Downtown venues prepare for return to the stage

Crab Action performing at The Golden Pony in 2019. Photo by Calvin Pynn.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

After more than a year of relative silence downtown due to COVID safety protocols, the Friendly City’s music scene is poised to come roaring back in 2021.  

In fact, some venues have already begun test runs as they prepare to welcome back old-fashioned full houses. The Golden Pony’s downstairs bar area – which houses its stage and has a rated capacity of 175 people – has been empty since March 2020.

Last weekend, however, less than a week after Governor Ralph Northam lifted some pandemic safety restrictions in Virginia, the venue hosted an impromptu show originally intended to be live-streamed only. Harrisonburg punk rock band Crab Action – regulars at the Golden Pony whose album release show was one of the early events nixed by the pandemic – ushered the return of in-person live music. The band played in the variety show “Empire of Excellence,” a recurring production during COVID that has included musical guests recorded at the Golden Pony.  

“We’ve done a lot of Facebook Live stuff and lots of over things over the course of the pandemic, this one was kind of a hybrid,” said Golden Pony owner Paul Somers.  

The idea ease back into in-person shows came at the last minute, and with a healthy dose of caution. 

“[Empire of Excellence] was just like you know – what would it be like if we wanted to have some people come and make it mandatory that you have to be vaccinated, and let people see a show and just pop the seal. And that’s what we did,” Somers said.  

About 75 people attended Crab Action’s show, as promotion was minimal and mostly word-of-mouth in order to keep the crowd small. As Somers suspected, it was an emotional return.  

“They just hadn’t been in the space for so long, and people were crying, I knew it would be special,” Somers said.  

The first major touring artist scheduled to play at the Golden Pony since the pandemic will be Delaware post-hardcore band BoySetsFire, on Sept. 23. According to Somers, some smaller, local shows may be scheduled in the meantime, albeit at a gradual rate.  

“I’m not looking to fill every day or anything like that, but I think we’re gonna go ahead and bring the DJ’s back on weekends, and have a limited capacity and just kind of start warming up to a full schedule,” Somers said.  

It’s an approach that Clementine Cafe has also taken with its stage over the past year, having held limited-capacity jazz nights every weekend since October. A free show on Friday night by Charlottesville singer-songwriter Will Overman will be the venue’s first in-person show announced since Virginia’s COVID restrictions were lifted.  

The Arts Council of the Valley also voted last month to reopen Court Square Theater, which closed during the pandemic due to restrictions, as well as a lack of funding in the city’s budget this fiscal year. It’s uncertain when the theater, which regularly showcased major touring acts and local artists prior to the pandemic, will be able to host concerts again, but the Arts Council’s Executive Director, Jenny Burden, expects they will return this year. 

An official programming schedule is pending as the theater is in the process of hiring a managing director and building partnerships with other organizations to support it.

“We are planning to do a lot more live performances than we used to do. We used to show a lot of first-run films, and we still show films, they may be second-run, but we still hope to do a lot more performing arts,” Burden said.  

Because Court Square Theater primarily operated as a movie theater prior to the pandemic, the stipulations on number of showtimes and frequency of shows that movie studios require to show first-run films did not allow the theater much time for other entertainment.  

“We used to have a lot of community folks coming to us wanting to do stand-up comedy, or schools wanted to use it for their one-act plays and we could never really accommodate them,” Burden said.  

However, she said the theater’s reopening is an opportunity for a reboot that allows for more community-oriented programming.  

“We’ll still do the old things, we still want to have concerts, and Valley Playhouse will be in there. But we also want it to be more of a community theater,” Burden said. “And we’re hoping that if we don’t just have to show first-run films that the community will be able to get in there more.”

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