COVID’s Delta variant has performers, promoters, venues and fans hearing the starts and skips of a broken record. The uncertainty of it all sounds a lot like the music industry’s biggest “hit” of 2020, the one with concert tours scrapped and music venues shuttered. But, it’s 2021. There’s now a vaccine and the resumption of live shows over the summer led musicians and music fans to believe the worst days were behind them.
It’s become increasingly clear that even with music giants like Live Nation taking extra steps to ensure the safety of musicians, crews and fans, many artists at the center of it all just aren’t comfortable with the risks involved with tours this fall. A look at the last week of the concert industry’s calendar shows how fast things are changing in response to these ongoing challenges.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 22
Lamb of God goes onstage at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion as scheduled and melts faces as expected. A couple of weeks earlier, we chatted with the band’s bassist John Campbell. At the time, Delta variant cases were rising but the summer of our content hardly seemed over.
“We’re well on our way, the wheels are greased, we’re moving that direction, it’s incredibly exciting to finally be going back to work,” Campbell told us. “Not that the world is back to what it was before, but it feels like it’s at a point where the proper precautions can be taken and live music can happen again which is insanely important for human existence.”
Still, the band was aware of growing concerns. Jason Isbell had just cancelled an appearance at The Woodlands-area venue because he demanded COVID precautions the venue said it couldn’t accommodate on short notice. That news garnered national coverage. In the wake of it all, Campbell said, “It’s unfortunate that something like science is being ignored,” and that he’d be “playing my bass and throwing out the vibe to please get vaccinated and wear a mask.”
Houston Press’s Cameron Martinez covered the show. He reported about one-third of the audience in attendance wore masks.
MONDAY, AUGUST 23
We chat with Dave Pirner, front man for Soul Asylum, whose band has survived the ups and downs of 40 years in the music industry, ahead of a scheduled show here. He said what many others thought once shows began trickling back onto our schedules in the late spring.
“I think everybody thought this was pretty much over. So, when I saw the surge or the uptick, it had occurred to me this could affect my tour,” he said.
The surge in cases did result in some changes for the tour. Some of its first shows were postponed. Soul Asylum’s tour mates Local H expressed frustration on social media, perhaps speaking for many fellow artists in the process.
“These shows are not happening. Why? Well, that’s a tough one to pin down. The official line is “unforeseen circumstances”. Is this Covid related? Again — tough to say. But with all this talk about a fourth wave, we can safely assume that it’s not NOT Covid related. So to whom it may concern — get the stupid shot or mask the fuck up. Okay, you dumbshit?” the band posted on Instagram.
“We’re really sorry about this. As frustrated as any of you might be — you gotta know, we’re ten times as upset. Getting back out there has been far more difficult than we could have ever anticipated. We thank you for sticking by us and putting up with this constantly shifting schedule. We’re not in the habit of cancelling shows, but this whole situation is simply out of our hands. We’ve been assured that all other dates on the tour are definitely happening (and maybe you might see us on a few more). All of our dates with Radkey are ALSO a definite go. Fingers crossed.
“So, um, we’re gonna go outside now — and scream and yell and shake our fists at the sky,” the band wrote.
As of this writing, Pirner and Soul Asylum plan to roll into town Tuesday, August 31, to play the open-air Rise Rooftop.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 24
We scrolled over to Billboard.com today because the music industry’s pulse-checker is keeping a running list of tours which are being postponed or cancelled altogether because of the recent uptick in COVID cases here and abroad. Every music fan is seeing these reports from a refresh of the news feed, but Billboard has a comprehensive tally and updates it frequently. The list includes Florida Georgia Line, Nine Inch Nails and the resurgent Limp Bizkit. There’s Deftones, which was once slated for White Oak Music Hall on September 7. According to the venue’s website the show has been pushed to April 2022. It’s worth noting that venue websites have become invaluable resources to concert-goers in these unpredictable days. Check yours frequently to get the latest on your approaching show’s status and updated health policies.
