Socially Distanced Concerts Come to Music City

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Caverns

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit perform at The Caverns on October 8, 2020, in Pelham, TN. (Cavern photos by Erika Goldring)

While we all continue to cope with the pandemic and learn to apply some common sense to our behavior, we have evolved to a state where some things we once avoided are now conducted within new parameters. By now, many of us have returned to our workplaces and are eating out at restaurants while keeping space between each other and covering our faces. Recently, even live music has returned to Nashville employing these safety protocols that have become our new norm.

The first major local music venue to reopen was the Ryman serving up a few shows to a small and separated seating capacity. They started with a Scotty McCreery show on September 4 offering only 125 of the 2,600 spaces in the pews. A few weeks later, they doubled the ante for an Old Crow Medicine show. Tix had to be purchased in pairs and were a bit pricey, and to help make ends meet, the Ryman sold a livestream of the show for only $10.

Local music club Third and Lindsley also opened its doors for a limited schedule to a smaller crowd. However, like the Ryman, being at an indoor event, even with a limited number of people, may make some of us (myself included) a bit squeamish.

But thankfully some venues have now seen the wisdom of taking things to a safer outdoors, despite the fact that colder weather may soon be a deterring factor. Yours truly jumped in on two recent events and as expected, has survived to tell you about it.

On Sunday night, October 4, I saw my first concert in almost seven months. Marking my return was Nashville singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter at the makeshift City Winery auxiliary space they have dubbed the Music City Wine Garden. To make use of Mother Nature’s air filtration system, they constructed a large tent in their parking lot to fit a stage and about 100 patrons. Like the Ryman though, no single seats are sold and it’s a general admission set up whereby you knew who you’d be sharing the air with. They also are promoting this regular series of shows nationwide for a $10 livestream.

CW - outsideCW - outside2Arriving early at the CW, I understood why I couldn’t valet park (I wouldn’t have anyway) and happily paid $5 at the parking box for my space. On the way in, I appreciated the quick temperature check and while I honestly answered the COVID-related questions about my health, I wondered who would admit otherwise to have to turn around and go home. My buddy and I found some seats inside and we were totally overwhelmed to be at a concert again. Likewise, we were totally satisfied with the safety of the spacing and that all food and bevy orders were taken through an app.

As instructed, I wore my mask when I left my seat and eventually learned how to wear my mask without fogging up my glasses. My complaints about the CW setup were selfishly minor in that the spacing took away the intimacy I so enjoy at the CW and that unavoidably there was nothing they could do about the occasional road noise from the street. (Why someone would be racing down that tiny little side street at such an odd hour was beyond me!)

CW - Ray2CW - insideAs for the show, I wish Rayland Baxter was as prepared as the CW was. After taking almost 10 minutes to get his guitar tuned, he was a bit rusty and seemed unrehearsed. Playing solo, he lacked the discipline that being with a band would have created. More times than was comfortable, he forgot lyrics and stopped songs both old and new. He also got distracted and paid too much attention to what people in the audience were doing. However, it wasn’t a total loss in that he sounded great on his two best songs, “Yellow Eyes” and “Mr. Rodriquez.” What puzzled me was that he played an earlier 4pm set during which you would have thought he might have gotten the bugs out.

My second socially distanced concert adventure was the unexpected return of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Their annual October Ryman run this year would take the form of four nights at The Caverns in nearby Pelham, TN. The shows however would not be in their regular cave venue, but on a newly constructed outdoor space near the cave entrance. About 500 spaces were initially made available via the sale of $125 per space pods of two, four or six persons.

Tix went in a flash for the first three shows and I was lucky to grab a two-person pod when a Thursday night opener was added to the weekend of shows. Later, some additional pods were added as the venue layout came together, and if you were watching and wanted to attend a show, your chances of getting in were pretty good.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Caverns

The 8pm show had a schedule of arrival times based on your seating location and I was in the first batch at 6pm. Pelham is about 90 minutes or so from Music City and we arrived too early for the gates to be open, but early enough to enjoy the feint sound of the soundcheck. After the requisite temperature check and list of questions, we made our way inside to the newly sodded and slightly elevated field. The site was perfect, and we set our comfy lawn chairs in our roped off 10’ by 10’ spot near the front of the stage. With the nearest pod some 12 feet from us, I felt safer at this show than I did at the supermarket earlier that morning.

Like the CW, we were asked to wear masks outside our pod and all concessions were done through an app. I unofficially heard that the original seating plan was increased from around 500 to 800 and based on my scan of the field, they got the number just right. The small audience was safely spread apart with its only downfall being that the applause after each song sounded totally lame as did the one before the encore.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Caverns - Day 4

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Caverns

Jason and the Unit performed together for the first time since shutting down shop in March and since releasing the Reunions LP. Playing like they never missed a beat, the night’s set list was just one song shy of including the entire new record and also featured many old favorites. Things started at 8pm sharp and went for 90 minutes which was somewhat shorter than expected and likely venue-driven to allow time for a safe orderly exit.

Like the City Winery, The Caverns gets an A+ for bringing back live music in a professionally run safe manner. Jason even paused at one point to thank everyone for behaving and not making the band have to stop playing.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Caverns

Yours truly is sure happy to be back in action seeing live music. It got even better this week when we learned that The OG Basement will be doing outdoors shows in its parking lot on weekend afternoons through the purchase of four-person pods. I plan on being there to see singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt on October 24.

It is so great to see shows returning to Music City! Please! Let’s all adapt to these new conditions and embrace the rules so we can all continue to have some fun while still in this mess.

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