‘We Don’t Wanna Be the Cause of Some Sort of Super-Spreader Event:’ N.H. Musicians Negotiate An Uncertain Local Music Scene
The Manchester-based band Happy Just To See You has been practicing in person since May, when they were all finally able to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
But since two band members recovered from COVID in the past year, they’re staying responsible and cautious, though as their name suggests, they’re happily reunited.
The musicians, including frontman Evan Benoit, violist Zack Glennon, drummer Matt Bacon, bassist Evan Yarmo and guitarist Lucas Troy, play indie rock.
Their fans are excited to see them again too. Back in July, the band played their first live show since the start of the pandemic. Glennon says everyone was ready to get out and experience the music scene again, after the only thing music-lovers had for more than a year was Instagram Live concerts and other virtual events.
“There were so many people out like you ran into people who were coming out of nursing homes,” says Glennon to Troy.
Happy Just To See You is one of many New Hampshire bands trying to adjust to a constantly changing landscape for live musicians and the venues that host them. Musicians compete for show bookings and venue operators struggle to retain crowds as public safety guidance and COVID case levels change.
And though the state distributed over $12 million in federal grants to 43 venues across the state, that’s no guarantee that beloved institutions will stay afloat. That’s led some New Hampshire musicians to change when and where they perform.
“Obviously we want crowds and we want people to be there, but we also don't want to be the cause of some sort of super spreader event,” Bacon says.
Although Happy Just To See You is ready to play in their home state, they haven't been able to book a show here yet. They’re one of several bands affected as some venues experience a lack of availability, a turnaround from the total shutdown of the pandemic’s peak. Some venues are fully booked as national touring acts head back out on the road.
Even if venues are open, staffing shortages at restaurants and bars mean that some stopped hosting live music. Some New Hampshire venues have closed permanently because they couldn’t survive the pandemic.
Russ Grazier, the CEO of Portsmouth Music and Arts Center, says COVID-19 hit the New Hampshire live music industry hard. Many of the venues in the state are small, and he says for businesses already on a thin margin, live music could be risky right now. The recovery period could be lengthy.
“It could be five years or longer that we're looking at for these organizations to return back to normal operating procedures,” Grazier says. According to Grazier, the only reason some venues are still around is due to federal relief.
With venues at their limits, some musicians took to the streets. Nihco Gallo and Ayan Imai-Hall started performing on Portsmouth sidewalks last spring. The vibraphonist and tap-dance duo plan to keep performing on the street through the end of the year, snow or shine.
They found it more worthwhile than trying to book venues. There are fewer restrictions, more spaces to play and it’s proved a safer way for them to share their music.
Gallo says he probably won’t return to venues, even when it’s safe to do so. He says performing on the street offers flexibility.
“You don't have to play it for three hours, you can play just for an hour and the pay is actually sometimes better than playing in venues,” Gallo says.
And Gallo and Imai-Hall aren’t the only musicians finding success this summer. Taylor Marie is a guitarist who plays at restaurants and outdoor events. She says that she and her friends who are also acoustic acts are actually overbooked for the season.
“A lot of newer restaurants or newer venues really started to see live music as an opportunity to bring more people into their business and advertise it,” Marie says.
But for bigger bands, like Happy Just To See You, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about future live performances.
“If the last year taught me anything, it's that I don't know what the hell is going to happen next week,” Benoit says. “It's hard to predict what's going to happen in the future.”
But Happy Just to See You is still chugging along. Along with their day jobs, they’re working on a new album scheduled to come out next summer.
By then, they hope they’ll be playing new songs for crowds across New Hampshire.