Waiting for showtime: When, where and how will live music return to Santa Cruz?

SambaDá, the popular Afro-Samba-Funk-Dance-Music group had become a pre-pandemic Moe's staple.
SambaDá, the popular Afro-Samba-Funk-Dance-Music group had become a pre-pandemic Moe’s staple.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

SPECIAL REPORT: Santa Cruz’s famously diverse and buzzing live-music scene has been in deep hibernation. Club owners and music producers are confident it will emerge from the pandemic slump, but when, how, and what it will look like remain open questions.

Throughout 2019 and into the first two months of 2020, the live music scene in Santa Cruz County was booming. From bar bands to big-ticket touring acts, the music fan had options nearly every night of the week.

In February 2020 alone, the local live-music calendar included dates for such nationally prominent names as Sinead O’Connor, trumpeter Chris Botti, folksinger Tom Paxton, jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, soul/jazz combo Greyboy All-Stars, master guitarist Leo Kottke, Western swing act Riders in the Sky, reggae legends Black Uhuru, country star Travis Tritt, and feminist folksinger and activist Ani DiFranco. You could have checked out the popular local Beatles tribute act White Album Ensemble, and even a disco party with an ABBA tribute band — and much more on top of all that.

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Then, over the course of a single weekend in March, like throwing a circuit-breaker in a casino, live music in Santa Cruz went from a thousand flashing lights to complete darkness. COVID-19 had come to town.

Of course, the pandemic shut down live entertainment all over the country, indeed all over the world. And many other industries were crippled if not destroyed by the spread of the virus.

But, like great surf breaks and sweet beaches, live music has been one of Santa Cruz’s main attractions for decades. It is, in fact, an integral part of the city’s personality — and for nearly a year now, that part of Santa Cruz’s character has been wholly absent.

Will the local live-music scene come back? And when? Those are the questions on the minds of club owners, promoters, musicians, and audiences.

But no one has an answer that is not couched in the ifs and buts of speculation.
There are a few shows scheduled locally for late spring, but those dates are tentative and poised to be postponed. Most insiders, on the local scene and beyond, are looking at mid to late summer as a more realistic target for live performance to return.

The Catalyst sits quietly at the end of Pacific Ave.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Awaiting the new boom . . . maybe

The good news is that the big players on the scene — The Catalyst, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Moe’s Alley and The Rio — all report they are in no imminent danger of closing altogether. In fact, there is cautious optimism that once the all-clear is given in a post-vaccine world, local audiences, deprived of the energy and immediacy of live in-person concerts for months, may swarm to live shows — creating a new boom, or at least a return to the thriving scene pre-pandemic.

That’s certainly the bet at the cozy midtown roadhouse club Moe’s Alley, which is changing ownership this month. Bill Welch, the club’s owner/operator for 28 years, is retiring and handing over the reigns to his long-time general manager Lisa Norelli and her business partner Brian Ziel.

“We started talking about this before the pandemic,” said Welch, who opened the club with his partner Phil Lewis in 1992 and took over sole ownership about a decade later. Since then, he’s presided over roughly 7,500 live shows at Moe’s. “Brian and Lisa, they’re really good friends, and they’re both huge music lovers. And that’s what I wanted, to pass it along to someone who was going to do the right thing.”

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Moe’s began strictly as a blues club. In fact, Welch and Lewis established the annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival in Aptos Village Park just a year after opening Moe’s.

Their intent was to give a spotlight to many of the great under-appreciated 20th century blues players — Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers — then in their twilight years.

Eventually, Moe’s broadened its vision to expand into roots reggae, Afro-Cuban, South American, New Orleans funk, singer/songwriter rock and folk, and the kind of country-flavored sound favored by the fans of KPIG.

Norelli and Ziel said they are intent on continuing the tradition of eclecticism at Moe’s, and even adding to the cornucopia. “We’re not going to overnight become some kind of heavy metal club or something,” said Ziel, a long-time drummer who grew up in Santa Cruz. “That’s not our intention at all. We understand Moe’s place in the music community and we want to expand that.”

