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Live Music Makes a Comeback in Santa Cruz County

Venues reopen, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions

Cement Ship performs in Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz on June 11. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

On May 22, while waiting backstage at Moe’s Alley, Henry Chadwick experienced something he thought he had left behind years ago: stage fright.

 “I didn’t realize how nervous I would get sitting in the green room,” the Santa Cruz musician says. “But the hours leading up to going on stage, I was super nervous.”

 By then, Chadwick had been performing live for well over a decade, ever since first stepping on stage as a high schooler to drum for a band whose name could only have been chosen by high schoolers: My Stupid Brother. Chadwick also played for years in the popular Santa Cruz rootsy rock group the Coffis Brothers, recording, touring nationally, and regularly gigging around the area. In 2016, he stepped out from behind the drum set and struck out on his own as a solo artist.

But for a few hours that night in May, Chadwick couldn’t help but feel like a high schooler all over again. It wasn’t just that he was opening for John Doe of the legendary L.A. punk band X. After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing amounting to an effective ban on live music, the whole experience was new again.

In 2020, the live music industry lost an estimated $30 billion due to Covid-related cancelations and closures. By January of 2021, nearly 90 clubs around the country had permanently closed as a result of the pandemic, nine in California (the hardest-hit state after Texas). 

Nevertheless, live music has been coming back to the Santa Cruz area. Slowly but surely, the county’s venues have been reopening, and performers returning to public spaces along Pacific Ave and Abbott Square. After working with a color-tier rating system which ranked levels of Covid crisis from purple (widespread) to yellow (minimal), on June 15 California eliminated all social distancing measures and announced it was “fully re-open” with an email press release starring some Minions.

So what does this all mean for the venues that, after weathering 2020’s storm, are now in the process of returning to business? The answer depends on who you ask. If nothing else, the state’s reopening is certainly keeping Santa Cruz weird—and live music could be the weirdest part of it all.

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Renowned Swedish instrumentalist and bandleader Gunhild Carling performs with Carlings Darlings on Pacific Avenue. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

DOWN TIME

Due to its collective, cathartic, and often bodily-fluid-drenching nature, music venues were uniquely poised to be slammed by Covid restrictions. With social distancing measures and ventilation requirements in place, as well as restrictions on singing and horn playing, the options available to venues had until very recently been limited to: shut down, go outside/online, or shift to food.

Laurence Bedford, owner of the Rio Theatre, chose the first option last March. 

At 724 capacity, the Rio is almost as large as Santa Cruz’s flagship venue the Catalyst (whose owners have been eerily silent since last March, and declined multiple requests to comment for this story). Without an outdoor space or formal kitchen, the 72-year old converted “Cycloramic” theater was left with few workable options throughout the pandemic. When the state shut down indoor dining, bars and movie theaters, Bedford turned off the lights and sent his employees home.

 “I can’t pay anybody because I’m ordered closed,” he said of the situation at the time. “Even if I had a PPP loan, I can’t put them to work.”

Luckily, as the building’s owner, Bedford was able to keep costs low through the difficult months that followed. Though it still hasn’t held a concert since early 2020, regulations have allowed movie screenings for months, and the Rio has returned to hosting film festivals, including the Top Dog Film Festival, BANFF Mountain Film Festival, and the recently screened Ocean Film Festival.

However, when it comes to holding shows again, Bedford estimates September at the earliest.

“We don’t want to jump the gun, start taking in business, and then find out that our capacity is different,” Bedford says. “It’s about being safe. We’re a big venue. We’re not in a rush to reopen.”

Just on the other side of the river, the 80-year-old Civic Auditorium is unfortunately facing different circumstances—including Santa Cruz’s budget woes.

“Even prior to Covid, the city was facing a structural deficit,” says Tony Elliott, Santa Cruz’s Director of Parks and Recreation.

Also closed since March 2020, the Civic responded nimbly to the unfolding pandemic, opening an on-site Covid testing center in December, and shuffling much of its staff throughout the Parks and Rec department to accommodate the increased demand for park, trail, and beach recreation.

