Back To Live

- Words: Nick Shilton Images: Will Ireland and Kevin Nixon

As we take our first tentative steps back to normality, we ask: what will the live scene look like, post-pandemic, for prog bands, venues and fans alike? Prog’s Back To Live report investigat­es…

“It will be two years since we played a gig. That’s unheard for us in our 40-year career.” Mark Kelly, Marillion

When Covid-19 struck in spring 2020, no one could have imagined how much of an impact it would have on musicians and artists all around the world. Although it scuppered tour plans and delayed album releases, it encouraged new ways of interactin­g through global livestream­s and virtual events. More than a year later, the music world is gradually reopening to socially distanced gigs and festival pilots, but where do we go from here? As part of Future Publishing’s Back To Live campaign, designed to aid and celebrate the responsibl­e return of live music, Prog goes behind the scenes to find out what things might look like over the next 12 months and beyond.

It’s Saturday May 8, 2021 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida. “Good evening and welcome to Kansas!” bassist Billy Greer booms following the evergreen Point Of Know Return. As the veteran American progressiv­e rockers’ MC, Greer has intoned this welcome hundreds of times. However, it’s momentous and poignant tonight because this is Kansas’ first show for 14 months. “We hope you enjoy the show. We hope we enjoy the show as well. It’s terrifying to be honest,” Greer jests.

A few minutes earlier, Kansas drummer Phil Ehart had taken a deep breath, stepped onto his drum riser and settled behind his kit. Under normal circumstan­ces, a simple ritual dating back to the early 1970s. But after a lengthy Covid-enforced hiatus, this evening it’s less familiar territory.

“There were times when we wondered: would there ever be live shows again?” Ehart says now, recalling the excitement and trepidatio­n as the Clearwater show commenced. With rehearsal halls and other theatres shut, Kansas had been unable to rehearse together. “Everyone had to woodshed at home. So we had some pressure.”

While much of Kansas’ setlist dates back decades, Ehart admits cobwebs needed dusting off. “Everyone was nervous and it wasn’t a normal crowd because they were separated and wearing masks, but we were delighted to be there,” he continues. “Muscle memory was important; it’s amazing how quickly it all came back. We’d done our homework, which paid off big time.”

With social distancing applied, the audience was limited to just over 1,000 – or half its usual capacity. “We’d have been happy playing to five people,” Ehart states. “We’ve never judged our performanc­es on audience size because that’s a rabbit hole you’ll never escape. We deliver 110 per cent every show, regardless how many people are there.” Kansas are back in business.

Live music ground abruptly to a halt in early 2020 as Covid took hold worldwide. Almost 18 months later, some green shoots of recovery are emerging.

Some countries, such as the USA, are further advanced with an apparent return to normality than others. In mid-June the UK postponed the lifting of all lockdown restrictio­ns from June 21 to July 19, inevitably damaging all component parts of the live music scene further, whether bands, crews, booking agents, promoters or venues.

At time of press, a number of major tours are expected to proceed in the UK in the autumn, with Jethro Tull, Genesis and Steve Hackett all scheduled to perform, and Marillion doing so in November. That’s clearly cause for celebratio­n. But what will the live music scene of autumn 2021 and beyond look like?

Firstly, musicians express nearuniver­sal enthusiasm about returning to live performanc­e. “It will be two years since we played a gig. That’s unheard for us in our 40-year career,” Marillion keyboardis­t Mark Kelly says. “The excitement from the fans will just be amazing.”

But after a long absence from the road, will some musicians, particular­ly those of more advanced years, have acclimatis­ed to life away from the rigours of touring and be reluctant to resume? For example, Steve Hackett, Yes’ Steve Howe and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp are all over

70. Or will the desire to perform, the surge of adrenaline and the need for adulation prevail?

“I’m excited we’re going to get back to playing live,” states Howe forthright­ly. “When this [the

pandemic] first went down, I had to console myself that something I’d been doing for over 50 years was no longer possible. That was hard to face up to; I’ve designed my world around playing on stage. To have it back and rebuild the momentum Yes had before would be marvellous.”

