Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre, is hoping to announce fall concerts in a few weeks. “A lot of the people I’ve talked to feel like we’ll get there by fall,” she said.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After more than a year of deafening silence, some Maine concert venues are planning to crank the volume up several notches beginning in late summer or early fall.

But those plans to welcome back music fans largely depend on the country’s vaccination rollout resulting in an end to physical-distancing and crowd limits, concert promoters say. They also need to see how state regulations might change later this year.

One of Portland’s best-known and oldest music venues, the State Theatre, has more than 30 shows booked for the fall beginning in September, and will likely start announcing acts and dates in a few weeks, said general manager Lauren Wayne.

Smaller venues in the city, including Portland House of Music and One Longfellow Square, say they have local, regional and national acts lined up and ready to play, when and if restrictions are lifted. Waterfront Concerts also has shows confirmed for this year at venues it books around Maine, including the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, but is being cautious about the possibility of them happening and is not announcing any at this time, said Alex Gray, the company’s founder.

Wayne and others say they know shows scheduled for late summer or fall could be canceled or moved if COVID-19 cases spike or officials decide not enough people have been vaccinated to warrant the easing of restrictions. Some promoters and musicians say they were heartened by President Biden’s directive during a televised speech Thursday for states to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1.

“A lot of the people I’ve talked to feel like we’ll get there by fall, back to having shows,” said Wayne.

Maine may also see a few big summer outdoor shows, but likely not the slate of 40 or more national acts that usually play the state’s three main outdoor concert venues – Thompson’s Point in Portland, Maine Savings Pavilion at Rock Row in Westbrook and Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor.

Both Wayne, who books shows at Thompson’s Point, and Gray, who books Maine Savings Pavilion and Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, say state outdoor capacity limits would make the shows just about impossible to put on. Unless state limits on outdoor crowds change this summer, doing outdoor shows with well-known national touring acts won’t make financial sense for bands or promoters, Wayne said.

Gov. Janet Mills announced on March 5 that the limit on outdoor gatherings would increase on March 26 to 75 percent of a venue’s capacity – figuring in six-foot spacing between people or groups – and 100 percent on May 24, with spacing. The indoor gathering limits would increase to 50 percent on March 26 and 75 percent on May 24, again with distance requirements.

Those rules mean that Thompson’s Point, which usually can have up to 7,500 people, would probably be able to hold only 1,500, Wayne said. Maine Savings Pavilion would probably hold about 2,000 instead of 8,000, Gray said.

“For us and for the large, national artists with whom we work, everyone needs the venue to operate at 100 percent capacity with no 6-foot distancing restrictions in order to make it feasible for all,” said Wayne.

Wayne does have two late summer outdoor shows scheduled for Thompson’s Point in Portland. One features alt-rockers Wilco on Aug. 25 and the other is headlined by Portland folk band the Ghost of Paul Revere on Sept. 4. Those shows will remain on the Thompson’s Point schedule, and Wayne said she will watch for changes in state restrictions on social distancing.

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

Planning for traditional concerts in Maine right now is a hopeful sign, considering that the pandemic economically battered the music industry and local venues, leaving them with little or no revenue. The Port City Music Hall in Portland, with a capacity of over 500, closed because of the pandemic in July. Other local venues, including Portland House of Music and One Longfellow Square, raised enough money through online fundraising to stay afloat. Many local venues are hoping to take advantage of the $15 billion Save Our Stages Act – earmarked for music venues, theater producers and cultural institutions – that became law in December.

When the pandemic started, many shows were rescheduled for dates only a few months later, then rescheduled again and again. Promoters interviewed for this story said their websites sometimes reflect shows that were moved from last year to this year, so listings for those shows may still be on their websites even though they are not happening or probably won’t happen unless physical distancing requirements are greatly relaxed or eliminated. Examples include a Primus show slated for Maine Savings Pavilion on July 1 on the Waterfront Concerts website and a July 25 show by pop singer JoJo Siwa on the Cross Insurance Arena website.

How soon local venues can have shows again depends not only on Maine rules and regulations, but restrictions in other states, promoters say, since most bands need to schedule several dates on a tour to make it financially worthwhile. So to play Maine, a band might need to book shows on the way to Maine as well. Massachusetts recently announced that indoor performance spaces in the state could open at half capacity.

