The irony of asking an audience to sing “Stand By Me” during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t lost on Travis McCready.
But the audience members happily did it — while socially distanced on Monday night throughout TempleLive’s performance hall. That is, when they weren’t screaming their approval of the Bishop Gunn frontman’s blues riffs and Chris Cornell-esque vocals.
“(Travis) felt it was the best show he’s ever played,” said TempleLive Vice President Mike Brown.
Possibly the first-ever socially distanced concert during the pandemic was held Monday evening — the first day Arkansas venues could host concerts and events like it under directives — in the Fort Smith performance venue. Venue directors put on the show after they applied to move it from its original Thursday date to comply with the state.
Brown after the show said he thought the event “went great.”
“Watching from the front of the house, the video and the comments from the live stream we were getting online, I think it was phenomenal,” he said.
Venue directors scheduled the concert the Friday prior to the reopening date for Arkansas venues on April 22, anticipating Arkansas officials would allow venues to reopen on May 4 like they did churches. The concert met all state directives including mandatory face coverings and crowds at no more than 33% capacity in the week leading up to the original concert date.
They applied on Thursday to have the concert moved to Monday after the state issued a cease-and-desist order and revoked their liquor license, promising it back only if they rescheduled the show.
“We fought the law, and the law won,” Brown said at a Thursday news conference.
The venue on Monday night had sold around 220 tickets, just shy of the almost 21% audience capacity for the event. Brown said he had to reduce the number of tickets for the event because of the number of reporters, photographers and videographers present. There appeared to be less than 100 people in all at the concert Monday.
Audience members sat in “pods” socially distanced within rows of chairs blocked off with caution tape in the performance hall. Arrows marked the walkway directions throughout the hallways and stairs.
Michael Tagge, who came to the show from Baton Rouge with his wife Artiss, said he believes TempleLive managed the event well.
“You can’t eliminate the chances of spreading the virus, but you can minimize when you’re out in public,” he said.
Fort Smith native Bill Lavvorn, who attended the show because he “was so bored” staying at home during the outbreak, said he believes Fort Smith was a low-risk place to hold the concert. Sebastian County on Tuesday morning had one active COVID-19 case and no deaths, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
“You’ve got to support it when you can and enjoy some live music,” he said.
McCready began his set by himself with an acoustic guitar in an armchair singing Bishop Gunn numbers and an Audioslave cover. He was later accompanied by his bassist and drummer, who helped him perform songs including Bishop Gunn’s “Makin’ it” and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”
The band fell back for one song titled “Dollhouse Windowpanes,” which McCready said he and his bandmates wrote before the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lyrics were about wishing for a simpler time.
“It kind of relates to (the pandemic),” he said.
McCready ended his set with a duet with Brown’s daughter Lauren and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.”
Experience Factory President John Loken, who filmed the show and interviews with fans for a documentary, called McCready’s performance and audience interaction “fantastic.”
“I was trying to figure out, ‘What are the steps to getting back to live?’ In taking all of those steps, are you kind of removing any of the magic of it and the intimacy of it?” Loken said. “I feel like this is going to be a blueprint for what’s to come.”
On the flip side, Loken also said revenue could be a challenge for venues who wish to hold concerts during COVID-19. But Brown said it was never about the money.
In fact, Brown said he plans to host more concerts at TempleLive.
“This was what I hope everybody felt who got to come back and have music and excitement and fun in their life,” Brown said.
“I think we’ll see more iterations (of this),” said Loken.