While he relishes the prospect of Yes’ UK and European shows in May and June 2022, Howe hasn’t pined for every aspect of touring. “I haven’t missed travelling. I can’t stand tour buses. I tour by car, which gives me more freedom. And I’ve not missed realising I’ve been given the same hotel room as last year. Some of the American hotels are not to give you pleasure, but merely to tolerate!”

After 15 intense years touring with Yes and Asia, Howe’s colleague, Geoff Downes, has enjoyed his downtime but is similarly positive about returning to live duties. “I’ve done my time on the road, but I look forward to going out again. It’s always in your blood,” he declares.

How long does Downes envisage touring? “Everything’s finite. I’m not going to be touring when I’m 90! And while I’m excited to go back out, there’s some trepidatio­n because the parameters have changed. Playing to a packed house, you’ve got that energy from the crowd. Can you get that atmosphere if there’s a space between the seats? There’s some uncertaint­y how it’s going to pan out.”

“I used to be ambivalent about touring; it was more a necessary evil,” Kelly reveals. “But as I got older, I started to enjoy touring more. Having had two years off, I would miss it if I couldn’t do it. Marillion are all looking forward to getting out and playing. We’re not ready to stop yet, that’s for sure.”

“Every musician I know wants to get back to live gigs,” Hackett declares. “Touring is always exciting and this will be even more exciting. Suddenly Cinderella can go to the ball!

I have a very simple philosophy: when the world is open for business, we’ll be open for business.”

He is bullish about the basis on which live shows should happen and unenthusia­stic about socially distanced shows. “Shows are either on or off as far I’m concerned. If we want to reflate economies, it should be all or nothing. I would rather do nothing than do it half-cocked. In terms of any social distancing, people are still going to mix in the loo and buying popcorn. All of life is a risk. And the great problem with restrictio­ns is that once they’re imposed, it’s hard to change them.”

Lulu Davis of Incendia Music, who manages Acolyte and Voyager, sounds a more cautious note: “Right now I wouldn’t advise any of my bands to commit to internatio­nal activity purely because we don’t know what’s going to happen.” The situation is compounded by Australia’s border expected to remain closed until mid-2022. “With Voyager for example, there’s no way we can have that conversati­on yet.”

That band’s Scott Kay puts it pithily: “I miss playing shows a lot; it’s one of

the most important things in my life. I can’t wait to forge more memories.”

Kyros have six shows scheduled spanning late August and early September. “I’m incredibly excited, but also a little bit nervous,” admits vocalist/keyboardis­t Shelby Logan Warne. “It’s been some time since we last performed, so there’s going to be some rustiness but that will be quickly overcome as we get rehearsals underway. It’s our responsibi­lity more than ever to top the standards we’ve establishe­d and make our live shows the best they can possibly be.”

Pendragon were forced to abort their travels mid-tour in spring 2020. “The 16-year-old in me still wants to go out there! We will carry on where we left off,” says Nick Barrett pragmatica­lly, speaking of the band’s scheduled resumption of touring in spring 2022. “But if things aren’t really back to normal, it’s worth postponing until they are. I don’t want to do shows where people are one metre apart, wearing masks and not allowed to sing. That’s not a Pendragon show. It’s got to be same as it was or we need to wait.”

Joe Payne similarly relishes postpandem­ic touring. “Not having the option to do shows has reminded me why I began performing in the first place. I’ll be hitting stages this year more confident, enthusiast­ic and grateful than ever. The real question, though, is will the public be as eager as I am, or will there still be anxiety and apprehensi­on about going out in a world that still isn’t 100 per cent back to normal?”

From the States, IZZ’s John Galgano takes a measured tone:

“We’ve never gone on long tours, but now we will be very strategic about where and when we play to promote our next album. We won’t take for granted any opportunit­y to tour overseas and we’re hopeful that we will be able to tour in Europe and the UK in summer 2022, as we were originally planning to do in 2020.”

Meet and greets and VIP experience­s have become prevalent in recent years across the live music sector as a lucrative income stream supplement­ing ticket and merchandis­e sales. While touring musicians cannot be hermetical­ly sealed, there are contrastin­g takes on the future viability of these.

“There are meet and greets here in the States with the band up on stage and the fans down in front of it, so nobody’s bumping up against each other,” Phil Ehart explains. “Everybody has some separation and there’s no handshakes or hugs, but everyone can get a photo with the band or get

“Suddenly Cinderella can go to the ball! I have a very simple philosophy: when the world is open for business, we’ll be open for business.” Steve Hackett

stuff signed in advance. With Kansas we will figure out how to make it work.”

