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Once again, Madison’s small venues work to avoid becoming vectors

Another COVID surge has set off more cancellations, adjustments, and uncertainty in the local music community.

Photo: Exterior shot of the Crystal Corner Bar, including a marquee sign reading “welcome back.” Photo by Andy Moore.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant puts your chances of testing positive in Dane County at about 1-in-4. That’s approximately the same chance you have at getting a parking ticket at an expired meter on the Isthmus. The stakes are higher if you get infected with COVID-19 than if you get smacked with a parking citation, but some of the same kind of thinking goes into the risk taking.

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How lucky do I feel? I’ve never gotten a ticket before. I’ll only be in-and-out of the store. 

A lot of people in Madison’s music community are not feeling lucky going into the new year. Contacted online and in conversation for this story, nearly a dozen local musicians told me the risks are currently too high to perform live at indoor venues. And those are just the ones who have either contracted COVID or had bandmates who have become infected with a traceable path back to an indoor stage. Many performers who have managed to dodge the virus are also in the process of cancelling shows. 

But so, too, are owners of smaller local venues as well as show promoters. The surge of Omicron cancellations began New Year’s Eve weekend. That’s when the Tony Casteñada Latin Jazz Band cancelled its New Year’s party at Café Coda. At the same time, related to mounting COVID numbers, owner Hanah Jon Taylor announced a winter reprieve for the club. Taylor plans to re-open at the end of February. 

Independent promoter Sarah Akawa pulled the plug on a planned “New Year’s Gay-La” celebration at Robinia Courtyard even though she and others connected to the event felt strongly that, as Akawa puts it “2021 was worthy of sending off on New Year’s Eve proper.” The final decision was made even after cutting the original crowd capacity by 100 attendees. 

“We felt that even just one instance of severe illness or death was enough for us to act responsibly, albeit it at a financial loss,” Akawa says. She praised the collaboration of Robinia’s ownership and staff during the difficult decision. Like many other small venues, Robinia has already been through multiple rounds of COVID safety adjustments as Madison has cycled through giddy re-opening phases and surges of new variants. Beyond the economics of cancellations, Akawa is mindful of the dangers of judgment and prejudice that helped get us in this mess to begin with.

When asked about a growing number of people who continue to crowd the clubs with the attitude of, “I’m gonna get it eventually anyway,” Akawa says, “We have no judgement for those with the attitude you suggest and respect if that attitude drives them to make decisions that are comfortable to them. We will continue to make decisions that are comfortable with us.” 

New Year’s Eve was a different story for the owner of the Harmony Bar. Brennan Nardi sounded stressed but determined that day. Her decision to go forward with a cut-in-half capacity crowd for a long-scheduled show featuring the popular blues band The Jimmys was similar in nature to other small venue owners we spoke to; a mixture of public health consciousness and bottom-line resolve. 

“I don’t want to get accused about being irresponsible or not taking it seriously,” Nardi says. “On the other hand, you know, it’s my livelihood. It’s our staff’s livelihood.” 

Nardi’s decision to take the event to half capacity meant the club broke even for the night after paying the band. According to Nardi, Harmony’s staff is 100% vaccinated. Still, at least one bartender has contracted COVID and missed work. 

Sick employees. Cautious musicians. Promoters and venues rescheduling shows. It’s a triangle of dynamics that frames the current picture for all involved. 

While the Crystal Corner Bar closed for three days last week due to sick staff, the Williamson Street fixture is an exception to some of these dynamics. The bar never even pretended the pandemic was over. The bar reopened in May of 2021 (after locking its doors for 14 months) and has hosted only one live show since: a limited capacity performance by The Hometown Sweethearts. Prior to the pandemic closure, the Crystal hosted up to three live shows per week. 

“It’s not worth it to us to pretend people aren’t going to get sick hopping around on the dancefloor,” owner David Day says. Day adds that he has no plans to return to live music any time soon. 

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A promotional graphic for the Mad Lit events series shows the series' logo and text stating (8 p.m. until 11 p.m., Every other Friday, 100 block of state St. July 1st-October 7th. A collage of performers and audience members is visible to the right, and the logos of event sponsors are visible along the bottom.

Even though Bos Meadery on East Wash is set to close in February—and then working to find a place to relocate—owner Colleen Bos had a small handful of live music shows on the books for this month and next. Not anymore. She says the stakes are higher now that they were two weeks ago, “no question.” She also says that parallel to the rising numbers, she sees a rising public-health awareness among her patrons. 