Brian Ziel and Lisa Norelli are taking over Moe's from Bill Welch.
After 28 years, Bill Welch is handing the baton to long-time general manager Lisa Norelli and her business partner Brian Ziel.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

That may mean more bookings in the realm of punk rock, ska, and other forms that might skew to a younger audience. Cultivating young audiences has always been a vital business strategy for music clubs, but the pandemic has added a wrinkle — young people may come out to live shows sooner than more vulnerable older fans who might be more likely to stick to the kind of livestreaming and YouTube programming that has quickly evolved in the past year.

Either way, it’s an uncertain road ahead for clubs looking to reopen, and anticipating having to contend with government-mandated safety protocols. Though it’s famous for packing lots of people into a small space, Moe’s has an advantage over some other clubs in that it has an outdoor patio, which Norelli and Ziel plan to revamp for more outdoor performances.

Still, while they invest in structural improvements, the road to normal is still uncertain. “It would be great if we could open this summer, but we’re not going to announce any timeline because it doesn’t seem fair, given what everyone is going through,” said Norelli.

The Giant Reset

For the live-music business, the pandemic has become The Giant Reset, an unprecedented pause in business as usual that has caused ripples not only in local clubs, but with musicians, the agencies that represent them and design their tours, ticketing companies and record labels.

“It’s complete limbo,” said Joel Nelson, the principal owner of The Catalyst in downtown Santa Cruz. “Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows how to put their tours together or when. Nobody knows anything, really.”

The Catalyst has, for decades, been Santa Cruz’s most prominent music club and, before the shutdown, was featuring live acts several times a week on any one of three stages. Since last March, however, the Catalyst has been trapped in suspension.

“I haven’t even been in the room in five months,” said Nelson.

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
(Courtesy Kuumbwa)

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center, one of the West Coast’s premier jazz rooms and a rental space for all kinds of local and regional acts, has essentially converted its 200-seat club into a soundstage where musicians come, observing safety protocols, and record sessions that Kuumbwa has refashioned into the “Mondays at Kuumbwa” video series. On Feb. 14, the popular Bay Area duo Tuck & Patti will continue a Kuumbwa tradition with their 21st annual Valentine’s Day show, this time as a livestreaming event.

Kuumbwa’s executive director, Bobbi Todaro, said that she’s confident Kuumbwa will again be hosting musicians in its club with audiences, as well as running its café and beverage bar. But, “we just don’t have a crystal ball to know exactly when we can return.”

Unfortunately, music venues are in the back of the line in the business reopening pecking order. And when they are finally given permission to open, no one is sure what kind of federal, state, or local requirements they are going to have to follow to open their doors.

Tuck & Patti won't let people down on Valentine's Day.
(Courtesy Kuumbwa)

If that means reduced capacity to maintain social distancing, for instance, that could wreak havoc with the equations that clubs, musicians, ticket companies, and touring agencies maintain to make sure everyone gets paid.

What a mandated 40 or 50 percent capacity at a club means for ticket prices, the fees musicians demand, the receipts from merchandising, and other factors is still being worked out.

“There are big paradigm shifts going down right now,” said Santa Cruz-based show producer Michael Horne who was riding a string of sold-out shows last year just before the shutdown.

The rules of the game, honed over decades, are all being rewritten. Guitarist Tuck Andress of Tuck & Patti said that music presenters are having to grapple with things they’ve never had to deal with before, “writing new contracts all about protections of the artists, and what they’re going to do about bathrooms at festivals.”

“Nobody can slash their rates,” said “Sleepy John” Sandidge, well-known radio personality. indie producer and impresario of Snazzy Productions which has been bringing folk/country acts to Santa Cruz for more than 40 years. “The artists, the venues, the presenters — we’re all sort of stuck here.”