Marillion’s Mark Kelly is more circumspec­t. “We usually say hello to whoever’s hanging out after shows, but it’s a lot of contact. I think we’ll let somebody else suck it and see how it goes.”

“Meet and greets were great,” Steve Howe recalls. “They gave us a chance to get direct feedback. Some fans were a bit crazy or didn’t follow rules about me not shaking hands or having a cuddle. Those rules, which I’ve been using for years, were considered unusual. Now they would be considered perfectly normal.”

According to Geoff Downes, Yes frequently meet and greet around 75 fans per American show. Howe expects the format of those events to change. “We did them in quite small rooms and it was fairly chaotic for up to an hour after the show. We did the meet and greets with an element of fun and love but we may hold them back for a while or think of something else we can do. We’ll still do VIP tickets, which involve merch and a great seat without all the contact. We want ourselves and our fans to stay healthy.”

Roger Waters’ This Is Not A Drill tour is set to commence next July. “I could see the traditiona­l aftershow parties or backstage passes being phased out this time,” guitarist Dave Kilminster says. “I’ve always been very happy to meet people, but it’s going to make you more guarded.”

Views are generally damning regarding UK government’s support for the arts during the pandemic and the failure to provide a viable post-Brexit solution for touring the European Union.

“I have a problem with anyone who doesn’t classify being a musician or artist as a ‘real job’,” says Joe Payne. “The only support we’ve been offered has either come following politician­s embarrassi­ng themselves with poorly worded statements that led to national outcries, or unions making demands on our behalf.”

John Young of Lifesigns concurs:

“Art in all its forms seems to have been bypassed. While loads of people went on furlough, those who create were generally left to fend for themselves.

It’s ironic that so many found solace in music while those who make it had to fight to survive.”

Kelly’s verdict on the UK government is similarly caustic: “They’ve been terrible. They woke up late to the plight of music venues and self-employed musicians. Brexit is another example how little they thought about things from the perspectiv­e of touring

KANSAS: COBWEBS WELL AND TRULY DUSTED OFF. musicians. But it’s always been that way for the UK music industry.

The government never properly acknowledg­es the many billions of pounds’ foreign revenue that the UK music industry brings in.”

It may prove to Marillion’s advantage that their continenta­l European shows have been postponed until autumn 2022. “Brexit is a nightmare. Whether we’re going to need a carnet for every country and the visa and tax implicatio­ns; it’s still unclear what’s going to happen. We might be lucky with our timing because we’ve got over another year until those shows. Hopefully by then the pandemic will be the least of our worries.”

Howe takes an equally negative view on the UK government’s approach to musicians, Covid and Brexit. “It’s been appalling. Unlike classical

“The 16-year-old in me still wants to go out there! We will carry on where we left off.” Nick Barrett, Pendragon

orchestras, we popular musicians have been ignored. But you have to keep believing there’s a way through this, like when I was 15 and playing in a pub. I believed I could get through to the next stage. The Musicians Union tried relentless­ly to persuade [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson to get that passport for musicians. But he didn’t because we would have to give Europeans the same rights that they’d be allowing us to have. But why wouldn’t we want that? Some of the finest musicians in the world don’t come from the UK.”

“I’m not thrilled about Brexit because it’s affected my ability to play in Europe,” Hackett adds. “We still don’t know at the moment whether we’re going to need visas for every separate European country. That’s taking us back half a century, but it will be a while before we see the full effects of Brexit. I’ve got friends and family on either side of the Brexit divide. Personally, I’d like to be able to go to as many countries in the world with as little hassle as possible.”

While major artists may be able to swallow the costs of visas and carnets, many others may struggle to do. “Brexit is a big problem,” John Young agrees. “In the end given visa charges, Lifesigns may only be able to play in the UK and Canada!”

Nick Barrett is more gung ho about post-Brexit touring: “Since the day I picked up a guitar and decided to be a musician, touring has always been somewhat difficult. We’ve done carnets before and dealt with all sorts of customs and immigratio­n problems at various borders over the decades, particular­ly in the late 80s. If we have to do carnets and visas again, humanity always finds a way through these things.”

