local government laws which no longer require such enforcement.
Los Angeles performer Sasami best summed the views of many independent artists when she tweeted: “I am not a big band. If we get COVID and have to cancel shows I’m fully FUCKED. If you love me at all, please wear a mask and buy merch so we can keep touring.”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation