Last year, despite massive complications from the pandemic, people were still able to watch sports, see movies and eat food from restaurants. Sure, all that went down differently than usual. But those forms of leisure still existed.

Not concerts, though. 2020 was the year that pretty much completely swallowed touring-level live-music whole.

In Huntsville, this sucked particularly hard. 2020 got off to such a promising start, with the opening of Mars Music Hall. The gleaming new Von Braun Center room filled a gaping hole in the city’s venue mix, 1,500-ish capacity, and brought in an array of solid acts from rock to country to metal to bluegrass. Artists whose tour buses had in years past simply drove past Huntsville, with no place to perform here.

Plus, across downtown, SideTracks Music Hall now had a few years under their wheels, building up a rep among veteran touring acts and rising stars alike, at the club level. And excitement was building for even bigger, more marquee tours coming here soon, as plans for the upcoming amphitheater at the MidCity development on University Drive progressed.

But then COVID cratered touring from mid-March on. During the pandemic, artists, from local to national, have performed live streaming events online. But it’s not the same animal, not even on the same planet, as being in the room with a band that’s throwing down onstage, live. Many Huntsville bars reopened and now host local bands again. But while those bar shows are fun (and sometimes even transcendent), the songs, production and wallop of touring-level live music have been sorely missed. At least among fans for whom live music is their electric church. Their catharsis. Attending a concert is one the most enjoyable things an adult can do while standing up. And for almost a year now, it ain’t really been happening in Huntsville (or most other U.S. cities).

As the calendar turned from ’20 to ’21, tour after tour continued to postpone (again) or cancel. Was Huntsville’s 2021 concert outlook going to be any better than 2020? In January, I spoke with leadership from the Von Braun Center, SideTracks Music Hall and Huntsville Amphitheater to get their takes. Edited excerpts are below.

Scott Weiland

The late great Scott Weiland onstage at Huntsville’s Von Braun Center in 2002 with Stone Temple Pilots. (Huntsville Times file photo)

Von Braun Center assistant director Mike Vojticek

Mike, right now, as we speak today on Jan. 14, what’s the outlook for concerts at the VBC in 2021?

Well, we just announced Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser (April 15 at VBC’s Propst Arena) two days ago. So that was that was a positive thing.

We’re still working on other shows as we as we go. I think the overall outlook for the industry is probably to start doing some outdoor shows, first, may be limited capacity still and socially distanced.

But I think more of the full capacity shows or somewhat full, they may come back in the summer, June, July, August, mainly probably in outdoor amphitheaters,

I don’t see us getting indoor shows back until probably October. And that’s just based on talking to agents talking to promoters, the holds we have on our books right now.

So, right now, we are working on trying to do mainly limited capacity, socially, distance arena shows here. And we’re also talking to a couple different promoters about doing some outdoor shows, and parking lots adjacent to the VBC.

I was curious if you guys were looking into adding an outdoor venue at the VBC. But the parking lot shows sound like they might fill that slot.

Yeah. And this would not be a typical car show like they’ve been doing. We would be talking about doing a show in a parking lot and maybe the capacity being somewhere around 1,500, 1,600, but still do socially distance, maybe table seating. A lot of venues have done just chairs, groups of twos and fours and threes and just separate them by maybe 10 feet or so.

And then maybe have a common GA (general admission) area in the back where people bring lawn chairs and kind of social distance themselves. But not have any pit up front, or any kind of standing GA against the stage – that just wouldn’t work.

There are some artists who we’ve talked to their agents, who will only do outdoor shows right now, and so this would be the only opportunity for us to get those shows here, since we don’t have an amphitheater yet. To do it in more of a parking lot situation. Put up a stage and sound and lights, and we did it back when we did Big Spring Jam. We know how to do it.