Still, there remained the deficit. Last year alone, the city lost $20 million, largely due to the pandemic. But according to city Finance Director Kim Krause, city funding has been on a downward trend since 2018.

 “We will be proposing some budget reductions, and the Civic operations may be impacted based on how the city council reacts to our budget,” Elliott says.

In Late May, the Civic presented their 2021 budget before the city. The Council also approved the Civic to apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), though it is as yet unclear if the grant itself will be approved. Sadly, with the exception of some mainstays like the Santa Cruz Symphony, the immediate future of programming at the Civic hangs in the balance.

“If we can reopen the Civic, we really want to find ways to maximize the efficiency of our business,” Elliott says.

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Santa Cruz favorites SambaDa returned June 4 to bring live music back to downtown. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL

This October, Kristen Carranza will be celebrating her two year anniversary as the Marketing Manager at Felton Music Hall. Yet, for most of that time she’s been working a different job entirely.

“From my perspective, I went from music and events marketing to food and restaurant managing,” Carranza says.

In one particular way, the Felton Music Hall was fortuitously prepared for 2020: it already had a kitchen. No longer able to pack the space with 350 people a night for music events, the Hall instead leaned heavily on its food, building out a full to-go menu, and dedicating a few nights a week to specials.

“Taco Thursdays were popular, but the biggest hit was our Fried Chicken Friday,” Carranza says. “The chef basically nailed a KFC bucket but, like, upscale. That was our saving grace.”

The kitchen also proved fortuitous in another way: allowing the venue to hold higher-priced, smaller-capacity shows paired with a dinner.

At the Boulder Creek arthouse space Lille Aeske, a similar mix of modified events and food helped keep the doors open, albeit one with a different flavor profile.

“I brought out a full menu of Indian food,” says owner Anil Prajapati. “My family is Gujurati, which is Northwestern Indian. It offers a really nice variety of food, and it’s really tasty. People love it.”

In addition to their culinary turn, throughout 2020-2021 Lille Aeske held a number of outdoor events in the region: truck-bed shows in the parking lot, a Diwali festival outside at a nearby apothecary shop, and a recent two-day fest celebrating Hallcrest Vineyards’ 80th anniversary. That last one is far from their only foray into terroir. Over the pandemic, Lille Aeske also teamed up with Madson Winery in Corralitos to make their very own varietal, a Pinot Noir/Syrah blend with notes of black cherry and pomegranate.

Felton Music Hall also threw a festival during the pandemic, and is in fact still throwing that festival: Roaring Camp, an outdoor concert series at the 140-year-old Roaring Camp railyard up on Mr. Hermon. The series originally handled social distancing by selling tickets by the pod (either two or six people), but after the new state guidelines, individual tickets are now available. After that series wraps, another fest comes to Roaring Camp: Mountain Sol, a two-day fest in September organized by another Santa Cruz club owner, Michael Horne, the previous owner of Palookaville.

While both Felton Music Hall and Lille Aeske were able to successfully pivot, and shift their energies towards new ventures, they didn’t bring in the kind of money seen in a normal year. Events usually ran at a loss. Lille Aeske was one of the lucky ones that received federal PPP loans to help keep employees paid. Carranza, meanwhile, says she’s just happy to be employed.

 “I’m very thankful that I even still have a job,” she says. “This company was trying to make as much work as possible [in 2020], and I really respect that.”

THROUGH THE BOTTLENECK

For years, Lisa Norelli and Brian Ziel had been telling friends about their plans for Moe’s Alley when they eventually bought it. Norelli had been the venue’s general manager for a solid decade and a half, and Ziel, a former record store owner in Capitola and Santa Cruz, was a longtime patron and dedicated fan. Both had big dreams for the club. But when the two finally closed the deal this January and officially became the venue’s owners, they mostly only got one response from friends.

 “I don’t know how many people said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” Ziel says.