Luke Mallett of the Mallett Brothers Band stands outside his “songwriting shack” Friday on his family’s property in Gorham. Mallett said he has spent time writing and playing in the shack during the pandemic. The Mallett Brothers say they have dozens of “holds,” or placements, on venue schedules for the fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Luke Mallett, who plays in the Maine-based Mallett Brothers Band, said he was on a Zoom call Thursday with the band’s booking agency and heard that things were starting to open up for acts around the country, slightly. He said venues and clubs around the Northeast were starting to take “holds” on dates for The Mallett Brothers to play there, which is basically reserving a show date but not yet guaranteeing it. He said the band has holds on dates for the fall in several Northeast states.

“Everyone is planning for the best right now, but understanding things can change,” said Mallett. “Everybody’s having conversations and getting ready.”

In Maine, the best-known national acts play the larger venues, including the major outdoor concert sites and indoor sites like Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, with about a 6,200-person capacity, and the State Theatre, with a capacity of 1,926.

At Cross Insurance Arena, general manager Melanie Henkes said the venue does have some concert dates on hold for this year, but is not ready to announce them. She said that several shows that were canceled by the pandemic, like Jojo Siwa, could be rescheduled at some point later. She said the venue’s management is ready to adapt to any new restrictions that might come once mass vaccinations have ended, including requirements that people show proof of vaccination. At this point, it’s unclear if that will be a requirement.

Some of Portland’s slightly smaller venues are hoping to have music soon too, with a mix of local, regional and other out-of-state acts. The local acts don’t have to travel and can often perform on short notice, the venue managers say.

Ken Bell, owner of Portland House of Music in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At Portland House of Music, which has a capacity of about 290, owner Ken Bell said local bands that had been doing weekly performances at his venue are ready to start up again as soon as restrictions are lifted and he can operate at full capacity.

Those acts include R&B band Gina and the Red Eye Flight Crew and The Maine Dead Project, playing music of the Grateful Dead. Bell also has booked some out-of-state touring bands for the fall, but is waiting for distancing requirements to change before announcing them.

“We’d rather wait to announce them, this past year has been an emotional roller coaster for the bands,” said Bell.

At One Longfellow Square, with a maximum capacity of 220, some fall dates are booked and management is cautiously optimistic they’ll happen, said Jeff Beam, the venue’s manager. But he doesn’t want to set a reopening date for the venue yet. He feels it all depends on how the vaccinations go.

Jeff Beam, manager of One Longfellow Square, is watching how vaccinations progress before he sets a reopening date. 2020 photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I’m waiting for that vaccination number to hit 70 percent,” Beam said.

Blue, a small Congress Street lounge that features roots, jazz and other traditional music acts, will be allowed to reopen for in-person service on March 26 – along with bars and tasting rooms – but management isn’t sure when music might start up again there.

Kari Hodgens, the venue’s manager, said they are still trying to work out a seating configuration and determine what their capacity might be. Before the pandemic, the lounge could hold 40 or 50 people for music, but this year that number might have to be 20 or less, Hodgens said. The venue also is considering putting up some sort of clear barrier between musicians and the audience. Until they get all the variables figured out, Hodgens said Blue will continue livestreaming musicians and offering takeout food and drink.

Last summer, local musicians hosted outdoor shows, often on their own lawns or at somebody’s house, abiding by the outdoor gathering limits at the time. This year, with outdoor limits increasing, Maine may have some slightly larger outdoor concerts, though still mostly of the backyard variety.

Andrew Martelle, who plays fiddle in The Mallett Brothers Band, is planning to do a series of concerts on his Yarmouth property called “Music on the Lawn.”  He hopes to get sell about 100 tickets, at $35, to each show, starting in July, and has five shows booked, including performances by the Pete Kilpatrick Band, Steadman’s Landing, Kenya Hall, North of Nashville and The Mallett Brothers Band.

Gray, who books and promotes shows at several Maine venues, says he’d like to see the state have a plan for what restrictions might be in place if mass vaccinations end, and the 70 percent threshold – considered by many the number needed to achieve herd immunity – is not met.

“We want to be able to open at 100 percent capacity at some point with no social distancing, that’s what’s needed in this industry to make it work financially,” said Gray. “So if 30 percent of people don’t take the vaccine, or 40 percent, I’d like to know what the plan is.”

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