“Everyone wants live shows back,” Bos says. “But I’m impressed by the depth of awareness among our customer base about the risks of carrying COVID to children and immune-compromised adults who can’t get vaccinated.” Bos herself has asthma. She’s felt personally vulnerable during the past two years and she’s heartened by what she sees as a growing sensitivity to risks. “There is a silent percentage that are still really determined not to get it,” Bos says. 

Like Nardi at the Harmony, Bos has been determined to stay in business even as the virus hampered operations. “It’s a heavy weight trying to balance public health with a desire to run the business in a way that allows us to stay open,” Bos says. And she points out that enforcing entry based on masking and vax cards comes with a price, too. “None of us enjoy telling people what to do with their personal health, but we have to protect musicians, staff and help mitigate the spread of variants,” she says. “I made a woman cry because I wouldn’t let her into a show last month. I felt terrible about it. But 10 minutes later the parents of one of the musicians arrived and I know their complex medical history. I was glad I protected them by ensuring that every single person in the venue was vaccinated.” 

Like the Crystal Corner, local arts destination Communication is taking an all-or-none approach to booking live music events. (Full disclosure: Communication is Tone Madison‘s partner organization.) At least for the short term: the venue has cancelled all January and early February shows. Beyond that, the venue will evaluate and determine new bookings based on infection rates and other public health data. A December 31 press release on the decision included a refreshing open-mindedness about the funk we’re in:

“If you contract Covid, remember that there is no shame in it. This is a public health crisis that has been mishandled at the highest level. We will care for each other and ask for help when it is needed. We love you.”

While smaller venues are cancelling and rescheduling events, three of Madison’s larger venues, namely the Majestic, Sylvee, and High Noon Saloon, are all systems go—with a slate of shows scheduled in the next month-and-a- half. These clubs have vaccination-upon-entry rules and workers focused on staff and patron safety. When asked about the nuances of these policies and about what they think of the change of dynamics brought in by the recent wave of Omicron, leadership at Frank Productions, owner of the venues, declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Meanwhile, back to smaller venues, the Bur Oak has toughened its health protocols for patrons, performers, and staff, and is forging ahead with a mostly uninterrupted but smaller schedule of private events and shows, many of which feature national touring acts. The club is vax-only entry now. Negative tests are no longer enough for entry, until the current spike subsides. 

“January is always a tough month for booking, pandemic aside,” says Bur Oak music booker Toffer Christensen. “We had planned on it being a light month so that is working in our favor as there are less things to get cancelled or rescheduled and it provides some down time for staff.” 

Christensen added that several staff were out this month due to positive COVID results. 

Christensen sees a silver lining for the near future. Omicron among the vaccinated results in fewer hospitalizations, deaths, and serious illnesses. “I think that is the blessing here,” he says. “In the live industry we are hoping this is the beginning of the endemic.” 

January and February are also comparatively quiet times at Madison’s Arts + Literature Laboratory. The venue has rescheduled two concerts this month and has shifted educational events to online gatherings. Lab Co-Director Jolynne Roorda emphasizes the teamwork that went into decisions on changes this month, collaborating with performers, supporters, and board members. Roorda also has something to say about members of the public who are letting their guard down with the “I’m gonna get it anyway” mentality: “It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. I wish more people would think, ‘I made it this far. I’m not giving up this close to the end.’ But that requires that they really believe in an end to the pandemic.” 

What’s the view of the short-term future, according to those we contacted for this story? It’s hard to describe it as anything but grim. Yet there’s a theme that emerges when the subject of going forward comes up: the need for vaccinations and more vaccinations. 

“I wish more people understood the value of vaccines,” says Bos. “We’re not really going to have the thriving and joyous music experiences of the past if we don’t find a way to unite people on this simple matter of public health.” 

Christensen resents the politics of the virus. “There are still way too many people in this country who view public health as a political issue,” he says. “Was polio a political issue?” 

For her part, Sarah Akawa meditates in a deep place about the notion of live music on hold. 

“It’s more than income that’s lost when musicians can’t perform,” she says. “The value of what is lost can’t be quantified. We have to remain vigilant, taking precautions, but always looking for ways to share art and music safely.” 

Meanwhile, over on Willy Street, the future is as clear as it can be for the veteran owner of the Crystal Corner Bar, David Day. He stays resolved, and he stays patient. “We’re not in a wait-and-see mode,” Day says. “We’re in a wait-and-wait-mode.” 


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