It’s been two years since we’ve had a proper summer concert season. For a while, it looked like 2021 might bring another summer spent in hibernation, with a handful of Washington’s marquee festivals throwing in the towel for the second consecutive year amid the COVID-19 chaos.
Though it was too late for some, Gov. Jay Inslee’s May 13 announcement that the state would fully reopen by the end of June meant that bands and beer gardens would convene again under the sun.
“It was like we’d been waiting for Christmas to come for more than a year and it finally came,” says Jeff Trisler, head of Live Nation’s Pacific Northwest division, which runs the Gorge Amphitheatre and Auburn’s White River Amphitheatre. “It’s such a joyous time for all of us — everybody in the world and all of us who work in the concert industry, who were feeling like we were never going to be able to do this again. It’s like suddenly the floodgates have opened up.”
The floodgates may have opened, but it’s going to be a minute before the water starts flowing. By the time Inslee pegged that June 30 reopening date, with the potential to resume full-capacity events sooner if statewide vaccination rates hit 70%, venues had mostly cleared their concert calendars through July or August.
As it stands, the annual Watershed Festival (July 30-Aug. 1), the state’s premier country fest at the Gorge Amphitheatre, could be the first large-scale show without capacity limits to kick off the outdoor concert season. A week or so after country fans are scheduled to swarm the Gorge, the White River Amphitheatre hopes to reopen with pop rockers Maroon 5 (Aug. 10) kicking off their North American tour.
Trisler says there’s “no question” that those earliest August shows at the amphitheaters will happen as planned. But given the rolling nature of tour cancellations and rescheduling, any summer tour date announced more than a month ago seems fluid. Despite Inslee clearing the path for July concerts, Trisler doesn’t expect to add anything else before August, though some unannounced shows are in the works for August or later.
“Once that word came down that we were back in business June 30, we have been pedal to the metal trying to get as many quality things together as we can, in addition to what we had sitting there waiting to go,” he says.
With the first two months of summer clipped, both venues are stretching the season into early October, with events like EDM festival Beyond Wonderland (initially slated for June) now set for Oct. 1-2 at the Gorge.
Ryan Crowther, who runs the Everett Music Initiative, saw the writing on the wall. After taking his Fisherman’s Village Music Festival online last year, the event producer started planning a later date this year for his laid-back fest, typically held in late May in various downtown Everett venues. Though a formal announcement is expected mid-June, the small fest heavy on local and Northwest artists is planned for Sept. 9-11, with Pacific Northwest favorites like Built to Spill, The Microphones and Seattle’s Lady A playing an outdoor main stage and a few indoor venues.
Despite the governor’s green light, Crowther’s doing his best to keep his three-day fest — which peaks at around 3,000 to 4,000 people on its busiest day — nimble in case the state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hand down any unexpected guidelines before opening night. After being thrown a year’s worth of curveballs, Crowther is cautiously optimistic.
“If we’ve learned anything the last year, it’s that we can’t predict anything and good news doesn’t always just mean good news,” he says.
Beyond Fisherman’s, Crowther has a live music series in the works with Dick’s Drive-In set for Friday nights in August, bringing top local bands to downtown Everett’s Wetmore Theater Plaza. Smaller community-focused block parties and pop-up outdoor shows could help carry the live music torch during an in-between summer in which many tentpole events like Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot will take another year off.
For Summer Meltdown organizers, Inslee’s announcement was too little too late. The husband-and-wife team behind the Darrington festival merging jam rock, electronic music and regional all-stars had already set a May 7 deadline to decide whether or not to forge ahead with their four-day camping festival in early August.
Roughly a week earlier, Inslee had hinted at a possible rollback in the state’s phased reopening plans amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. The venue at which they were planning to hold the festival was already wary of hosting one of the first large events post-shutdown, says Summer Meltdown founder Josh Clauson, and delaying the decision came with increased financial risk. Amid the pandemic, artists and vendors are requiring higher deposits and guarantees, Clauson says, meaning independent promoters like him and his wife could be stuck with a hefty bill should the show not go on.
Weighing the potential of an unexpected case surge or the state handing down new event guidelines, Clauson decided it was too big of a gamble — especially while venue operators and event producers are still waiting for long-delayed federal relief grants. Days after Inslee’s announcement, Summer Meltdown pulled the plug on what would have been the 20th edition of the festival that draws around 5,000 per day.