When will packed shows by favorite local bands like The Expendables, shown here at the Catalyst in 2019, return?
(Courtesy The Catalyst)

Overcoming ‘audience fear’

Laurence Bedford, the owner of the 700-seat Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, has been staying above water sponsoring virtual film festivals. “I don’t think our business is going to take off again until 2022,” he said. “I think 2021 will be about testing the water, figuring out what it all means. I think there will be an audience fear early on.”

As murky as the path to getting back to normal may be, exactly what the music world is going to look like when the clubs are finally open and the pandemic protocols are relaxed is even more mysterious. Is the live music industry going to pick up where it left off with 2022 looking a lot like 2019? Or will the pandemic permanently change how fans experience music, who shows up to see live music, and what that music will even sound like?

In the short term, some audiences may flock back to venues just to experience the heady thrill of being in the same room as live performers. “This is a big break for terrible bands,” cracked Sandidge.

If venues are required to operate at a fraction of their capacity, that could be a boon for middle-class artists with small but devout fan bases. If the 700-seat Rio, for example, becomes a 300-seat venue, “maybe that’s a sellout for an up-and-coming artist,” said Bedford.

The Rio Theater and Laurence Bedford are looking forward to more guests soon.

The pandemic might also break the long-held dominance of baby boomer-oriented artists at the top of the touring food chain. “Maybe the old guys just won’t want to take the chance (of catching the virus),” said Bedford, “or maybe they decide it’s just not worth the money. There may be a whole different attitude toward touring.”

The other X-factor has to do with livestreaming and video technology, the development of which the pandemic has accelerated. Musicians, fans, and presenters are in wide agreement that nothing can replace the live, in-person experience, but just as many are likely to say that the return of live music will not necessarily mean the end of streaming and Zoomcasts.

For one thing, streaming gives artists wary of touring an option to reach their audiences. And older audiences, accustomed to not having to contend with driving, parking, uncomfortable club seats, and crowds, might opt for a streaming experience as well.

Streaming video could also create entirely new platforms to enjoy music. Fifteen years ago, Horne helped launch a start-up called Virtual Venues Network. The idea was to take audio/video feeds from big-name acts at arenas or big festivals and broadcast them, in real time, in small local clubs, much like the pay-per-view model that professional boxing has used for years.

“People would walk into a show with their arms folded,” said Horne, “going, ‘This ain’t really live.’ Thirty minutes and a couple of beers later, they’re like, ‘This is f---in’ great.’”

Dirt Cello
On Thursday the band Dirty Cello will play a virtual show live from the Rio. Their advertisement says “Live at the Rio (sort of)”.
(Courtesy the Rio)

A new kind of music altogether

The business didn’t make it past the 2008-09 recession, but with music fans more used to the idea of live interactive video, the idea could be ripe for revival — only not immediately. “It’s kind of the reverse of the problem we have now,” said Horne. “It’s about replicating what big venues and festivals already have, which is a big assembly of people. But we’re not allowed to have an assembly of people.”

The pandemic and the upheaval and trauma it has engendered could, in fact, produce a new kind of music altogether, much like the tumult of the 1960s changed rock music, or the social and economic dislocation of the 1970s and ’80s produced punk.

Perhaps musicians, newly wary of touring, will turn inward and find new expressions in the studio. Perhaps some musicians will create a sound optimized for the new Zoom/streaming environment.

Bill Welch is leaving Moe's Alley in good hands.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Regardless of what the music of the new Roarin’ ’20s will sound like, local clubs and promoters are counting on the pent-up desire to experience live music to translate into big and enthusiastic crowds — at some point.

“I get calls all the time, ‘When are you opening?’” said Sandidge. “People want to be together again, and go out. That’s just the way we are (in Santa Cruz County). Because we’ve had an overabundance of great music for decades, this has turned into one of the biggest music towns in the country.”

“For those who are well-positioned and feel good about going forward,” said Horne, “this is going to be a rockin’ industry.”

Tell us about your top Santa Cruz music experience here, pandemic or no pandemic . . .