Smaller Columbus concert venues plan return of live music as COVID-19 cases wane

Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch
Conor Stratton, the new owner of Ace of Cups, is preparing for the return of indoor live music to his Columbus venue. After being closed for nearly a year, the bar will reopen on March 12, and the first live show is the next night.

As coronavirus cases drop and more Ohioans are vaccinated, some independent music venues in Columbus are preparing to once again host live performances.

For those desperate to experience the thrill of an in-person concert for the first time in months, that's likely music to their ears. But venue promoters caution that — at least for now — the days of packed houses and raucous crowds are still a thing of the past.

More from USA Today: Concerts were supposed to return this year. Now, it looks like that won't happen until 2022

Since the statewide curfew expired on Feb. 11, some smaller venues such as Natalie's Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview Heights have already reintroduced live concerts with COVID-19-related restrictions. Others — including Ace of Cups near the Ohio State University — will follow suit this month.

Among those safety protocols: limited admission, social-distancing requirements, and table seating only — meaning guests won't be able to congregate in front of the stage.

"I’m burning for music just like anybody but I'm a firm believer in the policy and the guidelines," said Conor Stratton, owner of Ace of Cups. "To me, we can’t rush these things.” 

'A pent-up demand' for live music in Columbus amid COVID-19

This isn't the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic about a year ago that live music has attempted something of a comeback.

Last summer, some smaller venues attempted to begin hosting sporadic concerts after the May 14 Dine Safe Ohio Order gave the go-ahead to musicians and bands to perform in restaurants and bars that met social-distancing requirements. In September, promotion company Prime Social Group introduced the Westland Mall Drive-in concert series featuring local and national acts.

But none of those ventures lasted long as colder weather negated outdoor concerts and COVID-19 cases spiked during the holiday season.

Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen and Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Worthington were among the venues to host some concerts during the summer. When the statewide stay-at-home advisory and curfew went into effect in November, both locations returned to offering only carryout and delivery food services, with live music available only online via streaming, said Charlie Jackson, who along with his daughter, Natalie Jackson, owns both venues.

Natalie's Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview Heights

Live concerts most recently returned to Natalie's Grandview Heights location on Feb. 12, although the venue still is streaming those shows online for people who prefer to watch from home, Jackson said. The Worthington location is slated to host concerts by March 17, which is also the day Natalie’s opens for in-house dining and bar service at both locations.

Although the live streaming concerts have been well-received by music lovers, Jackson said nothing compares to the magic of witnessing performances in person.

“I do think there's a pent-up demand,” Jackson said. “Once it’s safe, people are going to come back strong.” 

Putting preparations, measures in place for a live music comeback

That is the hope of venue owners planning a slate of live music as early as mid-March. Stratton, who recently took over as the owner of Ace of Cups, has been busily overseeing a host of renovations — drywall repair, fresh paint, refinished floors — to the North High Street concert hall and restaurant in anticipation of eager concertgoers returning. 

Ace of Cups had been closed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic before reopening in the fall for some outdoor patio shows. Those ended with the arrival of cold weather, but now Stratton is planning to host the first show on March 13 with Columbus garage rock trio Hydrone

The venue has booked performances every weekend through April, though only 40 people will be allowed per show — well below the typical 300-person maximum capacity, Stratton said. About eight feet will separate each table, and even the performers will be masked. 

“We’re as concerned about everything as everyone else is so we’re not trying to overload it,” Stratton said. “We just want to get it started and see if it works.” 

Although the statewide curfew was lifted, Stratton said Ace of Cups will still close around 11 p.m. or midnight at the latest. 

“Those are kind of partying hours," Stratton said. "My fear is that at that window of time when enough (alcohol) has been consumed — that’s when people get sloppy on the rules and aren’t as easy to manage.”

Not all venues planning for return of large shows

Not all smaller venues are planning to host concerts so soon.

Rumba Cafe on Summit Street will be closed at least through May, said Timothy Eddings, the venue's booking agent.

As for the prospects of larger scale shows, those will take even longer to return.

On Tuesday,Gov. DeWine signed an addendum to his August order on capacity restrictions for sporting events and entertainment venues that would allow them to have up to 25% capacity for indoor events and 30% capacity at outdoor events. The edict applies to stadiums, arenas, theaters and other entertainment venues.

But Scott Stienecker, the CEO of PromoWest Productions, does not envision being able to open Express Live's outdoor venue at anything less than 50% capacity. PromoWest's remaining indoor venues — including Newport Music Hall and the A&R Music Bar —  similarly do not have a target date to resume live concerts, Stienecker said.

In 2018, patrons queue up before a concert featuring country musician Cody Jinks at Express Live.

Stienecker's tentative timeline to resume outdoor concerts at Express Live is July at the earliest and September by the latest, but that's all dependent on statewide mandates, he said. Indoor shows could resume by fall, he added. 

“We don’t know yet if that’s realistic or not,” Stienecker said. “But I think once we’re able to do shows people are going to come back in droves.”

Outdoor venues such as Express Live and even the John F. Wolfe Columbus Commons are the most likely spaces to host larger-scale shows this summer, said Bruce Garfield, executive director of the Columbus Music Commission. However, Garfield said it will take a long time for national acts to tour again.

In the meantime, the music commission has been working on the framework for a "welcome back" show when live music returns in force to the Columbus area. Though Garfield said that concept is in the early stages, he envisions including the myriad organizations in Columbus that create all genres of music.

“The people in Columbus love music so much,” Garfield said. “People are thirsting to get out and see a show.”