So those are really the things we’re working on right now. Some of the comedians are wanting to work, and we could put those in the concert hall, and we’re at about 750 capacity in there, from almost 2,000. The arena shows we’re at about 2,300, 2,400 – down from a normal 180-line at maybe 6,500. So the Jamie Johnson show, I think that is going to probably sell out. It’ll do well.

As far as Mars Music Hall shows go, we’ve done now over 50 local bands at Mars since July. And (those local bands) have been very appreciative in being able to do that – and we’ve been paying them, which is good as well. And we may lose a little money on a show, make a little money, but we’ve been averaging anywhere from 100 to 200 people in there, again socially distanced, and it’s been a fun time.

I thought that was a clever pivot for Mars Music Hall doing those local band shows. Earlier, you mentioned socially distanced shows in the VBC arena. How would that work? I feel like a solo, acoustic show has a more realistic chance shot at staying socially distanced than like a full-band show

Yeah, actually the Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser show is an acoustic show. So, two parts: I think that’s right, that keeps the crowd from getting too crazy. And also, it keeps the number of people that the artists are having to tour with down, which limits their exposure to COVID.

And I know on Jamey Johnson, he had a full rider that he sent to us asking us, “How are you handling COVID procedures backstage?” And they were very particular about making sure that it was a safe environment for the artists backstage. I think by limiting the number of people that have touring, helps them feel more comfortable about going out actually performing onstage.

In the news, there’s been a lot about federal aid for venues. Does the VBC get a piece of any of that?

The first round of the COVID aid, which was the PPP loans and grants that were out, city entities, governmental organizations did not qualify for that. Through NIVA, which is the National Independent Venues Association, of which we’re a member, and also, IAVM, which is the International Association of Venue Managers, they lobbied Congress in this last round, to include venues such as ours. So we’re in the process of trying to get either loans or grants for the VBC.

But as an agency of the city of Huntsville, it appears that we now qualify for that when we didn’t prior. We feel hopeful that we will be able to get some aid this next round.

How crucial is that aid for the VBC?

It’s very crucial. Not just with the concert industry, but with social events, with conferences, a lot of other things going on, we’re losing quite a bit of money every month. We’ve kept our full time employees in place. All have our part time employees back in March, we pretty much let go.

Our full time employees currently are doing everything. We’ve got people who maybe are in marketing, working in security or at a metal detector for a hockey game. Or working in an operations department where they’re setting up tables and chairs.

So all the full-time folks at the VBC are really working hard to keep the place going and to keep our labor costs down, with the people we have here. So getting money from the federal government would really help us kind of keeping us afloat, until next fall, when we think things are going to really start picking up again.

About how many full-time Von Braun Center employees are there currently?

We currently have 70 full time employees. Back in March, we had about 75 or 76 and then we had some retire, and we just haven’t replaced those positions. We’re trying to fill those with what we have now.

When you’re talking about things picking up for arena-size events in October, is that based on vaccinations getting more proliferated? What is that estimate based on?

I’ll say this: Back in March, when everything kind of came to a close, the agents and promoters were moving shows from March to August, September, October, thinking everything was going to be OK by then. I think we all thought that at the time. We got to that point in time and realized things weren’t OK.

So then we started seeing shows move into the spring of ’21. And then now, everything’s getting moved to the fall. I don’t have a contextual argument as far as vaccinations go, all I’m doing is following what I’m seeing, the holds for the bands being made and where they’re moving their shows.

What was the last concert at the VBC before COVID shut everything down?

The last show we had was on March 13, Charlie Daniels Band (in Propst Arena), until we started doing local shows in Mars.

When the pandemic deleted the remaining 2020 concert calendar, what were some of the bigger shows the VBC?

I had a couple of contracts, pretty major country acts. Maybe an Americana act. But the ones that we had, you know that were coming up that were already on sale, we had Lynyrd Skynyrd and we had Reba. Reba’s coming about around we assume in July of this year, that’s where here date moved. We had Avett Brothers, Trevor Noah.

