Pitch perfect: The return of live music in Huntsville something to cheer about

single-meta-cal June 17, 2021

For music-lovers, nothing beats a concert by a favorite band at a storied venue. It’s not just about the artist or performance; it’s a shared experience.

Performers share the experience with the fans. For fans, it’s a bonding moment as they cheer in unison or even shout out a favorite song. It’s a brief chance to leave day-to-day challenges at home and just dance and sing along.

A few dozen people sit in lawn chairs on the front lawn of a house in the Five Points area. They are looking toward a front porch, where music artists are performing. They are under a large tree.

Spectators take in a musical performance during PorchFest, held in May in Huntsville’s Five Points neighborhood. The event provided an opportunity for live music after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many music venues to close.

When the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic reached a fever pitch in March 2020, the entertainment and hospitality industries were rocked, and not in a good way. Concerts and tours were postponed indefinitely or canceled. Venues, both large and small, went dark.

The Von Braun Center, along with the new Mars Music Hall, are two of Huntsville’s premiere concert destinations. The VBC, which also hosts conventions, weddings and other performances, ultimately canceled more than 250 events.

The last two indoor concerts of 2020 were the Molly Ringwalds at Mars Music Hall and the Charlie Daniels Band in the Mark C. Smith Music Hall at the VBC. Both shows were held March 13, 2020.

The VBC’s overall economic impact on the local economy is about $80 million, according to Samantha Nielsen, marketing and public relations manager for the VBC. About $16 million of that is derived from concerts, family shows and performing arts events. While locals have the option to drive minutes to see a concert, Huntsville draws fans from other states who eat, drink, sleep and gas up here.

Just as visitors are returning to travel, musicians are returning to the stage, and it’s great to have the proverbial band back together.

Judy Ryals, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said music appeals to every type of visitor, which makes the return of live performances a crucial component to the recovery of Huntsville’s hospitality industry, and by extension, the local economy.

“Music is an important part of our identity as a City and as a travel destination and has long been a major tourism driver for the area,” she said. “Just as visitors are returning to travel, musicians are returning to the stage, and it’s great to have the proverbial band back together.”

Performer impact

Though economies around the world took a blow from the loss of live music, those who work directly in the industry were particularly hard-hit. To make ends meet, both major-label and independent artists sold online tickets to quaint live-streamed concerts of varying quality and ramped up their merchandise game.

Musician Ally Free said the pandemic had a devastating impact on his career. When he was forced to stop performing live, he turned to live-streamed shows. That presented new issues, however, including poor internet connections, ensuring adequate lighting and sound, and simply hoping people would watch. He said venues like Casual Pints, Voodoo Lounge and Sidetracks provided a stage, even if no fans were there.

A crowd takes in a performance by the Black Jacket Symphony in the North Hall parking lot at the VBC arena.

The Black Jacket Symphony performs at 3rd Rock, an outdoor concert venue in the parking lot of the Von Braun Center’s North Hall. When indoor shows were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 3rd Rock allowed the music to continue. (Photo courtesy VBC/Stephen Pyle)

The down time also allowed him to return to work as a corrections officer, which he had done before going full-time with his music. And though still juggling his day job and his career as a performer, he’s drawn to the feeling of connecting with an audience.

“The energy, the raw live and in-person emotions, the screaming crowds, the speakers blaring in your ear,” he said. “Having it all slowly come back has given me a full recharge, including being able to attend concerts myself again.”

James Irvin is a solo artist and drummer for Microwave Dave & The Nukes, a popular Huntsville blues band. When the pandemic began shutting down venues and businesses, he and his bandmates were playing Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I had been cut off for a few days,” Irvin said. “When we got back home, I went to the store and they were out of everything. I watched a calendar of dates, from April through July, all get canceled. It was scary.”

The pandemic turned out to be a blessing and a curse for Irvin, who initially enjoyed the time off from the road.

“I went into music full-time in 2003, and I sometimes play five nights a week without any kind of break whatsoever,” he said.

