Last week, one of my friends stopped talking about how much he'd like to adopt a dog, and actually went to a still-open, socially distanced local shelter where he picked out a tiny three-month-old pup. But because nothing is allowed to be easy or enjoyable in this gaping hellmouth of a calendar year, she became ill just days after he adopted her. He wrapped her in a towel and drove to the closest vet's office, where a masked and gloved tech told him that only animal patients could enter the building. While he waited in his car, he overheard a second staff member explain to an already shaken couple that they could stay with their dog to the end if they allowed the doctor to give him, you know, that kind of injection, there in the parking lot. Then, he watched helplessly through his windshield as those two strangers shattered into a thousand pieces beside their still-running station wagon.
It seems like outdoor dog euthanasia might be the saddest thing that anyone could possibly see during this pandemic, but then a club in Arkansas hosted the first 'socially distanced concert' and somehow, that was so much worse.
Bishop Gunn singer Travis McCready was originally scheduled to play last Friday, but because Arkansas hadn't officially allowed large indoor venues to reopen, Governor Asa Hutchinson threatened TempleLive with a cease-and-desist order. The show was rescheduled for Monday night, which could've been a tough gig in the Before Times, even when audience members weren't temperature-checked on their way in the door, or surrounded by empty seats X'ed out with yellow caution tape.
The depressing vibe had absolutely nothing to do with McCready's well-received set. It wasn't necessarily TempleLive's fault either, not after it did everything that it could to ensure that the show even happened, before ticking all of the boxes on the state's lengthy list of reopening requirements.
But having to be that conscientious about the amount of empty space between the seats, about keeping everyone at least 12 feet away from the stage, and counting the number of people in the bathroom at one time weren't signs of "the new normal," as much as they were just unavoidable reminders that we're still going through some serious shit.
I get why those 229 people went on Monday night, though, and I know that we're all ready to yank out our uncomfortably long hair because we're so desperate for things to be "back to normal." But nothing about that concert was "normal," and we're straight-up lying to ourselves if we pretend that it was.
As someone who's gone to enough shows to accumulate both an embarrassing number of Day-Glo wristbands and a noticeable amount of hearing damage, I know that the best concerts are the ones that provide a legitimate escape from everything else, where you don't have to worry about anything except why you willingly paid $6 for a single White Claw. You can't get lost in the music or in the vibe or in anything when you're conscious of the boundaries of a cordoned-off seat, or constantly reassuring yourself that the cough you just heard probably wasn't communicable. Being surrounded by evidence of everything that's happening out there can strip a show of some of its magic before it even starts, like seeing the Mouse King ripping fat vape clouds before the National Ballet.
I know that this is an unenviable position for music venues of any size to be in, and there's zero joy in the career and financial uncertainty felt by their employees, the technical crews, food vendors, bartenders, and the man-mountain who always stamps your hand a little too hard on your way in the door. It's also a terrible spot for musicians, who have probably wondered how long they can sustain themselves by playing streaming shows for their Patreon supporters and the spider plant across the room. It's miserable for all of us when there aren't any concert dates on the calendar, but I'm willing to wait for real ones, for the kind where you stand with your arm draped across a stranger's shoulder while you both sing somebody else's words with more conviction than you've ever squeezed out of your own.
Until that day gets here, there are virtual tip jars and online fundraisers and other most-likely-Googleable ways to support the clubs and musicians that we love, and if we're lucky enough to have a couple of extra bucks, we can join a Patreon, or order a T-shirt, or buy their most recent record. And yeah, maybe it's dumb or misguided or just flat-out wrong to believe that concerts will ever be the way they were before… but I'm not ready to accept that they'll look like the one on Monday night, either.