We’ve got some shows that we haven’t announced yet for October, November. We’ve got a Lee Greenwood tribute coming up, they’ll continue to add more nationally known acts to that. Some of the ones that they’ve named so far have been more historical acts, but they’ve got some that they’re holding in their pocket that they will add to that show. So that’ll be probably the first arena show that I foresee happening with full capacity, as we have it on sale right now.

We were so excited about Mars opening in January. We had 25-plus shows between Jan. 3 and March 13. Excluding the local acts, we were on track to do well over a hundred shows in there. Just that initial excitement and seeing how excited the city was to have a venue like that, finally, that we hadn’t had since Crossroads was here. Those aren’t huge arena acts. But the number of quality of shows we had there, that had already gone on sale with or would have gone on sale, that was the disappointing part of it.

But the good thing is, that venue now is known throughout the country, because we got to play that many shows in that short period of time. Now, I’m well into 2022 for Mars dates.

For Jamey Johnson and some of the other upcoming shows, you mentioned they’re socially distanced. Will audience members be required to wear a mask upon entry? What else can you tell us about what that experience will be like?

We currently have UAH and Huntsville Hockey playing in the arena, so we’re experiencing all that right now. Those are socially distanced events, and they’re at 2,300 or so capacity. And people are required to wear masks when they come through into the building. Once they sit in their seat, the state ordinance says that if you’re eating or drinking you don’t have to wear a mask, so 90 percent of the people who are sitting in their seat are eating or drinking something, so I would say most people, when they sit in their seat do take their mask off.

When they get up to go to the restroom or concession stand, they do put them back on and we have security folks just kindly reminding people to do that as they walk through the facility. We have lots of sanitizing stations. All of our employees are required to wear masks at all times while working. Our concession stands have a plexiglass shield between them and the customer. We have dots on the floor, kind of asking people to kind of stand six feet apart.

Folks are doing a really good job obeying the mask ordinates and monitoring themselves in terms of social distance. I would expect the same thing with concerts, as we’re experiencing with hockey.

This is probably a fluid situation, but as more people get vaccinated, is a proof of vaccine requirement to attend a show at the VBC, is that something we’re going to see? Or does it come down to what the government requires there?

I don’t know where that’s going go. I certainly hope not. We went from letting people come in the doors to then now we’ve got metal detectors at the doors. And then if we got to put temperature checks on people, and then we got to make sure they show us their app that they’ve been vaccinated, it seems it seems a little excessive to come to a large venue with 7,000 people or even a larger venue than that. Think of a stadium. That seems like a lot.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. But anything we haven’t talked about, for readers who like going to VBC concerts, you think they’d want to know?

Live music, live entertainment is not going anywhere, regardless of the scare we’ve had. People need to be together, whether it be a sporting event, a conference, a meeting, a wedding, certainly live entertainment.

The artists need to go out and play in front of live audiences, not only for the money, which is where they’re making most of their money, but just their desire to be in front of a live audience. And there’s no better experience than being at a live show, period.

SideTracks Music Hall general manager/talent buyer Shane Bickel

Shane, what’s the outlook for live music at SideTracks for 2021, and compare that to 2020?

As of right now, there are more shows reaching out to us. More people are willing to get out, and they’re willing to play the smaller rooms or even the larger rooms with limited capacity. It definitely seems like there’s a lot more people that really believe, you know, the show must go on – and the shows are going to go on.

Tell me how you guys adapted last year, like table seating, to still be able to have live music at SideTracks during the pandemic?

There’s a few shows that would come through during the week, but for the most part we decided just to do shows on the weekend. And sell tables. And what we ran with was just 25 percent capacity, catered to those tables, so we can have it socially distanced. Not too many people and not have the artists uncomfortable or the customers uncomfortable or even our employees uncomfortable. And some people actually enjoyed doing the seated shows, to be honest with you. At 25 percent capacity, it makes for a pretty intimate show in here.