He started live-streaming his at-home performances with a cellphone, which helped him continue performing for fans. Then, as local bars and restaurants slowly reopened, he began playing in-person events once or twice a week. Venues were still reluctant to book bands, however.

“I didn’t touch a drum set for months,” he said. “I missed playing with my boys.”

Indoor precautions

Irvin said he’s noticed varying COVID-19 precautions from venue to venue, but “Microwave” Dave Gallaher remained committed to obeying the most current guidelines.

“Up until the vaccines were available to everyone, he wasn’t really comfortable doing a lot of shows,” Irvin said.

The VBC recently announced it would resume indoor concerts, starting at Mars Music Hall with a sold-out performance by Ashley McBryde on June 18. A number of high-profile entertainers are also expected to perform at a tribute show to country singer Lee Greenwood, set for Oct. 12 at the VBC.

A few people sit on the ground in the front lawn of a house in the Five Points area. They are looking toward a front porch, where music artists are performing. It is night time and there are lights around the top of the porch.

Music fans sit on the front lawn of a house during PorchFest, an outdoor music event held in May. The COVID-19 pandemic not only affected the local economy, but also those in the music industry.

Nielsen hopes COVID infections will continue a downward trend so doors can stay open to music fans.

“I think it’s always a worry,” she said. “We’re just going to keep monitoring the numbers and monitoring the industry.”

To that end, some COVID-19 precautions are still in place, though patrons won’t be required to prove they’ve been vaccinated. Performers and groups who rent the VBC’s facilities can set their own rules, Nielsen said.

“We’re continuing our sanitizing and cleaning procedures, and we’ll continue to have sanitizing stations,” she said. “We’re not requiring face masks, but we’re letting artists and lessees make that determination. Some shows require pod seating, some are at full capacity. We leave that up to the artist.”

To help ensure the health and safety of patrons, the VBC also installed UV lighting within its HVAC system, which cleans and purifies the air. Nielsen hope the precautions not only make fans and performers feel safe, but they also allow the music to continue.

“There’s a ton of excitement (about reopening), even among the staff here,” she said. “Seeing people come through the doors and having our calendar fill back up; it’s exciting and fun to see us getting back to that.”

The great outdoors

When larger venues made the decision to stop hosting indoor shows, the music didn’t come to a full stop. As restaurants and bars slowly reopened, those with outdoor patio space began booking musicians again.

As a way of easing back into live music, the VBC set up a stage in the North Hall parking lot. The outdoor venue, known as 3rd Rock, has hosted several shows since April, and two more are planned.

“It was a great way to fill the gap for shows, and it was nice to be able to have that option,” Nielsen said.

There’s also been plenty of front porch and backyard jam sessions featuring members of Huntsville’s music community. In May, that idea transitioned into PorchFest, a series of concerts on front porches of homes in the Five Points neighborhood.

The free event featured 14 local artists appearing on five different front porches on Pratt Avenue. It provided music fans a socially distanced way to enjoy music again, but it also gave musicians a chance to share their art.

Judy Allison, a local musician, concert promoter and co-organizer of Porch Fest, said she felt the loss of live music in multiple ways. She added many indoor venues are still delaying summer and fall bookings, but winter dates and those in 2022 are picking up steam.

“Outdoor events are thriving right now, and music lovers seem to be appreciative with their tips for musicians, which is something I love hearing about,” said Allison, who also serves on the Huntsville Music Board. “Our music scene in Huntsville seems to be faring well compared to other parts of the country.”

Another sign of Huntsville’s resilient music scene is the resumption of Arts Huntsville’s Concerts in the Park. When the pandemic hit, the must-see summertime staple transitioned to a series of virtual events. This year, Concerts in the Park came back bigger and better than ever, according to Allison Dillon-Jauken, executive director of Arts Huntsville.

“There’s been a hunger for live music, and it’s been so exciting to see the community come out,” she said. “People are very comfortable at outdoor events.”

She said the June 14 event featured sunny skies and one of the largest crowds she’s seen.

“It’s hard to estimate, but I’d say we probably had close to 3,000 people,” she said. “Everyone was just enjoying being out there. It was like a family reunion.”