Concerts Are Returning to Canada — and Here's What They Look Like

From community gardens to "musical aquariums," venues are getting creative to safely host concerts in the COVID-19 era

Kerri Coombs and Michael Rush at coFood Collaborative Garden (via Emily McGill)

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jul 15, 2020

Four months since coronavirus lockdowns brought live music to a halt in Canada, the concert industry is, ever so slowly, beginning to rouse from its slumber. Many bars and restaurants have resumed operations in some capacity, and small outdoor gatherings are returning to our country's green spaces. And although experts agree that we're unlikely to see large concerts until 2021 — or whenever a vaccine becomes available — small shows are undeniably back.

So what exactly does that look like for venues, fans and artists? Well, for one thing, don't expect to see moshing anytime soon.

"Everyone must be in a seat — so no standing, no dancing, no service at the bar," Mike Campbell, programming director at the Carleton in Halifax, tells Exclaim! "Artists must be six feet apart on the stage, too, which limits us to four musicians at any given time. We're also keeping the volume down from usual levels, to help combat aerosol spread due to shouting to be heard."

The Carleton is currently hosting concerts and operating at about half its usual capacity, with the maximum number of attendees at around 65. "Everyone understands the importance of the rules in place, and even with smaller-than-usual audiences, the energy in the room is still great," Campbell says.

Across the country, LanaLou's in Vancouver has introduced similar restrictions. The venue is also running at half capacity — 50, down from the usual 100 — and, in addition to the adding social distancing and sanitizing protocols, it's built a self-described "musical aquarium" for the stage.

"The first thing I heard was a concern about a singer's droplets travelling throughout the room," explains owner Lana Ryma. "It wasn't mandatory to do, but we put up plexiglass in front of the stage. So far, the feedback from singers and guests is that they feel more comfortable with it in place."

Both the Carleton and LanaLou's have instated creative measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The former now uses laminated menus that are easy to wipe down; the latter has put lights on tables to allow patrons to signal for a server, thereby reducing unnecessary interactions, and is keeping a sign-in sheet in case contact tracing is needed.

Outside of the bar scene, other Canadians are finding their own ways to bring live music safely back into their communities. This includes coFood Collaborative Garden, a permaculture-inspired community garden located in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Among the volunteers running the tiny shows in the garden is Japandroids drummer David Prowse.

"Music really brings people together in such a powerful way, especially when it's out in public like this, where anyone is welcome to join us, at a safe distance," he tells Exclaim! "After each show, I've felt so inspired, excited and energized. I don't think I fully realized how much I missed it until we put on our first show."

So far, the garden has put on two shows, each with a capacity of 30 people. The garden has three entrances, making it easy to maintain distance from other attendees, and the gigs have a 50-percent success rate of not getting rained on. The third show will be this Sunday (July 19) and will feature a solo performance from Prowse himself (performing as ds prowse), plus fellow locals Tariq and the Golden Age of Wrestling.

Prowse adds that coFood Collaborative Garden presents an option for music fans who are eager to see shows, but aren't yet comfortable venturing inside of a bar.

"Venues are in an incredibly difficult position," he acknowledges. "They have to pay their rent and they have staff who need their jobs back. I really feel for them, and it must be so challenging for them to try and figure out a way to open back up responsibly. Personally, I'm not quite ready to be indoors yet. I haven't gone to a bar or had dinner in a restaurant yet. I really like these shows in the garden because we get to see live music while still feeling safe. I think it's the best option for now."

Whatever your personal comfort level with attending shows, these venue operators all agree that the fans are doing their part to keep the experience safe and respectful — unlike some of the non-existent psychical distancing taking place at alarmingly large shows south of the border.

"People are still cautious about venturing downtown, so business isn't exactly booming yet, but we're noticing a younger-than-usual crowd for us," observes Campbell of the Halifax attendees. "Artists and audience have been respectful of the rules. Everyone understands the importance of the rules in place, and even with smaller-than-usual audiences, the energy in the room is still great."

As for Ryma, she's experienced LanaLou's new setup from both sides of the stage — both from running the venue and from performing in her Vancouver-based band the Furniture. "We're fairly loud and usually have a crowd in front of the stage," she notes. "This time, everyone stayed at their tables. It was like a punk rock dinner party."

It's further proof of the resourcefulness Canada's concert industry. From ticketed livestreams to brand new drive-in venues, music lovers and music makers continue to press ahead despite the occasionally bleak prospects for the entertainment business under coronavirus lockdown.

"Many artists are considering doing multiple shows to smaller crowds, if necessary, to satisfy demand," says Campbell. "It's a competitive business, but venues are all in this together, and we're pulling for each other because we know how important live music is to the cultural fabric of the city, the province, the country and the livelihoods of the artists themselves."

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