SEATTLE – Eva Walker is excited. Make that “suuuuuuuper excited.”
It’s been a long, up-and-down year for The Black Tones frontwoman, whose blues-punk band hasn’t been in front of a nonvirtual crowd since “social distancing” meant dodging the annoying guy at a party. But Walker’s unfortunate showless streak is about to snap, and the energetic rocker and radio host can barely contain her giddiness.
“It’s going to be super weird at first,” Walker says. “But I think it’s going to feel really good because we’re all going to be like, ‘Oh my god, you guys! We’re all here. Holy (expletive)! Welcome back!’ It’s going to be really weird in a really good way, because we’ve all been waiting for something.”
That something arrives March 28 when the Seattle rock darlings are set to play a live, in-person concert in an airplane hangar at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. Singer-songwriter and former “Voice” contestant Payge Turner will open what organizers are billing as “Seattle’s first socially distanced outdoor concert.”
It’s not exactly the first. (First legal one that doesn’t require a vehicle, perhaps.) Over the past year, a small number of artists and promoters have explored socially distanced concerts, be it drive-in jam rock bashes in a Snoqualmie Valley field or a semi-discreet, boat-in gig with David Bazan and other local faves on Lake Union. But a new organization dubbed Safe & Sound Seattle hopes its fledgling event series will jump-start the city’s mostly dormant live music scene and provide a model for throwing responsible and financially viable shows in the COVID-19 age.
“We are not even focused on making money right now, to be honest,” co-founder Jesse Kindrick Eaves says. “It’s all about getting music back to Seattle.”
For the kickoff Black Tones show, a prove-it gig organizers hope will lead to more events at other locations, they certainly found a unique setting. Under the covered Aviation Pavilion, fans will be seated in socially distanced pods of two to four people – spaced 8 feet apart and 20 feet from the stage – among the museum’s display planes, including early Boeing carriers and World War II bombers. (The artists will descend from a Boeing 787 Dreamliner before taking the stage.) Tickets range from $80-$160 per pod, equating to $40 a head.
It won’t be the jet-centric museum’s first rock show, as the Museum of Flight attempted an indoor concert series back in 2013, though it sputtered out on the runway. Since acquiring the 3.2-acre Aviation Pavilion, the facility has hosted private events and an annual beer fest, and can comfortably handle 1,500 people spaced out, museum spokesperson Ted Huetter says.
“Anything to bring some revenue in during a really lean period,” Huetter says of The Black Tones show. “But also for the long run, it’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and make it a regular thing so the museum simply has more to offer.”
Attendance will be capped at 150. Fans will undergo a health screening and temperature check before entering and volunteer staff will monitor the crowd to ensure masks are being worn. To reduce congregation points and aid that masked-up policy, no concessions will be sold (though water will be provided) and no outside food or beverages will be permitted.
“Because so much is riding on this first opening … we’re not going to allow food or drink at the first concert,” says Safe & Sound’s medical consultant Dr. Laurel Berge. “We want to really just focus on the music and, as we move forward, we can adjust that.”
Organizers say the event will adhere to the Phase 2 guidelines of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Healthy Washington reopening plan. Phase 2 allows for outdoor concerts at 25% capacity, up to 200 people, including artists and crew. Last week, Inslee announced that starting Monday, all Washington counties will move into Phase 3, which further loosens restrictions and allows for outdoor events for up to 400 people.
Asked about outdoor concerts specifically, a spokesperson for the governor said updated Phase 3 guidance would be outlined this week.
Safe & Sound Seattle is the brainchild of four arts-minded friends and housemates who coalesced around a COVID aid nonprofit that Berge, an emergency room physician, launched last year. As Oregon hospitals faced a personal protective equipment shortage, Berge’s Help Make (Better) 50 project distributed 19,000 isolation gowns to health care workers around the state, according to its website.
Eaves and Jonathan Evergreen – a musician and music teacher suddenly out of work – were among the volunteers who helped run three repurposed factories making the much-needed gowns.
“We learned all this stuff about managing a nonprofit, and CDC guidelines, safety and protocol,” says Evergreen, Safe & Sound’s president and operations director, “and we said, ‘How can we take all this research, all this information and apply it to the thing that we all love and miss the most, which is music and our musical community?’ ”
“Our first nonprofit was about prolonging life with PPE,” adds Eaves. “Now this experience is going to be about making the prolonged life worth living, bringing music, bringing art back.”
For this first test flight, Safe & Sound has partnered with R90 Lighting and Sessions in Place – the livestreaming arm of Abbey Arts, which runs several low-key Seattle venues including Fremont Abbey and Ballard Homestead. Safe & Sound Seattle hopes to work with other venues on future events. Though the response has been mostly positive, organizers say, Evergreen acknowledges some club operators have questioned whether it’s financially worthwhile for them to participate.
“Our core value has been to save the Seattle music scene,” Evergreen says. “These venues are so important to the cultural landscape of Seattle, and if we can pivot in some way to work with them that they can throw these shows and start getting on the ground running again, that’s why we included them in our mission.”
Safe & Sound’s launch comes as Washington begins crawling out from a yearlong shutdown of live music. A small number of bars and venues have resumed hosting shows, indoors, at reduced capacity. WaMu Theater recently announced a Sept. 18 date with Colombian reggaeton king Maluma, marking the region’s earliest major concert planned since the pandemic.
With the light at the end of the tunnel finally bright enough to see, why launch now?
“While we are all hopeful that this pandemic is on the wane, this will be our new future,” Berge says. “Why not imagine a future done correctly, done safely while supporting the arts and lead the way? Because this will be recurrent.”
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