Alex Lucero
A&E

Dinner and a Show: Live Music Makes a Surprise Return in Santa Cruz

Model of “dinner and a show” could offer comeback for live music

Alex Lucero is one of the musicians who’s returned to live performance at dinner gigs.

When local musician Alex Lucero took the stage at the Sand Bar in Capitola on March 16, he didn’t realize it would be his last show for three months. His normal schedule of four or five shows a week quickly got disrupted by the statewide shelter-in-place order. Like many musicians, he played regular livestream shows but longed for the energy of a live audience.

On Friday, June 12, at Felton Music Hall, he finally got to perform for an audience. It wasn’t how he imagined his return to the stage would be. The venue was operating strictly as a restaurant, with only 10% capacity. Playing solo, he provided acoustic background music for the 35 people spaced around the venue. But the show wasn’t a normal dining-accompaniment gig.

“It couldn’t have been more energetic. People were dropping their forks in the middle of eating to applaud, and to get up and shake,” Lucero says. “A couple of people were dancing at their table—it was allowed because they were really spread apart. There definitely was some pent-up energy.”

Thomas Cussins, co-owner of the Felton Music Hall, is currently booking local solo acts at his venue on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a sudden shift from what seemed like a complete void of live music for the foreseeable future. However, he’s not in any rush to take it beyond the “background music” level for now.

“As far as real concerts, I think we’re quite a way away,” Cussins says. “But it’s nice to have dinner and have some music playing. Our M.O. is to take things very slowly. We’d rather be safe than sorry right now.”

This new model of “dinner and a show” could be how live music becomes a regular fixture in the Santa Cruz scene as the community continues to social distance to slow the spread of  Covid-19. Michael’s on Main had their first show on Sunday, June 14 with Matt Hartle and Friends playing Grateful Dead tunes as part of their Grateful Sunday series. They’re also hosting shows on Fridays and Sundays. This coming Friday, Now’s the Time will perform (a non-ticketed show), and on Saturday Mira Goto will perform. The show will cost $45 and will include a three-course meal.

“We’re in the business of selling food and beverage. The entertainment is simply to enhance that,” says Michael’s on Main owner Michael Harrison. “We were selling 250 tickets to a dance show. We can’t do that now. This is an experiment. We’re going to give it a try and see if people have an interest.”

Harrison says he discussed having live music acts thoroughly with the county to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues. He’s also being very careful that everyone on and off stage is practicing proper social distancing. That means no act bigger than three people can perform on the stage.

Tom Miller, who books shows at Michael’s, says that he’s been getting inquiries from local musicians for a while about when they can perform. Others have expressed that they’re not ready yet to take the stage.

“It’s been so hard on the musicians. So many of them have been out of work. A lot of them are jonesing to play right away and some of them are taking a wait-and-see approach, even though they also would like to jump on a stage now. It’s a whole new world,” Miller says.

Most of the scene recognizes that to have music back, everyone has to approach it completely differently. And one of those compromises is that there likely won’t be as much money.

“These shows aren’t for money,” says John Sandidge, whose production company Snazzy Productions is putting on the Mira Goto show on Saturday. “It’s 50 people [in the audience], two artists, a restaurant, and me. There’s not enough. I’m not even going to take money for this.”

For many artists, the money is secondary to finally getting back out in front of people again.

“I’m really excited to be playing a live show again,” says Anthony Arya, who will be performing at Michael’s on Saturday, June 27. “I’m thankful to be seeing some of these venues like Michael’s able to open with safety as their number one priority. That’s cool that we can get some of those shows back.”

The Crepe Place, which has been using its spacious back patio the past few weeks as a restaurant, is also anxious to get some shows going. They’re looking into it and hope to be booking live music very soon.

“Everyone’s ready,” says Crepe Place owner Chuck Platt. “I want to make it as normal as possible. Make a cool flyer. Put the show before the dinner, and then have people come and be like, ‘Okay it’s a seated show.’”

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