Best of 2021: Year In Review Plus A Forward Peak

Typically, we would generally start with the beginning and work our way to the present, but given all the New Year’s Eve show runs being canceled across the country, and some in the 518 like comedian Sebastian Maniscalco at the Times Union Center, heading into 2022 can feel a bit bleak, daunting, and right back to 2020. The Omicron variant of SARS-Cov-2 has changed the scenario, again. I would like to first point out that we don’t need to despair. While I do believe learning to roll with the changes – a great life lesson, too – is going to be the theme of 2022, the hope is there. Remember, we have the tools, unlike 2020. We have vaccinations, we know masking works (please sip your beer and return to your face), and we know that social distancing, temporary closures and postponements, quarantines, and sanitizing are successful measures for infection control. We have lateral flow testing (at-home screening tests) and we have PCR testing. My scientific heart rejoices with all these tools! Even more promising, researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research announced the development of a “super” vaccine with success in pre-clinical trials. Time will tell what this means overall and specifically among one of the hardest hit industries – music, arts, events, and hospitality – but this brings me great hope for 2022 -2023. 

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Let’s rewind! Bringing in the New Year of 2021 certainly felt more hopeful than I believe anyone could have imagined. We were so beaten down by 2020, and the release of vaccines at the end of December, gave us relief, joy, hope, and a super energetic view of what we expected for 2021 – that we could get back to music. The vaccine rollout was relatively quick, but it still took time for music to kick into high gear. In the first half of 2021, we still saw more streams than live shows, while the summer boomed with outdoor, in-person shows, fall brought us indoors, though those shows did come with trepidation. My one wish for 2021 didn’t seem to come true. I wished that the music industry had made a collective shift to earlier show starts. I see no reason why we still cannot rethink how we do some things. I do think earlier start times may put more people at shows. I’m making this my wish for 2022 as well. I’m also going to wish that SPAC would finally open its lots and gates earlier than 4 pm (at least for the at-capacity shows).

Speaking of streams and making a commitment to keeping live music alive, Caffe Lena set the tone, on every level. Throughout 2021, Caffe Lena live-streamed artists performing on their historic stage. Once we started with live audiences, they again set the tone with reduced in-person capacity as well as being the first venue to require vaccine-only attendees. Safety for all was their number one priority. After the great live music hiatus started to wane, The Gibson Brothers were one of the first in-person shows at Caffe Lena back in April. Eric Gibson reminds us of a wonderful lesson going forward, “I lingered on every note, not taking any of it for granted.” As we all returned the groove of music, settling into the status quo and normalizing show going again, our expectation became that of “the show must go on.” The last couple of weeks with Omicron having other plans for us serves as another life lesson, reminding us that we cannot ever take this (music or science) for granted. Gratitude is another theme for us going forward. 

Prior to the live streams, WEXT Radio saw a boom in new music (and it’s still coming in strong). Certainly, this fits the trajectory of all our beloved musicians also having to sit home in 2020. Excitingly, the Americana and roots Country world saw a reckoning with BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and female artists dismantling sexism and racism that has plagued the industry since the beginning. Changing this paradigm often begins with the arts, and gives me great hope that the ripple effect will move from the periphery and into all institutions. Even more magical, these women – every one of them – pulled each up with them. Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, Natalie Hemby, Margo Price, Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddons, Tanya Tucker, Amythyst Kiah, Adia Victoria, Joy Oladokun, Yola, and so many more, leveraged this pandemic era of live streaming and listener-supported radio to defy the old thinking of labels, creating a bridge that has led to a new dimension of music for 2022 and beyond. While these are national artists, and while successful, it should be noted, that they too suffered show cancellations this year such as Brandi Carlile at Tanglewood and Tanya Tucker at The Egg. Minor setbacks and slight inconveniences only taught us to keep moving forward. 

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The 518 saw a boom, too. I’m still in awe that in the face of absolute uncertainty, while other businesses were failing, the Capital Region experienced a wild phenomenon – new venues were opened and/or new management of the old venues changed the dynamic of music options. Lark Hall opened up in April and has had a steady flow of shows since. Empire Live and Empire Underground, formerly located in Clifton Park as Upstate Concert Hall, re-opened their doors in downtown Albany after a remodel of the old Capital Repertory Theatre relocated. As part of the Proctor’s Collaborative, The Capital Rep opened its new location back in March for a press conference. Empire Live and Empire Underground opened this fall. The beloved Fuze Box also reopened this fall. Under new management are Pauly’s and The Linda both located on Central Ave and the Park Playhouse took over the management at Cohoes Music Hall. Incidentally, Cohoes Music Hall hosted the sleeper show of the year! Andy Falco of Infamous Stringdusters, known for his bluegrass and jamgrass excellence, grabbed his Long Island buddies plus his brother, and delivered an evening of rollicking blues and crooning hymnals that truly felt like church. The old theater simply added to the charm of the show with its ornate ceiling, creaking stairwells, and pews for seats.  The intimacy commanded crowd interactions and no one expected such a show. Proactive music lovers often feel as though we stumbled on a secret when these types of gems pop up; maybe we did. If you were savvy enough, you were let in on the biggest ‘secret’ of the 518, that Phil Lesh would show up at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen. Midnight North, the brainchild of Grahame Lesh, invited his dad to play, at a bar, in Albany. Potentially, this was the biggest deal of the year that the bass player of the famed Grateful Dead would show up. I surmise the success of the smaller venues was due, in part, to having the ability to adjust quickly, create spaces for spontaneity and creativity for shows that were just that much more special, as well as the ability to book shows in less time than large venue shows. While large venues do not have the luxury of flexibility, we still saw great shows. 