It was nine months into Covid-related shutdowns, and vaccinations were still the topic of speculation. Knowing full well the uncertainty ahead, Norelli and Ziel gave it their best, using the quiet months to start some major repairs indoors, build an outdoor stage, and get back to booking shows.

 A week before the John Doe show where butterflies once again fluttered in Henry Chadwick’s stomach, the venue premiered the Yard at Moe’s Alley, its newly built outdoor space. To commemorate the “Sneak Peek” event, rootsy rock group the Carolyn Sills Combo sold out at 76 seats.

“It’s one of those weird times where you have to get super creative on how you’re going to create revenue streams,” Ziel says, “but also how to create a place for the community where they can come and enjoy music and feel safe.”

The Yard at Moe’s Alley now has shows booked throughout the summer. In a testament to the hunger for live music throughout the area, most have already sold out.

While they didn’t have an outdoor space to use like Moe’s, Kuumbwa Jazz Center also took a proactive approach to the shutdowns of 2020.

“Essentially, right now Kuumbwa looks more like a television studio than a live music venue,” says Artistic Director Tim Jackson.

Like many venues around the Bay Area (the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, and Art Boutiki in San Jose included), when Kuumbwa shut its doors to physical customers, it opened a window to visitors online. Accustomed to the task of creative fundraising, the 501(c)(3) invested heavily into cameras, mics, and lighting, and proceeded to film a variety of unique content for jazz lovers.

Kuumbwa’s recurring “Mondays With Kuumbwa” concerts series now has almost 60 episodes available for free on YouTube. Episodes have included Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante, Grammy winning neo-Gullah group Ranky Tanky, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa (and also recently featured the Carolyn Sills Combo). But Jackson says it’s not even the venue’s most popular project.

“Frankly, the Virtual Master Classes was one of our most successful programs through the pandemic, and definitely something that we will keep going,” he says.

Though they plan to stop filming new material for their online series at the end of June, the venue expects by then to have enough content to last through summer. Like the Rio Theatre, Kuumbwa is looking at September for a return of indoor shows.

“Probably not at full capacity at first, but at a reasonable capacity. Then hopefully as we move further into Fall, shifting into 100% capacity and full programming.”

HOW AND WHEN

When it comes to reopening for real, with standing room only shows and fuller capacities, the last remaining hurdle for club owners is California’s state guidelines. Nearly every source interviewed for this story expressed uncertainty and anxiety over enforcing things like proof of vaccination, current Covid status, or what happens if someone cites religion as a reason against vaccination.

“I just want to have more information, really,” says Bedford at the Rio Theatre. “I don’t want to be the one to get caught with, ‘He didn’t have that T crossed.’ Some clear guidelines would be good.”

The guidelines issued on June 15 indicate that masks are still required for unvaccinated individuals at indoor venues. As for how to handle that pesky word ‘unvaccinated,’ the statement leaves venue owners with a variety of vague options, including allowing vaccinated individuals to self-attest their status (and trusting that), establishing vaccine verification systems, or simply requiring that everyone wear a mask indoors.

In other words, each venue will have to continue navigating the reopening individually, based on their own specific needs, size, and general vibe.

“We talk about it every single day: when we should be doing things, how we should be doing things,” says Ziel. “We’re letting all artists know that if there was a flare up in Covid again, or there was some sort of restrictions or guidelines we had to follow that would make those shows impossible, it’s in the paperwork. Because nobody knows exactly. It’s all going in the right direction, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Tom Frey

    June 27, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Even with the need to show vaccination status (which will make entry slower) I will be planning to start going to shows (in fact I’ve hit a couple in the last month). When the Freight, Kuumbwa and SFJazz reopen I will definitely be there. I hope the smaller venues like Red Poppy and CJC will also be able to reopen by September.

  2. Roy Jordan

    June 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    What’s the point of reopening any surviving live music venues if the same protocols still exist?
    Personally, I will not be attending any live music events until we return to business as usual.

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