Billboard’s list is a good place to guess whether any trends are emerging. Someone we know wondered if the postponements and cancellations were skewed toward tours with older acts, favorites like Stevie Nicks, who cited coronavirus concerns when she dropped from a headlining spot at the upcoming (and still scheduled, for now) Austin City Limits Music Festival. Was there a correlation since older acts might attract older, at-risk fans? But a glance at the postponed shows reveals acts like BTS, Halsey and Taylor Swift, who all might have younger followers, also folding for now. The common denominator seems to be safety and concern about breakthrough COVID cases.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 25
Live Nation made a huge ripple when it declared a few weeks ago it would require proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests at its shows and festival events beginning October 4. But one global superstar has decided not to wait on that calendar date for safety’s sake.
Live Nation announced a “COVID policy update” for Harry Styles’ Love on Tour run today. Ticket holders must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of entry to the show in addition to wearing a mask. These precautions will be in place at Styles’ September 13 date at Toyota Center. The release said the venues’ staffs will have to adhere to these protocols which, it notes, “is becoming the new standard for concerts around the US.”
These protocols relate to the music industry’s biggest shows. But, what about the smaller bands, those out pounding the pavement to recover from months of hiatus time? And what of the small and independent venues hosting those acts? The same day Harry Styles’ team announced its rules for shows to continue, D.I.Y. act Bridge City Sinners was canceling a tour due to half the band having tested positive for COVID.
The Portland-based, genre-defying band had just begun a tour in support of its new album Unholy Hymns.
“We are all fully vaccinated and are currently not showing symptoms, but we wanted to do our due diligence and test in the middle of tour to guarantee the safety of our fans. Due to this unfortunate news we are cancelling the rest of the tour. If you attended any of the shows over the last week PLEASE GET TESTED!!!” the band posted on social media.
“That being said we want to apologize whole heartedly, We felt the weight of the world to get back to “real life” and start touring again. We are realizing now that the world is still very sick and with numbers rising we want to say that we are so, so sorry if we contributed in any way to the sad state of things. Again PLEASE get tested, PLEASE get vaccinated.”
THURSDAY, AUGUST 26
One sign of the times is artists, venues and promoters getting proactive to help concerts remain on calendars. Several music websites shared today that ACL Music Festival would donate 1,000 single day, Weekend One tickets to the first 1,000 people who pre-registered for their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The festival is sold out and is still planned for October 1-3 and October 8-10 dates.
But, some “open air” events are taking a hit, like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. The festival announced its second consecutive year without shows and is now postponed to 2022. Before the recent surge in COVID cases, Jazz Fest was excited to try a fall installment with acts like Stevie Nicks, Dead & Company and Foo Fighters and had even scheduled its first-ever Wednesday night show to bring in The Rolling Stones. The world’s greatest rock band announced today it still plans to perform a fall tour, including a date at November’s Circuit of the Americas event in Austin, although longtime drummer Charlie Watts passed away earlier this week.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 27
Today, Eric Clapton released “This Has Gotta Stop,” a new song that’s being described online as an anti-vax anthem. The 76-year-old guitarist, whose playing skills were once waylaid by a crippling heroin addiction, sings about not being able to move his hands and sweating because of the vaccine — or being forced to take it — in the new ditty. The song and songwriter were both eviscerated on Twitter, a trend that’s been ongoing following his announcement in July he would cancel any shows at venues requiring attendees to show proof of vaccination. No word on how that stance will affect his approaching show on September 17 at Toyota Center.
The same afternoon, Tune-Yards announced the cancellation of all its approaching U.K. shows. The band’s Merrill Garbus spoke with us ahead of Tune-Yards’ tour stop in Houston in August. She was hopeful about live music resuming and reclaiming its important role in our lives, “insanely important for human existence,” according to John Campbell and important enough for the one-time Cream guitarist to go from "Clapton is God" to "Clapton Plays God."
“I don’t know, it looks like we’re going to be dealing with this thing for a long time. We need to try to just get back to why we want to be alive. That’s what I’m trying to get back to, remembering the joy of music and of living life,” Garbus said at the time of our discussion.
On Friday, she posted “I'm so sorry to our fans out there across the pond. You are some of our greatest support, the home of our label, a place we count on playing every tour.”
In closing, she spoke for musicians everywhere when she wrote, “COVID sucks. We love you and can't wait to see you as soon as is safely possible.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.