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Summer. Whoa! Speaking of the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir’s, Dead & Co brought tens of thousands of deadheads to SPAC, in what felt to some, an overwhelming blast of suddenly being among an extremely large crowd. We had forgotten what that was like. While the show was incredible, and they performed one of my favorite Dead songs (Peggy-O), I had to readjust my own mindset given the surge of people. The first large show for many of us, we found that we had to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable and the anxiety being around that many people bring. Once we overcame those emotions, we settled in well and enjoyed the music, each other, and every other show thereafter. Saratoga Performing Arts Center was able to open this past summer season, albeit a bit later than usual, but they adjusted by extending their outdoor season a little as well. The iconic venue was able to finally showcase the changes they made during their pandemic downtime – a new food court, bathrooms, a second stage, and a small but neat little art gallery, plus an overall facelift. Other outdoor venues seemingly followed the same formula, reluctant to start, but in the end, pulled off successful seasons. Alive At Five started out as pre-taped shows for airing on Thursday evenings, but then as things started to look up, Albany Events decided to open up the season to in-person, live shows. Due to already booked tapings on Wednesday evenings, the 518 were a bit confused when all Alive at Five events ended up on Wednesdays instead of Thursdays. People are creatures of habit, but we have it on good authority that shows will resume on Thursdays for the 2022 season. Mona Golub was able to put together several shows as well. The Music Haven Concert Series in Central Park in Schenectady was a truncated season, but chock full of talent. Ms. Golub has a knack for music and often books both world music and local artists. From the 518, we were treated to the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra with the theme being the Great American Songbook. In a year of uncertainty, this Pops concert brought familiarity and comfort with its musical choices.  

Looking ahead to 2022, we can look forward to our first ever Nipperfest to celebrate all things local. The Nippertown team is putting together an incredible lineup of 518 artists and vendors. The festival is a free event at the Music Haven stage in Central Park on July 23rd. Stay in touch for details to emerge as we head into 2022. SPAC seems to be gearing up for a fabulous summer in Saratoga season as well with an already packed calendar of Live Nation Events. Here’s to hoping we see Phish and Dead & Co added to the already stacked list of talent. Lark Hall is doing something a little different and cool; they are hosting a winter market once a month, featuring local vendors and artists. Stop in on January 9th for hot chocolate and other assorted beverages. While the Palace Theater sat idle for most of 2021, it is gearing up for a wonderful winter season with a two-night Dark Star Orchestra kick off to the New Year (as of typing this article, the show is still happening). I wanted to use a strikethrough to illustrate how quickly things change. As I wrote the above words but before I submitted this article for edits, DSO announced it must reschedule. We are still waiting on new dates. However, Gutherie-Bell Productions will continue to bring music to our venues throughout 2022. All systems, a go!

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While this scientist-DJ cannot predict what will happen epidemiologically with COVID and its variants, I do believe the tools we have will go a long way to keeping our 518 music scene vibrant and alive regardless. I tend to approach my show going with a risk assessment then a calculated risk, and I anticipate I will continue to do so in 2022. While I do not condone using, I do support harm reduction. Given my experience with infectious disease, I have noticed one area that tends to be overlooked. If your risk assessments lead you out to a show, please be mindful that sharing joints, pens, bowls, cocaine straws or other paraphernalia can and will increase your likelihood of becoming infected. Ideas would be either bring enough for everyone to have their own or wipe pens with alcohol in between use, otherwise, these days, sharing is just not caring. Just as we do within our personal lives, taking inventory, reviewing the previous year, and setting an intention for the new one ahead, we can look at the awkwardness of 2021 and come out stronger for 2022. One of my favorite things about 2021 was the visible vulnerability of musicians. I LOVED the authenticity artists were forced to face given some of their first shows back meant zero rehearsal time. I hope we don’t lose that vulnerability. May we roll with the changes, greet every show with gratitude, embrace big topics like racism and sexism, look out for each other at shows, we remain flexible, and not allow minor setbacks to keep us down; let this be the preeminent vibe going forward. May you have a wonderful 2022-year in music, but more so, may you, too, hang on every note. 

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