3 ways artists are returning to live shows amid COVID-19

3 ways artists are returning to live shows amid COVID-19

In mid-March, as Brett Kissel wrapped up a concert with Brad Paisley in Saskatchewan, concern about the coronavirus pandemic was already on the Canadian country star's mind.

"We are going to soak this in and cherish this moment for all it's worth," the Alberta singer-songwriter recalls telling the crowd in Moose Jaw that night, as he stood alongside Paisley.

"We don't know the next time we're gonna get a chance to come back here and be with you all." 

He was headed next to Sasktoon for the Juno Awards but touched down to learn they had been cancelled and, over the next few weeks, watched as every gig set for the rest of the year evaporated.

"This will be the last thing that people will bring back because ... we bring tens of thousands of people together to experience this, shoulder to shoulder, whether it's in a club or whether it's in a theatre or an arena or a gigantic outdoor festival. And this is what spreads the virus," Kissel said.

Though Canadians have turned to music to help them through the pandemic, many feel reluctant about assembling to watch live shows again, even as Canadian provinces and territories begin lifting restrictions.

An April online survey of 2,500 Canadians 18 and over conducted for Music Canada, which represents music labels, found 43 per cent of respondents said it would take six months or more before they would feel comfortable going to a concert in a large venue while 26 per cent said they may never feel comfortable going again.

Nonetheless, a host of entertainers are returning to live, in-person performances and demonstrating how with flexibility, a raft of new safety measures, artistic ingenuity and a whole lot of hustle, the show can go on amid the pandemic. 

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The drive-in concert

For his part, Kissel is coming off more than a dozen recent live shows — including at the Saskatoon arena that was to have hosted the Juno Awards. But rather than playing to throngs inside the SaskTel Centre last weekend, Kissel performed for physically distanced fans out in the parking lot. Audience members sat inside or next to their vehicles while Kissel's band performed from behind Plexiglas shields. 

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"This is the way we can bring music back," Kissel said. "Keep everybody safe while still bringing everybody together —while still keeping everybody apart. This can work, and we've proven that it can work."

Soon, he won't be alone. A host of other drive-in concerts are in the works, from Live Nation's three-city concert series (headlined by Paisley) getting under way in the U.S. this month to a Bluesfest and National Arts Centre partnership in Gatineau, Que., beginning July 31 to indie rockers July Talk outside of Toronto in mid-August.  

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'A salon ... on your lawn'

Vanessa Sears was ensconced at the Stratford Festival, preparing for two productions, when the pandemic hit. It's since been an emotional time filled with both highs (including a Dora Award win on Monday for the musical Caroline, Or Change) and "really low lows."

Having lost months of work and sheltering alone in Toronto, she's also been strongly affected by the global conversation about and renewed attention on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dahlia Katz

Sears, who says she's returned to finding "personal joy" in music, is among the artists enlisted by Toronto's Musical Stage Company for Porchside Songs, an initiative offering intimate performances by talented local singers and musicians that respect physical distancing restrictions.

Musicians perform from the driveway, lawn or porch in order to maintain a distance of around 3.5 metres from their audience, and a stage manager is on hand to help ensure people are adhering to physical distancing rules.

Sears and colleague Beau Dixon have created a set a list for their Porchside performance that celebrates Black voices, from Bob Marley to Beyoncé.

"What we needed was to find and bring to other people is Black joy and not just our trauma and our deaths and our brutalization," she said.

She said she's encouraged by the fact that their sessions are already sold out. "It means audience demand is there."

There is something magical in live performances, she said. "Performing for a live audience, there is a different kind of energy that is visceral and that both parties can literally feel. It is why people come back again and again and again."

Colin Asuncion, also taking part with his vocal group Asian Riffing Trio, describes Porchside Songs as a musical "salon," but instead of indoors, it's held "on your lawn." For the Toronto singer-songwriter, the pop-up performances will be filled with experimentation.

"We've never done anything like this. I don't think we've ever even performed outdoors," he said.

Courtesy ART

Having to perform without microphones and physically distance from his bandmates, Chris Tsujiuchi and Kevin Wong, adds to the challenge, including affecting what songs will make their set list. Still, Asuncion echoes Sears in expressing an eagerness to return to performing live — even if it's 12 feet away from his audience.

"[It's] something that you can't really truly get with the digital experience or just watching a screen ... Sharing an experience of art together live is so unique, and I'm really excited to get back to that."

Livestreamed and in-person

Last fall, Mark Shunock decided to add high-definition livestreaming to the operations at The Space, his rentable Las Vegas event space and artistic community centre. It began as a way the Canadian entertainer and host could show his octogenarian parents in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., what was he was doing.

Ryan Hafey

But the model soon caught on, with performers — from singers to comedic acts to dancers — interested in delivering shows to in-person crowds and audiences anywhere in the world. High-quality streamed concerts have already gained a following through subscription services, such as Nugs.net, known for partnerships with artists like Phish, the Grateful Dead, Metallica and the Dave Matthews Band.

Because of the coronavirus, Shunock has shifted to livestreaming only to follow local restrictions on large gatherings. However, going forward, he believes the hybrid model will be one way audiences can return to live performances and entertainers get back to work amid the ongoing pandemic. 

"This has really set us up for a new wave of watching concerts and performances for the future."

Once restrictions lift more, he hopes to continue building on the concept. One idea is to set up with 150 spaced out small tables and chairs for an intimate in-person and livestreamed show that "gives the audience and fans an opportunity to see [artists] in a way that they normally wouldn't." Dream Canadian acts might include Shania Twain and Michael Bublé, he noted.

This hybrid live-and-livestream performance model is also an option for venues in Canada. Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre tested it out last weekend while recently renovated Toronto concert venue El Mocambo is also ready to move forward once approved by public health officials.

John LeSavage/CBC News

According to Shunock, the key will be to provide a high-quality live performance that is safe, but also feels as close to normal as possible. 

"It's my job to make you forget about what's going on in the world," he said.

"When you're sitting there having to wear a mask and be 10 feet away from people, and the chairs that were normally right there are unbolted and taken out of the floor, that's not a good night. We have to figure this out, so we can make sure that there are no distractions when you come into that theatre, into that dark room."