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I had given up on live entertainment — let alone live music — for the year.
But as lightning bugs flickered and Amythyst Kiah belted “Black Myself” through the cool air of a Blue Ridge Parkway night, I was transported. Not to the Before Times exactly. But to a less-grim new normal that makes a tiny bit of room for community and catharsis.
I think a lot about the shows I didn’t see earlier this year. The ones that were on my calendar but got bumped by a long workday or an early flight. (To Brittany Howard, Mercy Bell and Jessi Alexander: I’m sorry. I’ve tried to make it up in merch and Spotify spins, but I’ll always regret the tickets I didn’t buy.)
The eight or so sets I did squeeze in have taken on outsize importance. With only optimistically (unrealistically?) rescheduled tickets in hand, I have re-lived moments at Warsaw in Brooklyn and Town Hall in Midtown in detail that I almost certainly wouldn’t recall in more conventional circumstances. Tanya Tucker covering Brandi Carlile. A super-pregnant Anaïs Mitchell rocking hard with Bonny Light Horseman. Brandy Clark describing the John Prine joke that inspired one of her songs, well before anyone imagined we’d lose him in this pandemic. Danny Olliver, with two L’s, and his showoff fingerstyle skills.
March, April, May and June were a blur of disappointment, dislocation, trauma and tragedy. The punctuating experience of communal in-person entertainment, a hallmark of “real life,” was almost entirely unavailable, especially to anyone taking precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Then in July the Blue Ridge Music Center, a National Park Service facility in Galax, Va., that had canceled much of its 2020 summer concert lineup, announced a socially distanced series of shows for the five Saturdays in August. I waited until the first show was past to call the venue and ask how it went. The outdoor amphitheater, which can hold 2,000 people, was limited to 25 percent capacity. The crowd at the first show was about 300, and the staffer I talked to said “it felt safer than going to the grocery store.” (I am picking up my groceries curbside. But I took her point.) I said I had been looking for photos of the crowd, and the venue posted a video later that day.
I waffled. It seemed irresponsible to introduce even minimal risk for something as discretionary as a concert. But we have our souls to tend to, and I knew that live music would feed mine.
The first concert I saw after 9/11 was the Jennifer Nettles Band (RIP) at Amos’ Southend (RIP) in Charlotte, N.C. Toward the end of that September show, I smiled for the first time since, as country radio later put it, the world stopped turning.
There were a lot of differences between that show and this one. In 2001, I’m sure someone stamped my hand. In 2020, I was handed a wristband from the other side of a plexiglass divider to put on myself. In 2001, I was inches from the stage, oblivious to the shower of of aerosols and droplets. In 2020, I kept about 10 yards between my chair and my neighbors. In 2001, I doubt I carried more than a wallet and keys. In 2020, I was packing hand sanitizer and sporting a mask, which I, like many others, kept on throughout the evening. The 2001 show was followed quickly by another tour stop; the 2020 show was the bands’ first in-person gig in almost half a year, and they don’t know when the next one will be.
But the relief was the same. The restoration was the same. The healing was the same.
I sent a few pictures to my friend Karen, and she texted back: “I’m soooooo happy you got … to hear live music! In August! In 2020!”
I did. And thank goodness.