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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A celebration of the pandemic’s end turns into another slog through its middle

Wilco played in Spokane earlier this month in one of the first big live music shows since the pandemic began.  (Annabel Mehran)
Wilco played in Spokane earlier this month in one of the first big live music shows since the pandemic began. (Annabel Mehran)

When the tickets were first offered, it seemed like a concert would be a fantastic way to celebrate the pandemic’s end.

Wilco and Sleater-Kinney at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. A couple of great bands at the old opera house where I’ve seen so many shows over the years, from Neil Young to “The Book of Mormon.” It was a concert that had been planned, sold and then canceled in 2020 when the pandemic hit, the way so many cultural events were.

Among the many intangible losses of the past year were those sudden blank spots on the arts calendar. The vanishing of the creative human endeavor in live, shared spaces, be it galleries, theaters, book readings, concert halls or local taverns.

For so many of us, these cultural experiences represent something deep and important, almost sacramental, a form of communion with others and engagement with the creative spirit that is life-affirming and vital.

The absence of these events may not have announced itself with quite the same sad vigor as the loss of family visits, say, or avoiding close contact with friends, or the elimination of a job, or any of the other sacrifices made during the pre-vaccine pandemic. It certainly wasn’t the same as losing your own life or a loved one, or suffering the worst effects of COVID-19.

But it was a real, serious side effect, one of many sacrifices that were necessary but painful, and the return of this part of community life has been keenly anticipated as we moved back toward normalcy.

So, several weeks ago, when a friend reached out with the offer of a couple of tickets to the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney show, that’s what it seemed to symbolize. Another step back to life.

Since vaccination, our family has eased back toward normal life just as so many have. We’ve done a little traveling, seen more friends and family, celebrated a wedding anniversary in person, had meals and drinks out with friends, held babies, forgotten where we kept our masks, etc.

Like it was over.

Very, very close to over.

But we hadn’t gone to a show, and so we snapped up the tickets and put it on our calendar. It was the first show both bands would be playing since the pandemic arrived, and it felt symbolic.

By the time we showed up last Thursday night, however, the symbolic tenor had changed. In the space of a month, COVD-19 cases had soared and so had hospitalizations. ICUs were becoming busier and busier treating unvaccinated patients who had contracted COVID-19, and hospital officials were strategizing for how they might have to limit other services to manage the resurgent caseload.

Most discouragingly, the opposition to public health and safety was speeding forward, undeterred, in the face of all this.

Instead of a celebratory end to a terrible year, we had plunged once again into a sad and completely unnecessary chapter in this pandemic: a pandemic of choice, driven by people who are infuriatingly willing to send the entire country back into an unavoidable crisis again and again.

So, when the first chords were struck onstage last week, we were not at the end as we had so desperately and deeply hoped to be.

We were still in a middle. A mire.

Obviously, this middle is better in significant ways for those of us who got the shots. But the dumbest, ugliest parts of the pandemic – the irresponsible, politicized denial – lives on, infecting the entire country and helping lay the ground for future viral variants.

At the concert last week, I talked to a couple of friends during the break between bands. One of them wondered: Would the show, the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney tour, go on? Or would it be canceled once again?

It was a conversation not wholly unlike those that were taking place everywhere last March. A conversation we might have naively believed we were done with.

The show was great, by the way, and it was great simply to be at a show. There is something magical and transcendent about a great rock and roll concert. If you know, you know.

And if you live in a place long enough, and see enough shows in that place, then those shows become a part of your experience of that community in a vital way. It creates a pattern of your existence, a pattern that connects you to the place and people, and to the experience of the performance, in a way that you carry with you as part of the web of what makes up a life as a member of a community.

My own concert history in Spokane is modest compared to many, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less voracious about consuming live music. Nodding along has replaced dancing. Still, when I go to a show, I bring with me all the other shows I’ve seen. This one ties to that one, which ties to that one, and so on.

So, the other night I brought with me the experience of seeing Neil Young with my wife on that same stage in 1992, when he was playing a huge pipe organ and wearing Uggs and performing the sweet, shaggy songs of “Harvest Moon.”

I brought along the experience of seeing the Pixies, in their first show after reuniting in 2004, at the Knitting Factory, a crisp, taut set in which they tore through every single song I wanted to hear with note-by-note perfection. I brought along Elvis Costello, in a cowboy hat and spinning a wheel with song titles, and Blackalicious, with the rapper Gift of Gab spitting so fast you couldn’t believe it, and The Hold Steady, from the night at the Big Dipper when very few people showed up to see a wild and amazing show.

Every time, a joyful noise. Every time, another strand in the web.

At last week’s show, our strange moment in relation to the pandemic was on the front burner. Wilco’s lead singer and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, noted between songs that it had been 512 days since his band had played for people. He urged the crowd to get vaccinated as a way of taking care of each other – as an act of human kindness and decency – and so such concerts can continue.

“It’s good for us,” he said, and he didn’t mean that it was good for Wilco to have concerts.

He meant it’s good for all of us to gather to hear each other sing, or watch each other dance, or see what others have painted or listen to what they have written – it’s good for us to be together, sharing in the joyful noise.

We sacrificed that for good reasons in the past year. It’s not at all clear that we won’t have to make such sacrifices again, for some very bad ones.

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