Aura in downtown Portland, like every other music venue, remains empty and silent during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Aura)
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The buzz is out there.

Pete Kostopoulos is looking for a place to reopen the Taverna. It’s been a while, but plenty of people still pine for the formula that worked so well on Free Street: Greek food (cheap gyros), friendly bartenders (cheap beer), and live music (surf, rock, punk, rockabilly, bluegrass). Maybe some BBQ, given the popularity of his Kettle Cove Foods “Hick Lickin’ Good” barbecue sauce line. 

But when? 

“We’re waiting for this virus to calm down,” Kostopoulos said. “I want to be smart about it.”

Yeah, that’s the rub. When do we get live music back? The Facebook and Instagram shows are nice and all, but they’re not really a replacement for getting your hair blown back by a stack of amps or the intimacy of being in the room with someone just pouring themselves into a song. 

“I feel like we’ll be one of the last to re-open,” said Ken Bell, owner of the Portland House of Music and Events. “I don’t know if I have any answers.”

Lauren Wayne, who runs the State Theatre, Port City Music Hall, and Thompson’s Point, said “We’re waiting for the governor to let us know what’s going on. We’re waiting for the medical professionals and the authorities to let us know.”

“Probably like a lot of people,” said Mark Curdo, who manages Aura. “We’re waiting to hear what’s the allowance, what’s the ruling handed down.”

So, the short answer to that big question about live music? Not soon. Especially for larger shows by bands coming from out of town. Maybe you were thinking Thompson’s Point is outside and pretty big, so maybe that could work? 

“We’re holding out hope that, yes, we’ll have some potential for Thompson’s Point” this summer, Wayne said, but “we don’t operate our venues with the knowledge or idea that people will come to Maine and play one-off dates. Whole tours are being canceled … the festivals are being canceled.” 

Because of how the economics work, major artists like the ones who sell thousands of tickets need full tours to make it worth their while. Even if Maine was a nice, safe outpost, it’s not like Brandi Carlile is just going to fly in and put on a show in August and then fly home.

“The thing that people don’t think about,” Wayne said, “is that this is not just contingent on what we want to do; it’s all the venues nationwide working as a team.”

Does that maybe offer an opportunity for local acts to be first out of the gate with live shows?

“For sure the local scene will come back first,” Curdo said. “There’s no contract and rider involved, there’s much less of a budget involved. Even if we’re handed a decent occupancy number (from state and city regulators) there’s another side of the coin, which is the tours and bands and management, and what they want to do.”

He predicted a bit of wait-and-see before tours start ramping up again, not to mention the reluctance some venues might have to groups of people from all over the country potentially bringing the virus with them. 

Similarly, Wayne wondered if residencies by bigger bands, where they occupy a single smaller venue for several dates, will become a way to ease back into things. 

This void in the market could offer some opportunity for young up-and-comers, much in the same way Facebook streaming has leveled the playing field. When you’re forced to hold people’s attention with nothing much more than your voice and an acoustic guitar, things get a lot more egalitarian. And if local bands are the only shows available, people will come out. 

“If they say we can have groups of 10,” Bell said, “then I’ll put on a show with 10 people. I’d love to go see a little club show right now, but I’ve been trying to get my fix on the streaming shows we’re doing. They’re for my own benefit, too, I’m not gonna lie. One night, I came in here and threw the streaming show on the club speakers and just sat here by myself and it was pretty badass.”

People are desperate. But everyone agreed on one point:

The ultimate priority is in the safety and health of the artists, the fans who want to see them, and the venue staffers. Nobody’s interested in putting on shows where people are worried about their health first and the performance second. When venues re-open there will be increased hand sanitizer stations, limited capacity, extra precautions at the bar, and messaging that reminds people to think about their proximity to other folks.

“We all want to do business,” Curdo said, “but at the core, it’s about serving people and helping people feel better.”

And that, Wayne said, is “contingent on the artists being safe and when they think their fans are safe.”

At the same time, Bell said, “I need to find a way to get everyone paid. I need to find a way to pay musicians. We’re trying everything we can to find a way to make that work.”

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.

The Joel Thetford Band. (Courtesy Jason Legassie)

2 weeks, 5 releases

While you’re staying at home, throw these new releases on the stereo or in the headphones:

• Joel Thetford Band, “Live at Port City Music Hall.” The countrified rock being churned out by this supergroup of sorts (Matt Robbins of Murcielago and King Memphis on guitar, Dan Capaldi of Sea Level and the Cambiata on drums, Nate Soule of the Mallett Brothers Band on guitar) is plenty of reason to check this out, but there’s the added benefit that half of all online revenue goes to Creative Portland’s Artist Relief Fund. 

• Dog Park, “Irma + 2 Songs.” If you’ve got three minutes, you can listen to the whole three songs. No problem. 

• Deep Gold, “Power/Less.” This is a little bit like Tom Waits doing electronic music, a throaty and breathy delivery, backed by synths and digital beats. 

• Forest City and Friends, self-titled. Look for a full review of this soon, but Twisted Roots’ Pete Giordano has teamed with Chris Muccino (Endless Interstate) and Greg Goodwin (MeRCy) on a cool new project that’s part ’90s throwback, part brand-new thing. 

• Zach Jones, “Like the Tide/Yesterday of No Return.” This little single shows off the crooning Jones trying on new styles for size, from Americana to psych-rock. Great stuff, as always. 

— Sam Pfeifle