It was Feb. 24 when Jason Justice and his four bandmates in Gumbo le Funque, a New Orleans-style funk group, believed they were each coming down with the flu. Their symptoms came on right during Mardi Gras season, the band’s busiest time of year, and for days, the group played long strings of gigs as their symptoms grew worse.
Looking back on the events, Justice isn’t surprised that he and his bandmates soon learned they had COVID-19. But at the time, the news was unexpected — and the band had no way of knowing that the illness they were facing was just the beginning of a long struggle that Justice says is far from over.
“The whole bottom fell out of the industry,” said Justice, the band’s lead singer and saxophone player.
He listed the major hurdles the band has faced: The two-and-a-half-months shutdown in which local musicians weren’t playing at all; the many venues that have stayed closed throughout the summer; and an ongoing Denver County order requiring performers to wear masks, preventing those who play brass or wind instruments from performing in Denver.
Now, there are only two places Justice has been performing in the area, he said. In August, he’ll play two gigs and in September, three — less than a third of the number of gigs he played over the same two months in 2019.
Across the board, bands are facing a different extent of what Justice calls a disaster, based on the band’s following, whether it’s a local, regional or national act and other factors.
But regardless of how deeply musicians have been affected by COVID-19, Denver artists agree: No one’s made it unscathed, making every show a blessing.
“By the time March rolled around, we had to cancel three months’ worth of shows,” said Amy Brophy, bassist in rock, blues and alternative band Riverside Drive. “Even now, 90% of our venues are not able to pay what they did last summer. It’s been a big step back for a band trying to gain momentum, but we’re so grateful these venues are having live music at all.”
Despite the discouraging nature of the challenges local musicians have faced over the past five months, those challenges made it all the more rewarding this summer, when musicians have been able to return to the stage. As he considers the hurdles, Justice remembers a night a couple of months ago, when he and a fellow musician played their first gig since Feb. 29.
“For the two of us to be able to play music together, it was really incredible. Music is the reason I get up in the morning and put my horn together and keep practicing, keep writing,” he said. “There are gigs coming back, but it’s been a wild ride.”
The state of live music now
Not all venues in the Denver area that previously had live music have brought that element back, or even reopened at all. Justice said several of his regular venues have told him that, due to the cost of opening at limited capacity, they plan to keep their doors shut until March or April of 2021.
However, the state of Colorado does have guidelines, last updated in June, for those who choose to reinstate live music. The guidelines require that patrons are seated 25 feet or further from performers.
Working within these guidelines hasn’t been possible for every area venue. But for some, like Blue Spruce Brewing Company, bringing back live music has been both possible and a priority in recent months.
The brewery, which has locations at 4151 E. County Line Road in Centennial and 10577 W. Centennial Road in Littleton, held its first show since the pandemic on July 4 and has been inviting more musicians to play since then.
“Even from last year, we doubled our sales (made during live shows) just because people are dying to experience live music,” said co-owner Theresa Kane.
In the Littleton location specifically, the brewery holds weekly shows on Thursday nights on its patio, which it expanded to accommodate social distancing through a county variance. During shows, guests fill the patio. Others bring lawn chairs and listen to musicians while staying six feet apart in the parking lot, Kane said.
“They’re excited to get out of the house and be able to do something different that’s not in their house or just eating at a restaurant,” she said. “We’ve been known for our music and since we could bring it back, we did.”
As they navigate the new normal for live music, venues have tried a variety of new tactics. For instance, Herman’s Hideaway at 1578 S. Broadway in Denver has taken a slow approach to reintroducing shows, has asked musicians to bring their own microphones and even had one singer stand behind a Plexiglas barrier during a performance, said talent buyer Chris Thomas.
“We’re a little bit more on the cautious side,” he said. “It’s not business as usual. But the community in general has had a desire to make it work, and I’m optimistic.”
Just as much as the teams at Herman’s Hideaway and Blue Spruce Brewing wanted to restore a part of normal life for guests, they also reinstated the music for the benefit of local musicians.
“The musicians I have brought back are so excited to be able to play and they’re very grateful,” Kane said.
Local restaurants’ and bars’ commitment to hiring musicians when they can has made all the difference for many of the acts in the area, including Twenty Hands High, a country and southern rock band that plays in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and other regional states.
The two-and-a-half months that CW Wooten, guitar player and singer in the band, couldn’t play any gigs, “it was like sliding into a complete halt,” he said. “It was awful to be cut off from your fans and even your bandmates.”
About $25,000 worth of gigs were canceled for Wooten, including shows as far in advance as September.
That said, since the summer began, things have been looking up for the musician and his fairly well-known band, which has tens of thousands of followers on Facebook. In July and August 2019, Wooten played 32 gigs; in July and August 2020, he’ll play 29.
Not all venues can pay their typical rates, he added, but many are trying their best to do so.
“We did 150 shows last year, and we’re on track do more than 100 shows this year,” Wooten said. “Outdoor venues are probably the biggest thing keeping live music going right now because you have a little more leeway with the restrictions.”
Considering that, Wooten said it’s important for musicians that the rate of COVID’s spread declines before the winter months, when outdoor venues will no longer be an option.
He remains optimistic, adding how grateful he’s been for venues’ support and his fans’ support — even some higher-risk fans have found ways to listen to outdoor shows by setting up in nearby parks, away from crowds, he said.
Similarly to Wooten, Brophy said she hopes the industry could rebound — she just doesn’t know when.
“I think a lot of people will retain that fear, but my hope is that we will return to normal because we have to move forward,” she said. “That our fans are going to get out there and weather the storm, that’s the hope and the dream that most musicians are holding onto.”