Northern Music’s Andy Farrow has experience of management, booking and merchandis­e, working with artists including Anathema, Devin Townsend, Katatonia and Opeth. “I can’t see a return to live in Europe for prog for a while,” he says, given the combined effects of Covid and Brexit. “At the moment it’s very much about touring just in the UK.”

The UK government has not been alone in its comparativ­e failure to support musicians. “The US government’s response to the pandemic in general was haphazard and disorganis­ed from the start. And this includes the support, or lack thereof, for the arts,” John Galgano says. “The US is not a particular­ly friendly country for performing artists to begin with and this was exacerbate­d by the pandemic. Many musicians lost their sole source of income and had to scramble to support themselves without any meaningful acknowledg­ement or

“The only support we’ve been offered has either come following politician­s embarrassi­ng themselves with poorly worded statements that led to national outcries, or unions making demands on our behalf.” Joe Payne

relief from our government. The two relief bills that passed Congress were not nearly enough for our artists.”

Many artists sought to fill some of the gap left by the absence of live shows with paid or free livestream­ing events. InsideOut record label head Thomas Waber highlights Devin Townsend as having performed various livestream­s both for charity and to maintain his own income. “Devin has had a good mixture of being responsibl­e, giving fans something special, and looking out for himself.”

It remains to be seen whether the return of live music will mean the end of paid livestream­s or whether a hybrid model will exist with bands doing both. “I think it depends on the artist,” Waber says. “Some will keep a hybrid model going, and some will stop. And others will maybe think twice about going on tour if all that means is losing money. But musicians want an audience and the thrill of being on stage playing for people. You can’t get that in your studio by yourself with cameras aimed at you.”

Marillion, so often pioneers, will be simultaneo­usly livestream­ing their second London show at the Hammersmit­h Apollo in November. “It’s a way of reaching the people we aren’t otherwise going to be playing to,” Kelly explains. “It may make playing live more profitable. Also some bands may think livestream­ing is an alternativ­e to spending weeks on the road.”

Kelly points to the technology and profile of livestream­ing having accelerate­d because of the pandemic and is excited about further potential developmen­ts. “It will be interestin­g to see how options for a 3D livestream or with VR goggles develop – imagine putting those on and changing your position in the venue. It could be good fun.”

But does any continuati­on of livestream­ing risk eradicatin­g some of their potential audience, who may prefer to remain in the comfort of their homes? “I think it’s unlikely,” Kelly counters. “You can’t recreate the live

“I’ve designed my world around playing on stage. To have it back and rebuild the momentum Yes had before would be marvellous.” Steve Howe, Yes

experience at home. If you’ve got the opportunit­y to see a band and it’s not too far to travel, most people would choose that, even if it’s more expensive, because it’s more of an experience. But livestream­ing is a cool idea and if it’s all you’ve got you might enjoy it.”

Joe Payne is a similar proponent of ongoing livestream­ing to maximise accessibil­ity. “Livestream­ing has its benefits, like reducing overheads such as venue and travelling costs. You could actually say that the pandemic has in some ways made my work more sustainabl­e,” he comments. “I’ll definitely be keen to livestream all my shows from now on. That said, nothing beats being in the room for a gig. I think people will always choose that if they can.”

Livestream­ing is likely to be key to the fortunes of Lulu Davis’ clients Acolyte and Voyager for the foreseeabl­e future given their geographic isolation Down Under. “The more modern, younger artists in the progressiv­e scene are technology savvy. Livestream­s have been successful for us because the outgoings for the artists are fairly minimal. If someone is curious to find out about Voyager in a live setting, they might tune in and then be encouraged to attend a live show in person when it’s possible,” she reports. “But ultimately internatio­nal touring is imperative for an artist’s growth and exposing them to new audiences.”

“I feel the potential of [current album] Colours In The Sun wasn’t fully realised, as we never got a chance to properly road test the songs or the live show. Livestream­ing was the saving grace for me,” adds Voyager’s Scott Kay.

Fingers crossed that live shows really are back for good. As Lisa Wetton of RoSfest says: “If we’ve learned one thing from lockdown, it’s that live music is essential for our wellbeing and our humanity. It brings colour to our lives and inspires our creativity and our compassion.”

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