Table seating help people stay socially distanced?

It does. And with the shows that we’ve been bringing in, kind of scaled back, either acoustic or just more laid back, it’s more comfortable for sure. People are wanting to sit down and come in earlier and have dinner and stuff like that. That’s kind of helped out with selling food and beverages.

What are your realistic hopes for 2021? Full-on touring back in fall or summer? What’s your gut telling you?

I’d probably say late summer, early fall. I believe there’ll be a lot of fans that are still going to be leery about coming out. There’s a lot of artists that want us to go forward. We’re definitely looking forward to getting back to a full capacity show. Whatever we’ve got to do on our end to make people feel comfortable, we’re going to definitely do it. We want the artists to feel safe, us feel safe and all the fans that come here.

What are some shows that have sold best for SideTracks in this challenging time?

Right now it’s up and coming artists. Country music is definitely what’s kind of paving the way for us right now. And it’s a little bit easier for them to do the acoustic shows, more stripped down type shows and their customers and fans are more willing to get out right now, and they’re happy with being seated and socially distanced. We’ve had zero issues, no complaints, nothing.

You also work with Furniture Factory. Outdoor shows seem to be doing better during the pandemic. Have you seen a trend at Furniture Factory with the outdoor stage there?

Outdoor shows, definitely – those do seem like more people are willing to get out for.

What are some notable shows that coronavirus kept from happening in 2020, that you can tell us about?

We’re kind of reluctant to say some of the names because somebody might to go steal them, but we had Rev. Horton Heat, numerous rock shows. Blitz Kids, one of the old school punk rock bands. We had a big EDM band that wanted to come through. A variety of shows that were on the book and never happened because of COVID and a lot of that stuff’s going to get pushed to 2022 because of routing and things like that. Or even if the artist decides to tour. There are quite a few older guys who may want to hang it up and not risk it.

How far in advance are you booking shows now?

We’ve been just trying to play it safe and just book a month or two out, just because we’d hate for anybody to cancel on us, and then have everyone’s ticket money tied up, work out doing refunds and paying fees on the money going out to ticket services.

Most of the show we’ve got coming through are (artists based in ) Nashville, Georgia, maybe Florida. Nashville’s (proximity to Huntsville is) helping out in a big way.

And how far in advance would you book in normal, non-pandemic times?

For the most part, I’d like for my year to almost be done by now.

There’s been some legislation passed to provide aid to venues. Have you guys been able to access any of that?

We chose not to. We were shut down roughly three months. And during that three months, we just tried to come in and do a little bit of improvement and some serious spring cleaning. And then when they allowed us to open back up as a restaurant with entertainment, we chose to go that route and obviously keep it limited, the amount of people coming through.

We’ve got a small staff here, six people. We just chose to let the money go somewhere else. We did pretty well the year before and everybody here pretty much has a day job. We’re just grateful to get back to it and there’s no loans to pay back now.

What kind of improvements did you all make at SideTracks during that three-month shutdown? Like, painting?

Yeah, painting. We also extended our stage out four feet, so it’s definitely a bigger stage and a lot of artists that have come through here notice that. Worked on our greenroom a little bit and we’re working on a second greenroom.

In closing, anything we’ve missed about what touring-level, club-sized shows will be like in Huntsville this year?

We’ve got a venue that’s willing to have live music, customers who want to come see live music and artists that are wanting to perform live music. And we’re all trying to help each other out. If you’re nervous about what might be out there, please stay home. I mean, we’re not begging people to come out. But the people who do want to come out, we want to work and the artists want to work. We’ve had more thank you’s than we’ve had, you know, “Why are you open?” We want to be in this town for a long time, and we don’t want a bad name, so we go out of our way to try to make you feel comfortable to enjoy a show and just a night out with your friends or family.

