SEATTLE — It’s been two years since we’ve had a proper summer concert season. For a while, it looked like 2021 might bring another summer spent in hibernation, with a handful of Washington’s marquee festivals throwing in the towel for the second consecutive year amid the COVID-19 chaos.
Though it was too late for some, Gov. Jay Inslee’s May 13 announcement that the state would fully reopen by the end of June meant that bands and beer gardens would convene again under the sun.
“It was like we’d been waiting for Christmas to come for more than a year and it finally came,” says Jeff Trisler, head of Live Nation’s Pacific Northwest division, which runs the Gorge Amphitheatre and Auburn’s White River Amphitheatre. “It’s such a joyous time for all of us — everybody in the world and all of us who work in the concert industry, who were feeling like we were never going to be able to do this again. It’s like suddenly the floodgates have opened up.”
The floodgates may have opened, but it’s going to be a minute before the water starts flowing. By the time Inslee pegged that June 30 reopening date, with the potential to resume full-capacity events sooner if statewide vaccination rates hit 70%, venues had mostly cleared their concert calendars through July or August.
As it stands, the annual Watershed Festival (July 30-Aug. 1), the state’s premier country fest at the Gorge Amphitheatre, could be the first large-scale show without capacity limits to kick off the outdoor concert season. (As of this writing, folk rockers the Avett Brothers still have a July 18 date at WaMu Theater on the books, one of the few touring acts yet to postpone or cancel a July show at a Seattle club or theater.)
A week or so after country fans are scheduled to swarm the Gorge, the White River Amphitheatre hopes to reopen with pop rockers Maroon 5 (Aug. 10) kicking off their North American tour.
Trisler says there’s “no question” that those earliest August shows at the amphitheaters will happen as planned. But given the rolling nature of tour cancellations and rescheduling, any summer tour date announced more than a month ago seems fluid. Despite Inslee clearing the path for July concerts, Trisler doesn’t expect to add anything else before August, though some unannounced shows are in the works for August or later.
“Once that word came down that we were back in business June 30, we have been pedal to the metal trying to get as many quality things together as we can, in addition to what we had sitting there waiting to go,” he says.
With the first two months of summer clipped, both venues are stretching the season into early October, with events like EDM festival Beyond Wonderland (initially slated for June) now set for Oct. 1-2 at the Gorge.
Ryan Crowther, who runs the Everett Music Initiative, saw the writing on the wall. After taking his Fisherman’s Village Music Festival online last year, the event producer started planning a later date this year for his laid-back fest, typically held in late May in various downtown Everett venues. Though a formal announcement is expected mid-June, the small fest heavy on local and Northwest artists is planned for Sept. 9-11, with Pacific Northwest favorites like Built to Spill, The Microphones and Seattle’s Lady A playing an outdoor main stage and a few indoor venues.
Despite the governor’s green light, Crowther’s doing his best to keep his three-day fest — which peaks at around 3,000 to 4,000 people on its busiest day — nimble in case the state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hand down any unexpected guidelines before opening night. After being thrown a year’s worth of curveballs, Crowther is cautiously optimistic.
”If we’ve learned anything the last year, it’s that we can’t predict anything and good news doesn’t always just mean good news,” he says.
Beyond Fisherman’s, Crowther has a live music series in the works with Dick’s Drive-In set for Friday nights in August, bringing top local bands to downtown Everett’s Wetmore Theater Plaza. Smaller community-focused block parties and pop-up outdoor shows could help carry the live music torch during an in-between summer in which many tentpole events like Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot will take another year off.
For Summer Meltdown organizers, Inslee’s announcement was too little too late. The husband-and-wife team behind the Darrington festival merging jam rock, electronic music and regional all-stars had already set a May 7 deadline to decide whether or not to forge ahead with their four-day camping festival in early August.
Roughly a week earlier, Inslee had hinted at a possible rollback in the state’s phased reopening plans amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The venue at which they were planning to hold the festival was already wary of hosting one of the first large events post-shutdown, says Summer Meltdown founder Josh Clauson, and delaying the decision came with increased financial risk. Amid the pandemic, artists and vendors are requiring higher deposits and guarantees, Clauson says, meaning independent promoters like him and his wife could be stuck with a hefty bill should the show not go on.
Weighing the potential of an unexpected case surge or the state handing down new event guidelines, Clauson decided it was too big of a gamble — especially while venue operators and event producers are still waiting for long-delayed federal relief grants. Days after Inslee’s announcement, Summer Meltdown pulled the plug on what would have been the 20th edition of the festival that draws around 5,000 per day.
“It felt bad,” Clauson says of the timing. “That was part of the anguish. ... Now all of a sudden the focus gets turned to the event operators — ‘We need you guys now!’ — after waiting for months for any kind of relief and any kind of attention on ways we could move forward.”
Among the region’s summer event staples, it’s a hodgepodge of late starts, cancellations and altered plans. Marymoor Park’s concert series is currently set to return with bizarro alt-rockers Primus on Aug. 14. Chateau Ste. Michelle plans to host live music in some capacity this year, but as of this writing, wasn’t ready to uncork the details.
While KEXP’s Concerts at the Mural is off, Jimmy Fallon’s favorite radio station is curating a scaled-down, all-local version of the Woodland Park Zoo’s popular ZooTunes series. Although the first show (currently The Posies on July 18) comes weeks after the state’s reopening date, zoo brass will keep the fan-favorite series at half capacity throughout the summer, selling tickets in socially distanced pods for up to 10 people.
Capping ticket sales at 1,800, just below 50% capacity, provides some leeway should a new variant force a rollback, says the zoo’s concert manager Romy Brock, though she’s confident the series will kick off as planned. There’s also the social considerations as people resume activities they enjoyed before the pandemic. “We want people to feel comfortable and not be a free-for-all, for lack of a better word,” Brock says.
While outside food will not be allowed this year, the assigned pod seating means fans won’t need to arrive early to stake out prime real estate on the lawn. And so far, the lack of national headliners hasn’t seemed to deter fans, with the first three shows announced quickly selling out.
”They just want to be in the meadow with their friends and have it done safely,” Brock says. “They want to have that experience again.”