Faster Than Sound: Austin Music Stays the Course on Mask Precautions

Steady on safety guidelines, Austin promoters and club owners juggle an unclear concert calendar

Wild Child at ACL Live in October (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The mask mandate from Austin and Travis County stays in place for now pending a final ruling from the Texas District Court. Still, Hole in the Wall General Manager Austin Leos did not feel overly concerned upon seeing Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement of the state lifting all COVID-19 restrictions beginning March 10.

"I mean, we live in Austin," he says. "Immediately seeing all the other businesses show solidarity – that we're all still going to require masks – was really encouraging. There's a few people, who make a big deal every once and a while about not wanting to wear masks, but for the most part, it's been pretty smooth sailing."

Hole in the Wall continues to host outdoor weekend performances with the staple fixings of pandemic gigs: distanced tables, local acts, and masks required unless seated. While many venues still remain shuttered, most Austin spots hosting live music uphold safety precautions. Downtown, Stubb's joins more than 30 music businesses pledging to uphold CDC guidelines, including masks, under the Red River Cultural District's new program Safe in Sound.

"My objective is to stick with the science, regardless of the statements politicians make," says Stubb's General Manager Ryan Garrett. "If the doctors keep saying the best protocol to curb the spread is social distancing, masking, and additional sanitizing measures, then we're continuing to stay that course."

The biggest-name performer of Austin's last year, Dave Chappelle, took up something of a residency at Stubb's beginning in November. In January, shows were postponed after the comedian tested positive for COVID-19. Garrett says that across 27 Chappelle appearances, the venue found no coronavirus among its frequently tested staff and seating capacity remains at 350, less than 18% of the amphitheatre's normal fill.

Beyond continued March dates with the local favorite, Garrett isn't in any hurry to try the Chappelle model on other artists.

"It's worked tremendously well – for people that want to get out, performers to get onstage, and to put food on the table of our staff," he says. "We're looking down the road, and we're optimistic, but at the same time, it would be foolish for us to stumble now."

Rather than lifted mask mandates, a vaccinated concert fan base maintains the light at the end of the tunnel for venues. Premature loosening of state guidelines only threatens to throw off the COVID-era concert systems carefully developed in recent months. Alongside masks, ACL Live at the Moody Theater incorporated temperature checks and health questionnaires since restarting shows in October.

"We're still in the same situation," says General Manager Colleen Fischer. "We've always had people go through security, so masks [and other precautions are] just one more element to entering the building safely. We did the Robert Earl Keen shows and those patrons actually thanked the staff on the way out, which is very rewarding after having gone through this past year."

Fischer says it's too soon to predict when they might adjust current protocol and allow for higher-capacity concerts.

"It's a moving target, unfortunately," she says of rescheduled national tours. "We're doing our best to navigate it. We continue to move shows. We continue to book shows."

Events' uncertain prospects especially challenge festivals. Facing his second year without income from South by Southwest, which occurs virtually this week, French Smith of Roadway Productions wants final word on whether his annual Bat Fest can take place this August on the Congress Avenue Bridge. To date, his production company has only regained around 22% of regular business.

"If the city says everyone needs to wear a mask at my event or we need to check people's temperatures, that's great," he says. "That's something we can do. But not knowing whether we can operate at all or when we're going to be able to is very unclear."

Antone's co-owner Will Bridges says the Downtown club developed a roster of regulars who enjoy the intimacy of reduced-capacity shows. W.C. Clark, Sue Foley, and Bun B perform there in the coming weeks. He says the eventual jump from seated to standing gigs presents "a leap of faith for promoters" in leaving 2021 dates open for concerts that may not actually happen.

"The vast majority of demand we're seeing, from both artists and ticket buyers, is for an experience with masks and distancing and limited capacity," he says. "I don't know what the catalyst will be for that safely changing, but I don't think it's going to be from our governor.

"We would rather conservatively keep doing what we're doing than risk doing anything too early and set our community back. I guess you could say we've gotten comfortable with this new era of ambiguity."

Black Pumas Are Trevor Noah's New Favorite Band

Black Pumas singer Eric Burton on the Mar. 14 Grammys telecast (Courtesy of Black Pumas)

The Grammys placed Austin's Black Pumas on equal footing with Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, and Haim in the Sunday evening show's opening numbers last weekend. Art from the psychedelic soul band's self-titled album displayed prominently in a distanced multi-stage setup. Cameras panned to Pumas singer Eric Burton clapping after Styles' "Watermelon Sugar," and Styles returned the favor by mouthing along to the chorus of Pumas' "Colors."

The song's epic journey from Burton's busking days to national television made for primetime material. A preceding short film, shot locally with the band's recent feature on CBS This Morning, recalled Burton playing "Colors" at the Santa Monica Pier six years ago, before moving to Austin and meeting collaborator Adrian Quesada. Pre-pandemic crowds at the Mohawk made an appearance.

Though the Pumas didn't take home major nods for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, or Best American Roots Performance, host Trevor Noah caught the momentous moment.

"You ever heard a band for the first time but feel like they've been your favorites for your whole life? That's what we felt tonight," he said.

In other local entries, Wimberley native Sarah Jarosz landed Best Americana Album for World on the Ground, and former Austin dweller David Garza co-produced Fiona Apple's Best Alternative Music Album Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Other Austin-affiliated nominees included Ruthie Foster and Bad Livers plucker Danny Barnes.

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COVID-19 2021, Hole in the Wall, Austin Leos, Stubb's, Red River Cultural District, Safe In Sound, Ryan Garrett, Dave Chappelle, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Colleen Fischer, French Smith, Roadway Productions, Bat Fest, Antone's, Will Bridges, Black Pumas, Trevor Noah, Grammys, Harry Styles, Eric Burton

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