Live music is back, in all its unpredictable glory. Once again, artists and their crews are loading up their vans and tour buses, trekking across American highways selling an evening of entertainment and communion (and hopefully a few T-shirts).
But it’s a different world than the pre-pandemic version musicians last traversed and their road back to work has been laden with speed bumps and potholes, not to mention a new set of rules. While on the road, they’ve confronted firsthand the effects of COVID-19 and increased extreme weather incidents accompanying climate change, two issues defining the times. It hasn’t always been easy.
2021 has thrown just about every curveball it has at Brandi Carlile, who unleashed her stunning new album, “In These Silent Days,” earlier this month. Heat domes, hurricanes, wildfire smoke, the pandemic: Since returning to the stage this summer, Carlile has seen at all.
“Dude, it’s like trying to tour in a Cormac McCarthy novel,” Carlile said last month. “You literally feel like you’re touring the apocalypse. I mean, every weekend I have a catastrophe. Like, every show.”
She’s not even exaggerating. It started with her highly anticipated August date at the Gorge Amphitheatre, which got hit with a triple whammy. In the days leading up to the show, Eastern Washington, like much of the Northwest, was on excessive heat watch as Gorge temps approached triple digits. With another dry summer of wildfires, the air quality index — a metric touring artists are getting all too familiar with out West — was also looking questionable, though by showtime both were manageable.
On top of that, a mounting industrywide push toward requiring vaccination or negative test checks culminated that week with the two biggest concert promoters, including Live Nation, which controls the Gorge, saying they would adopt various protocols this fall. The day before the show, the Grant County Health District had announced that more than 160 cases had been traced to the three-day Watershed Festival held two weeks earlier at the Gorge, a figure that’s since risen to 225.
Carlile’s Aug. 14 concert didn’t require proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus test. “Nobody had prepared or had the infrastructure to implement proper COVID protocols yet, so there were no vaccine or negative test capabilities at that scale at that time,” Carlile said. “Within a week there were, but at the moment there wasn’t.”
A Grant County Health District spokesperson could not say whether or not Carlile’s show or any subsequent Gorge events have led to outbreaks, citing a backlog of 300 cases that have not been investigated amid the delta surge. However, a state health official pointed to an outbreak linked to the Bass Canyon festival when Gov. Jay Inslee announced a renewed mask mandate for large outdoor events last month.
A week after the Gorge, a non-COVID illness, and the threat of Hurricane Henri becoming the first to hit New England in roughly 30 years, derailed a weekend of East Coast dates. Back out West, the turbulence continued when wildfire smoke nixed one of two planned shows in Bend, Oregon.
“Then, frickin’ Red Rocks, my drummer gets exposed to COVID, he can’t come to the gigs, and so our hometown hero Matt Chamberlain stepped in and saved the day,” Carlile said. “There hasn’t been one show where it hasn’t been complete damage control the whole time [laughs]. Oh dude, it’s like hellfire.”
Nevertheless, Carlile is busy plotting a more full-forced tour behind “In These Silent Days.” (She’s thinking two-and-a-half-hour sets, playing the album in its entirety.)
The night her Bend show was scrapped, another high-profile Seattle act was just pulling into town. Death Cab for Cutie was slated to play the Les Schwab Amphitheater the next night, although the lingering smoke would force them to cancel, too.
“We were staying across the river from the venue in like a Best Western or something and the air was so bad that the air in my hotel room was bad,” Gibbard said.
The Bremerton-raised indie rocker and avid trail and ultramarathon runner said he can’t recall poor air quality ever thwarting outdoor activities in the Northwest until five or six years ago. He grimly jokes that with some of his big late summer races, there’s often a question of whether or not they’ll happen “because it’s very possible the course could be on fire.”
The impact on his running habit “pales in importance as to the larger ramifications of these environmental changes,” Gibbard said. But it’s also something Death Cab now has to consider when playing amphitheaters, as they did during most of a two-week September run that had several dates spiked or postponed due to weather or COVID-related issues.
“We never had to take out insurance, gig insurance, based on air quality,” he said with a chuckle, also noting the rare Seattle lightning storm that halted a 2019 Marymoor Park show. “That was never something we ever considered having to do, but … we’ve now gotten burned enough times by freakish weather events that when we go off on these outdoor amphitheater, summer fun-run shows, it’s now something that we would be foolish not to take.”
Hiring an infectious disease consultant was another new tour expense this time around. The consultant helped establish protocols aimed at limiting their risk and created guidelines for handling any breakthrough cases among their vaccinated “tour bubble,” which included the band, its manager and a 12-to-14-person crew. “When friends were coming to shows, I kept telling them basically, in our tour bubble, it’s May of 2020,” he said. “It’s like, if you could do it in May 2020, we can do it with you, but everything else we’re not allowed to do.”
As they traveled through Western states, Gibbard was struck by experiencing on a nightly basis the vastly different responses to the pandemic and norms around masking. One night they’d go from a city with high mask compliance to another “where it’s just a free-for-all, it’s as if COVID doesn’t exist.” As much as they could, Death Cab tried to work with venues to implement vaccination and negative test checks, and get staff to adhere to their vaxxed-and-masked backstage protocol.
It wasn’t always possible. At the lone indoor show in Las Vegas, Gibbard said union rules prevented the venue from requiring workers to wear masks or be tested, which made him a little nervous.
“It was exhausting and at times it was incredibly infuriating,” Gibbard said. “We ran the gamut on this tour from Vail, Colorado, where everybody who walked in the door at the venue had to be vaccinated” without a negative test exception, to “playing in Idaho where, granted we’re playing outside, but you’re fighting an uphill battle culturally for getting local crew to wear masks backstage or the catering person to put their mask on when they’re putting the food together.”
Even with all the precautions, one of their crew members caught a breakthrough case, bringing the tour to an early end two dates shy of the finish line. The only symptom the person experienced was a loss of smell — a testament to the vaccines’ efficacy, Gibbard said — and no one else on the tour tested positive.
Back in Seattle, Gibbard has a solo two-night stand at the Showbox Oct. 9-10 (initially scheduled for August) before Death Cab helps the Foo Fighters christen Climate Pledge Arena on Oct. 19. Despite the positive case and having to deal with patchwork protocols on the road, Gibbard believes touring “can absolutely be done safely.” However, he wonders if some artists will avoid playing red states or venues in cities where certain safety guidelines can’t be guaranteed.
“That just screws the people in [those areas], but you know what, tough [expletive],” Gibbard said. “Our music is not overtly political. We don’t make choices as to where we play because of the local politics. But this is one of those situations that I think you’ll start seeing a lot more artists and touring companies taking these things into consideration, because the health of everybody on the tour is of paramount importance for the tour to continue.”