Menno Versteeg Reflects on "Bizarro" Experience of Touring Atlantic Canadian Bubble

"Sitting down in front of an extremely quiet and attentive audience wearing surgical masks...is certainly a trip to the bizarro district of 'The Twilight Zone,'" says the Mav Karlo songwriter
Menno Versteeg Reflects on 'Bizarro' Experience of Touring Atlantic Canadian Bubble
Throughout much of the pandemic, Atlantic Canada has been the envy of North America. With only a smattering of COVID-19 cases throughout the summer months, the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador reached an agreement allowing for unrestricted travel and more lenient lockdown restrictions. For much of 2020, the Atlantic Bubble was the only part of Canada where touring was safe and feasible.

That's why, in late October, Menno Versteeg announced plans for an Atlantic Canadian tour with his solo project, Mav Karlo. For a singer-songwriter who has spent most of his career playing jam-packed clubs as the frontman of the raucous power-pop band Hollerado, these socially distanced shows were anything but business as usual.

"Sitting down in front of an extremely quiet and attentive audience wearing surgical masks and playing songs on a classical guitar by myself is certainly a trip to the bizarro district of The Twilight Zone," he tells Exclaim! of the mid-November shows.

As eager as Versteeg was to finally play shows after spending many months in lockdown, the Toronto-based musician was sure to put safety first. He drove to Atlantic Canada alone, peeing at the side of the road so as to minimize human contact, and then rented a cabin where he isolated for 14 days.

After that, belonging to the Atlantic bubble allowed Versteeg to travel with some semblance of normalcy; in Newfoundland (which saw just 32 new cases between May and October), he met up with his buddy Tim Baker, formerly of Hey Rosetta! (as seen in the picture above). Photos posted on Instagram show them eating fish and chips indoors at a restaurant — something that's almost unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

The shows themselves, however, were heavily restricted. Versteeg cites Fredericton, NB's the Cap as a venue with particularly memorable and effective safety protocols.

"In the daytime, it's a café and record store," he explains. "At night, they put lids on the record bins and wheel them into the centre of the room, where they attach plexiglass booths and turn them into little pods where people who are together can stand and have drinks with the people they came to the show with."

Versteeg calls these plexiglass pods "very safe and clever," although there was one small downside for him as a performer: "The only weird part was that the plexiglass acted like a ton of mirrors, so that when I was on stage, I was staring back at 16 images of myself like I was looking into a trippy fly eye. A very bizarre moment, but one I'm sure I will remember fondly from my mid-pandemic tour."

Mav Karlo's Atlantic tour ended in the nick of time. Coronavirus cases slowly began to creep upwards, and he voluntarily opted to cancel his November 18 show in Moncton, NB. Just four days after the tour ended, the Bubble popped as Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island exited the agreement; a couple days later, New Brunswick followed suit, thereby ending any unrestricted travel between provinces.

Even though tours like Mav Karlo's won't be possible for the time being, Versteeg remains optimistic about the future of touring on the East Coast, and highly complimentary about the way Atlantic Canada has curbed the spread of coronavirus.

"I truly believe that they were able to manage it far more sensibly and carefully than the rest of Canada, locking down the Bubble early and effectively," he says. "They have now done this once again, even though the case counts are minuscule compared to the rest of Canada."

A COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be available for all Canadians by September 2021, meaning that widespread touring may be able to safely resume by the beginning of fall. Versteeg predicts that Atlantic Canadian touring will begin even before that: "My guess is that, like last time, they will be able to reopen sooner, and artists who are willing to adhere to their strict rules and quarantine policies will be able to enter the Bubble and resume touring in the Atlantic provinces earlier than it resumes in the rest of Canada."