For more than a year, most music venues in Lancaster County and beyond have been devastatingly quiet.
Now, in just the past few weeks, some of these same venues are cranking it all the way up to 11 as stages big and small, venue operators and bookers are seeing rabid response to concert announcements.
“It’s all over the airwaves and TV and print, and it’s exciting to see,” says Brandon Martin, director of operations at American Music Theatre. “I don’t think we realized how burdened we’d become by the doom and gloom of the industry, that when you start to feel little stirrings of excitement, man, it feels good.”
Just at AMT alone, nearly 50 concerts and events have been announced for the rest of the year and into 2022, after some were rescheduled four or five times.
Tellus360 has begun announcing full-capacity shows for the fall after months of separated, table-seating-only concerts.
“There’s definitely a feeling of optimism, I think there’s also a sense of it not feeling quite real,” says Bill Speakman, Tellus360 music and events manager, as he sits at a table inside the empty Temple space in Tellus360. “I mean, the thought of 400 people in this room again seems so foreign after this long.”.
Tellus360 will soon take on additional shows from one of 2020’s roughest musical losses, the Chameleon Club. The Water Street location that served as both a proving ground for new talent and a welcoming state to established bands for over three decades officially shuttered its doors last June.
“The ‘Chameleon’ name, at this moment and for the rest of the year, is basically just a presenter or promoter, if you will,” explains Chameleon Club booker Brandon Gepfer. Along with a few shows at Tellus360, Gepfer is also hosting a handful of previously scheduled Chameleon events in Berks County at the Pat Garrett Amphitheater.
Though it’s not located in Lancaster County, the biggest stage nearby is Hersheypark Stadium, which recently announced rescheduled concerts from anticipated acts such as Phish and Guns N’ Roses. The stadium has eight shows on the books for this summer and fall, the first of which is country star Luke Bryan on July 9.
“We know how much concertgoers have missed live music, so demand has been strong for our recent show announcements for this upcoming summer,” says Heather Storm, assistant general manager of Hershey Entertainment, which also oversees Hershey Theatre and the the Giant Center. “We look forward to welcoming artists back to our stages again.”
While each venue tells its own version of the same tale, Phantom Power’s in Millersville might be the most wrenching, but perhaps also the most heartening.
After opening in March 2020 and hosting three “regular” indoor shows, owner Gregg Barley was forced to rethink all the plans he had for the first year of his new venue.
“I don’t know if a bigger city would be more impacted or not, because we don’t have many options here,” says Barley, who is also a former booker at both the Chameleon Club and Tellus360.
In the past year, Barley configured an outdoor beer garden that played host to local bands, comedians, a few art markets and even an ad hoc drive-in movie theater setup .
“We learned some very valuable lessons out of necessity,” Barley says. “I was incredibly fortunate to maintain my crew. They stuck with me and, man, it was great. We realized a lot of things we didn’t realize that we could do initially.”
Only in the last few months has Barley been able to balance the indoor and outdoor aspects of the venue, which now allows for early, quieter performances in the beer garden and louder concerts inside later.
Barley also says that he’s had luck contacting bands that he had previously tried at Tellus360 and the Chameleon Club with less luck.
“I initially thought, with my room being a little smaller than the Chameleon and everything, that I might have to compromise on the acts, but I’m finding that that’s not the case,” Barley says.
The city’s music scene is still reckoning with a lack of Chameleon Club, even a year after its official closing. For Gepfer, it’s a chance to spread the spirit of the Chameleon to a number of venues both in and outside of Lancaster County.
With a host of shows and nowhere to host them, Gepfer looked north to Bethel in Berks County, in the direction of the Pat Garrett Amphitheater on the suggestion of friend Frank Phobia.
“I go up there and it’s this huge stage,” Gepfer says. “I never really thought about it until honestly last year, because of the pandemic.”
The journey from a dark rock club to a bright green field might seem like a large jump, but the spirit largely remains the same. Gepfer says that the plan is still for the Chameleon to re-emerge somewhere, but he remains mum on details for now.
“There’s a lot of comments that I read and think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we were doing this,’” Gepfer says with a laugh. “There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved with the Chameleon Club, so I can’t speak for everyone.”
In perhaps a surprising move to some, some of those shows that might have landed at the Chameleon Club will now be happening at Tellus360, though under the booking banner of “Big Fan Presents,” including indie legends Guided by Voices and Philly rockers Sheer Mag.
According to Tellus booker Bill Speakman, shows like those and many others will herald a return to full-capacity shows in the Temple space in the fall. However, unlike many venues, Tellus hasn’t suffered nearly as many stops and starts.
Other than an initial closing (which Speakman says was going to be followed by a “reopening party” after the first two weeks of the pandemic) and another in December following the nationwide COVID-19 spike, Tellus360 has hosted shows on the roof, as well as distanced and seated shows in the Temple with a cap of 75 instead of 400.
Speakman says that nearly every Friday and Saturday on Tellus’ schedule for the remainder of 2021 is filled up, with some dates filled twice or three times over thanks to the venue’s abundance of stages. Tellus’ infamous Friday and Saturday night dance parties, once a bastion of city nightlife pre-COVID, will also return in late July.
Generally speaking, there aren’t many late-night dance parties at the American Music Theatre, but there is a packed concert schedule well into 2022.
“Excited would be an understatement,” Martin says. “This is the day that we’ve hoped and prayed for a long time. Our faith has been tested, our resolve certainly. “
The last concert on the AMT stage pre-pandemic was the Oak Ridge Boys on March 7, 2020, until country legend Marty Stuart and his band welcomed the venue back to life on June 19. Martina McBride, who was to perform on March 12, 2020, will finally get her due more than a year later, on Oct. 8.
“That show is probably on its third or fourth rescheduling,” says Martin.
With space for 30,000 concertgoers, there’s no question that Hersheypark Stadium is the largest concert venue in Central Pennsylvania. Hershey will continue to follow CDC guidelines in terms of masks for the nonvaccinated over the age of 2, Storm says. The fine print for the Aug. 8 Dead & Company show, indicates concertgoers must show proof of vaccination to enter the pit directly in front of the stage.
Storm says that Hershey will rely on guests to follow guidelines based on their own vaccination status, but says that if the artists have additional safety requests, they will work together to find operational solutions.
Both on a national and local level, it’s a concept that venue owners and operators have wrestled with.
“I think everybody that owns something like this probably has at least had it cross their mind,” says Barley. “And if they say no, they’re probably lying.”
“From a standpoint of a venue, it would be a nice thing to be able to do, but with the logistics surrounding that, we begin to wade into some difficult terrain, everything from personal rights to the logistics of getting people into the door,” says Martin. “Then you run unto people not having (their cards) on them and we can’t turn them away because they bought a ticket.”
When you walk through those concert doors again, to see the band or artist you’ve been waiting almost two years to see again, it’s going to be different. It may not be readily apparent, but you’re not “returning to normalcy” — you’re arriving for the first time to feel the type of pounding in your chest that only live music can provide.
And as for the chosen few who provide the entertainment to the masses, well, they’re just as excited as you are.
“I’m so grateful for all the local bands that played here and kept us going, but boy did I ever miss hashing it out with tour managers and putting in an offer for a big band. It’s thrilling,” says Barley. “I think I’m getting trigger-happy though — they’ll say, ‘We need this much money,’ and I’m like, ‘You got it!’ I’m not squabbling over $500 anymore.”
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