Along with many other sectors of the U.S. economy, independent live music venues were gut-punched by the COVID-19 pandemic, shut down by limits on crowd sizes.
But as case numbers decline and public health restrictions lift, clubs in North Carolina and across the country are scheduling indoor, on-site performances for the first time in more than a year.
"Our last show was March 6," said Heather LaGarde, who, with her husband Tom, owns and operates the Haw River Ballroom, in Saxapahaw, an unincorporated community in Alamance County. LaGarde recalled how the gravity of the situation started to settle in that day back in 2020, when the Ballroom's bill featured singer-songwriter Marc Broussard and his crew.
"While they were here they found out that South by Southwest had been canceled," LaGarde said. "And they were just shattered and spent the rest of the day on the phone with agents. And we were all sort of seeing how it was unraveling everywhere."
Frank Heath, the owner and operator of the famed Carrboro music venue Cat's Cradle, distinctly remembers the last time fans gathered in the space before the state-wide lockdown.
"The last show that did happen," said Frank Heath, "was Destroyer, the 11th of March."
"People were having a weird time that night," he said. "Just paranoid about what the disease was and whether they should buy a beer, where they should stand. I think everybody was happy to go home."
Heath joined me and Heather LaGarde for coffee and conversation on a terrace outside the Haw River Ballroom. The venue owners looked back on the past 14 months and ahead to the joyous return of audiences.
The ballroom can accommodate a crowd of 715 and anchors a mixed-use entertainment and cultural complex created from a renovated cotton mill and dye house. The venue also has a coffee bar that hasn't served paying customers since the shutdown, though Heather LaGarde uses the espresso machine for herself and occasional guests, just as she and her husband have used the ballroom as a workout space during the pandemic.
LaGarde is preparing to host outdoor concerts in August, and indoor performances starting in September.
"My whole throat closes up, or some kind of tight, wonderful and apprehensive feeling happens as you think about being responsible for bringing people together to spaces. But at the same time, I cannot wait," LaGarde said.
Club owners like LaGarde and Heath had to innovate to find ways for their businesses to survive the pandemic.
For Heath, that meant arranging live-streamed concerts.
"The model, I guess, was just trying to keep some of our staff busy and trying to engage with the bands," Heath said. "If anybody was interested in doing a performance that would go out live on the internet, we were actively signing bands up every weekend to come up to the Cradle and play a set."
Heath said the streams proved popular, if not profitable.
"The Connells had 10,000 people watch their live-stream in October," he said.
Heath added that while the streamed shows did not raise any revenue for his club they helped keep everyone occupied and kept hopes alive for the future of live music.
For Heather LaGarde and the Haw River Ballroom, staying busy meant renting out the performance space as a film and sound stage for bands.
"We felt like it was a safe place and this is a space that artists come to sometimes to do rehearsals before shows or tours," she said. "And Saxapahaw is such a welcoming spot for people to come and stay in, so we ended up doing a number of concert films."
LaGarde and Heath have been active in the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, which has lobbied state and federal lawmakers to secure financial assistance.
"One of the key things that NIVA did was spend what money was available on hiring Akin Gump, which is a very capable group that lobbies Congress," Heath said. "They pretty much strategized with us every day to figure out what needed to be done in terms of contacting representatives and senators."
NIVA's efforts helped secure a pledge from the federal Small Business Administration in the form of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.
"It expanded beyond just indie venues," Heather LaGarde said, "into small museums and indie movie theaters and a few other performing arts kinds of organizations, and that was approved at $16 billion in December and was expected to have been delivered long ago but has just been delayed."
The federal grants would provide independent venues shutdown by the pandemic with up to 45% of their 2019 gross revenue. But LaGarde and Heath both expressed uncertainty about when, or if, the money will be distributed.
As hard as the pandemic has been on their businesses, LaGarde and Heath have kept things in perspective.
"Everyone in the arts feels hesitant about complaining about anything when we're looking at mortality and people's lives and families," LaGarde said. "And at the same time I do deeply believe, and I don't think any of us would be in this industry if we didn't really believe, that music and the arts bring people together."
I asked LaGarde and Heath what shows, in particular, they were looking forward to.
"There's a ton of great concerts coming up so I hate to pick and choose," Heath said, "but we have one of my favorites, James McMurtry, playing at the [Carrboro] Arts Center, that's a Cat's Cradle-promoted show, in September, and then the Psychedelic Furs at the Cat's Cradle in November."
"I will say that Waxahatchee is a super meaningful one," LaGarde said about the band's scheduled performance at the Haw River Ballroom in October. "Because that was one of the shows we did have booked, already sold out, and had to cancel and then reschedule and reschedule and reschedule."
That upcoming show sold out in a matter of days, LaGarde said.
"So it was the first one where we felt like 'OK, people feel safe to return.'"
Another thing LaGarde is looking forward to is taking visiting bands out for kayak tours of the Haw River, one of the perks of playing the ballroom.
"The connection to the river is a big part of what we feel we have to offer when bands are going on a pretty intensive tour and want to come somewhere where they can really have a break."
Though getting back to the work of organizing and producing shows for live audiences means a huge emotional break for musicians, fans and club owners alike.