Huntsville amphitheater

Huntsville Venue Group president Ryan Murphy. (Courtesy photo)

Huntsville Amphitheater general manager/Huntsville Venue Group president Ryan Murphy

Ryan, what’s current timeline for the Huntsville Amphitheater? The last time we talked timeline, you expected to open and begin hosting concerts early ’22; the initial batch of shows announced and on sale, early ’21. The city had begun to lay the site’s infrastructure, utilities etc., and you anticipated the structure going vertical about six months after that. Still on track?

That’s all pretty much still on track. The only thing I would adjust to that is, I’d say we’re still opening spring 2022. I think we’ll definitely be announcing and having tickets on sale sometime this year – now that we’re actually in 2021, I’m not sure how quickly. Because we haven’t even chosen a ticketing company, all that good stuff yet. So, that’s kind of more of a TBD.

Construction wise, they’ve laid the utility infrastructure, and they’re doing a lot of the foundational support. And I think they go vertical in the next couple of months. We’ll probably do like a ribbon cutting, when they do the first piece to go vertical.

When we say going vertical, what does that refer to?

In construction, they kind of use it as the first time they’re going out of the ground, the moment they put that first steel beam in, whether it be a stage house beam or a beam for one of the stairwells or elevators or who knows.

The 2022 opening has seemed like fortunate timing, with how the pandemic is going, vaccines coming online, all that. There’s also the feeling that people are going to be comfortable at bigger shows outdoors first. And maybe for a while. Are you getting that feeling? And how does that play into what you guys will do with the amphitheater, which is obviously an outdoor venue?

While we’re in the midst of COVID, and getting out of COVID, people are definitely going to feel way more comfortable going somewhere where there’s large open spaces.

Hopefully the world will be a lot more back to normal in 2022 by the time you guys open. In case that isn’t quite what happens, is the amphitheater putting together protocols to do socially distanced shows, if need be?

What’s nice about the (amphitheater’s) design is no matter what, let’s say, worst case scenario, we’re still where we’re at right now, a year or so from now, we have the ability, since it’s more bench seating like it is at Red Rocks, to be space out if needed. And you can even space out in a way that looks comfortable and it’s not awkward. There’s not huge chunks of people not in seats. We can do every other row, whatever it takes.

I’m saying with confidence that’s not going to be a thing, it’s not going to be an issue. And I think over the years, as we continue to monitor ingress, egress, the way tickets are processed, the way you order a beer, the way you get from point A to point B, bathrooms, how we utilize porters and ushers and volunteers to make sure there’s not a really congested area, that’s going to be part of the norm, by the time we open up in a year from now.

And if it comes down to the, you know, completely touchless technology of being able to order a beer on your phone and pick it up in a location, there’s so many things in the works to get this machine back online, I feel like we’ll have covered all those bases.

You’re a veteran of the music industry. Lately, we’ve seen a lot of artists selling the rights to their publishing, mainly legends and stars like Bob Dylan, Neil Young. But for artists that don’t quite have a catalog that attractive to sell, are you hearing how those artists are getting by during the pandemic? Because live music has been their primary income for a long while now.

Man, I think everyone’s had to get creative. Like a lot of artists have been willing to do online (music) lessons. I think there’s a lot more direct accessibility. They’re just trying to keep the people who are their fans and keep them engaged. And I think everybody’s gotten exhausted with the live streaming stuff, which is fair, but people are still trying to cobble some of that together. Everybody’s just sitting at that starting line, ready to pounce as soon as they’re able to, safely.

The publishing thing is interesting. That was probably inevitable regardless, right? Because you’re not selling records and unless there’s a dramatic shift into how royalties from (streaming services) change …

What people don’t see, when someone like Bob Dylan makes a move like that, every touring artist has a full company behind them. A whole working business. The people on the road with them, everybody. So many artists that have been doing things to take care of those workers the whole time. That’s just tremendous, man. So when you do see some of these moves, you got to remember they’re trying to keep their family, quote unquote, intact.