“It felt bad,” Clauson says of the timing. “That was part of the anguish. … Now all of a sudden the focus gets turned to the event operators — ‘We need you guys now!’ — after waiting for months for any kind of relief and any kind of attention on ways we could move forward.”
Among our region’s summer event staples, it’s a hodgepodge of late starts, cancellations and altered plans. Marymoor Park’s concert series is currently set to return with bizarro alt-rockers Primus on Aug. 14. Chateau Ste. Michelle plans to host live music in some capacity this year, but as of this writing, wasn’t ready to uncork the details.
While KEXP’s Concerts at the Mural is off, Jimmy Fallon’s favorite radio station is curating a scaled-down, all-local version of the Woodland Park Zoo’s popular ZooTunes series. Although the first show (currently The Posies on July 18) comes weeks after the state’s reopening date, zoo brass will keep the fan-favorite series at half capacity throughout the summer, selling tickets in socially distanced pods for up to 10 people.
Capping ticket sales at 1,800, just below 50% capacity, provides some leeway should a new variant force a rollback, says the zoo’s concert manager Romy Brock, though she’s confident the series will kick off as planned. There’s also the social considerations as people resume activities they enjoyed before the pandemic. “We want people to feel comfortable and not be a free-for-all, for lack of a better word,” Brock says.
While outside food will not be allowed this year, the assigned pod seating means fans won’t need to arrive early to stake out prime real estate on the lawn. And so far, the lack of national headliners hasn’t seemed to deter fans, with the first three shows announced quickly selling out.
“They just want to be in the meadow with their friends and have it done safely,” Brock says. “They want to have that experience again.”
7 big gigs
As summer concert season slowly returns, in addition to the above, here are seven dates worth circling on the concert calendar this summer and into the fall. (As with all events these days, best to check if there are any changes before you go.)
’Shedders are already stocking up on Solo cups in hopes of reopening the Gorge — and Washington’s festival season — with the state’s premier country fest. Country stars Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett are scheduled to serenade 20,000-some pairs of cutoff shorts and American flag banana hammocks. (July 30-Aug. 1, watershedfest.com)
Echoes Through the Canyon: Brandi Carlile with Sheryl Crow
The hometown folk rock ’n’ roller’s last album — which, you know, did OK — marked a bit of a shift from some of Carlile and the Hanseroth Twins’ more “beer garden” material. But it’s gonna be a party when Carlile resumes her budding tradition of annual blowouts at the Gorge. (Aug. 14, livenation.com)
Dave Matthews Band
With Bumbershoot still hibernating, the jammy king of pop rock and his crack band have Labor Day weekend largely to themselves for DMB’s annual three-night stand at the Gorge. Be on the lookout for lingering Phishheads, as jam rock titans Phish hold court at the landmark venue the weekend before, Aug. 27-29. (Sept. 3-5, livenation.com)
Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Weezer
Instead of kicking off the American leg of the Hella Mega Tour in Seattle, as initially planned, this three-headed rock monster will end its summer run at T-Mobile Park. As of this writing, it’s the only stadium show on the books for 2021. (Sept. 6, ticketmaster.com)
One of Greater Seattle’s chillest venues, Marymoor Park’s summer music series doesn’t start to heat up until late August this year, with the Northwest indie rock giants blowing through in September supporting “The Golden Casket,” their first album in six years. Synth-pop staples Future Islands sweeten the deal. (Sept. 11-12, marymoorconcerts.com)
The Washington State Fair isn’t missing a beat, with a full slate of shows starting Sept. 3 with Roger Daltrey. Amid the usual mix of country stars (Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker), legacy acts (Beach Boys, Ice Cube) and contemporaries (Bishop Briggs), Seattle rap star and aspiring golfwear icon Macklemore returns to the grandstand to rock a home state crowd as the fair winds down. (Sept. 24, thefair.com)
The pandemic delayed the dawn of a new era for Gorge ravers, with the Northwest edition of Beyond Wonderland taking over for the embattled Paradiso as the landmark venue’s signature EDM event. The Gorge debut that was supposed to take place last year now moves to this year, with The Chainsmokers, Rezz, Steve Aoki, Alison Wonderland and more leading a lineup of all-star DJs. (Oct. 1-2, livenation.com)
This story has been updated to remove mention of an Avett Brothers appearance at WaMu Theater this summer. That show has since been rescheduled to July 17, 2022 at White River Amphitheatre.