Tyler Arnold, Colin Winsor and Owen Conforte play at Portland Lobster Company on May 9. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Live, local outdoor music is back at Portland Lobster Company, which recently kicked off a packed season that lasts into mid-October. The Commercial Street seafood shack hosts local acts daily, twice a day on weekends.

Meanwhile, venues like Portland House of Music, State Theatre, Vinegar Hill Music Theatre and Thompson’s Point all have announced the return of shows in the coming months, and I’m starting to actually believe my heart will heal from this long absence of live music.

On Mother’s Day, after visiting my mom in Massachusetts and giving her the first real hug in a brutally long time, I made my way back to Maine and wound up at Portland Lobster Company for a performance by OC and The Offbeats. I thought I’d just pop in for a few minutes, but ended up staying for an hour and listened to the band play a terrific set of covers by artists like Stevie Wonder and Tom Petty, and a few times I found myself singing along. I even saw a woman dancing in front of a table. It felt, to use a pandemic-ruined word, normal.

Since March of last year, I can count on just a few fingers how many live shows I’ve seen, and I imagine it’s the same for just about everyone. It’s been painful, and the more time that has passed, the more I started to wonder if I’d forget how to be a live music fan. There’s a thing called clapping I seem to vaguely recall.

Emma Stanley and Tyler Arnold of OC and The Offbeats. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

But that Sunday visit to Portland Lobster Company snapped me out of the somber pandemic fog, at least for an hour, and I remembered what it feels like to hear actual live music played by a talented quartet of Mainers. I walked off that deck feeling lighter, but most of all, I left wanting more.

I also felt safe. It was a windy day and Portland Lobster Company’s deck is right on the water. It was crowded but not uncomfortably so. Sometimes I kept my mask on, other times, I felt safe lowering it. I kept in mind the state’s recently updated mask mandates that no longer require wearing them outside but recommended that we do so when physical distancing is difficult to maintain. Six feet was, for the most part manageable, and that, combined with knowing I am fully vaccinated, made me feel OK about it, which is something I don’t take lightly. We’re certainly not out of the pandemic, but we seem to at least be on that path.

Owen Conforte of OC and The Offbeats. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

OC and The Offbeats comprises lead singer and guitarist Owen Conforte, Colin Winsor on bass, drummer Tyler Arnold and horn player Emma Stanley. Although they were playing covers on Sunday, they released an album of originals in 2015 called “Looking Up,” and Conforte released the solo EP “Lovely War” this year. All four of them are longtime and well-respected musicians, and a chart of all the bands and projects they’ve been involved with would look like a gigantic family tree with endless branches.

I reached out to them the day after the show to ask about how it felt to play live music again. Conforte said that, although things aren’t completely back to how they were before the pandemic, he felt safe and connected to the crowd.

“I got a free sample of that performer-to-audience interaction that was so deeply missed,” he said.

Conforte considers live music to be a shared commodity, making that interaction all the more important and making livestream concerts difficult.

“Even when I close my eyes during a guitar solo, I can still hear people cheering and having a good time. In that sense, the audience is a part of the show,” he said.

The lack of that back-and-forth has been one of the most challenging parts of the past year for Conforte. Mercifully, that’s changing. “People seem more optimistic and are looking forward to things. It feels like the levee has creaked open.” He and the band will be dotting the Portland Lobster Company schedule all summer long, including on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Winsor said playing live music again is fulfilling on multiple levels.

“Not only is it an emotional release after a longer than normal winter, but for those of us who do it professionally, it feels incredible to be working again,” he said.

Like Conforte, Winsor is feeling comfortable returning to gigs. Being outside, and also fully vaccinated, is a big part of that. And he has missed being in front of an audience. “We often forget that performers need to feed off that energy from the crowd,” he said.

Stanley echoed that. “I think they could tell how excited we were to be playing together again, and the band and the crowd just fed off that energy from one another.”

I for sure am feeling a shift and shedding some of the paralyzing fear about being out in public doing the thing I love most. I think it’s going to feel weird and emotional for a long time, because how can it not? But at least I remembered how to clap, and for now, that’s enough.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.