As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, some venues plan for summer music, others wait for 100% capacity

‘It’s been rough. Music’s a big part of my business,’ one McHenry business owner says

Concerts and live music have mostly been put on pause since last March when the state entered a stay-at-home order, and now, even as bars reopen and larger crowds can gather, what concerts and live music will look like this summer still is being worked out.

Many McHenry County venue and festival organizers still are working through the financial impacts of last year’s cancellations and closures. Some bar owners say live music won’t return to their establishments until 100% capacity is possible.

The Woodstock Folks Festival continues to plan out its festivities for this summer, festival president Carol Obertubbesing said. By the end of April, the its board of directors will make a decision between an in-person, virtual or hybrid event.

“I think we’re not alone in thinking that hybrid is probably the way of the future,” Obertubbesing said. “People have become so used to getting things online now. This includes performers. If you think about it, someone based here in Illinois can now reach someone in Massachusetts or California.”

Last year the festival was forced to move online, accomplishing the shift in a matter of two weeks. About 1,200 people tuned into the festival on the day of, a large jump from its average attendance of 500 to 700 of previous years.

The Dole Mansion also plans to host its annual Lakeside Festival this year pending approval from the city of Crystal Lake, said Jody Fields, the venue’s business and accounting manager. If approved, the festival would run July 1 to 4. In addition to the usual festivities, 15 bands are on track to perform.

The Listening Room at the Dole, though, has remained mostly closed.

“I can only fit maybe 30 people in there socially distanced. I can’t turn a profit on it with those few tickets,” Fields said. “We hope to be opening the Listening Room soon. We really hope to be offering regular weekly concerts in there as soon as it’s safe to have more people in there.”

Since the Dole’s music venue won’t be open indoors just yet, outdoor music events will be hosted again over the summer.

As a response to the pandemic, the Dole began Music Under the Trees last summer, offered as a way for the community to safely gather and listen to music.

“We painted safety circles on our front lawn,” Fields said. “People would come and bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn and listen to music. We did that for four Wednesday evenings last year. We sold out all but the first one, so we’re going to do that again. The community really loved it.”

This year’s Music Under the Trees will begin on May 26 and run every other Wednesday.

An alternative for those who prefer the comfort of their own home is Woodstock Wednesdays.

“The purpose of Woodstock Wednesdays has been to give our audience music year-round, not just during the summer festivals and spring concerts,” Obertubbesing said. “We thought this was especially important throughout the pandemic when people would be spending so much time inside.”

This also gave musicians a platform during times when it was difficult to book gigs. Given the chance to listen to the musicians online, the hope was listeners would then go support musicians and buy their music or attend their concerts.

Some musicians have seen the payoff through higher CD sales, and one artist was even offered a contract from a local school district after learning about all the technology behind his video performance.

While many venues stepped up to the challenges presented by the pandemic, the financial hit was felt across the board.

“The biggest impact on us, which was really huge, was not being able to have Lakeside Festival last year,” Fields said. “It’s actually our biggest fundraiser. The Dole, Lakeside Legacy Foundation puts that on, and it was a big hit to us financially.”

However, community donations, reserved funds and a restructured budget put them in a better spot, Fields said.

The Other Side, a sober bar in Crystal Lake, also suffered from the pandemic.

“There are a lot of unforeseen consequences of the pandemic, especially for people in recovery and people with mental health issues. Not being able to have that social interaction has been difficult, so I think a lot of folks like us are trying to block that line of being safe and also being open as much as possible,” said Bobby Gattone, executive director of the Other Side.

Since the shutdown, the sober bar has not fully reopened, hosting a number of meetings but no music events.

“Maybe this summer will be a bit safer, but we don’t want to push it,” Gattone said.

The bar has used this time to renovate the building, and it will hopefully be done by August, Gattone said. The bar will feature a new coffee shop, which Gattone believes will drive in acoustic musicians.

Traditional bars have suffered from the pandemic as well, Sammy’s Bar and Grill in Huntley being one of them, owner Diane Walsh said.

“With [COVID-19], of course, we couldn’t have any entertainment inside, and in the summer, we did have a couple of bands play for us,” Walsh said. “They actually did a free concert for us to help with the business.”

No advertising was done to draw in crowds, and it was done as a complimentary for those that dined at the bar, Walsh said.

“We may do some outside bands this summer, but we’re not focusing on that because we really don’t want to encourage a situation that would be unsafe,” Walsh said.

An alternative that Sammy’s Bar and Grill has offered, per customer request, has been karaoke nights on Tuesdays. The events are socially distanced and follow public health guidelines. All equipment is sanitized after each use, Walsh said.

Fire Bar & Grill in Crystal Lake had a similar experience.

When the bar closed down, they focused on the restaurant side. The food kept the business afloat, owner Nino Hermes said.

Curbside pickup, Doordash and local support led to an expansion of the kitchen because it was tough to keep up with the to-go orders, Hermes said. The bar also plans to add in a garage door to create an “open feel” and make their customers feel more comfortable.

“Bands were always our main attraction on Fridays, so removing the bands has totally taken a toll on us,” Hermes said.

Like other bars, Fire Bar & Grill does not plan on hosting music events until they are allowed to have 100% capacity.

“At this point, we’re just happy to be open,” Hermes said. “The bands will eventually be back into our rotation.”

Hermes stays mindful of what his new family-friendly bar could look like once bands are back. This could lead to possibly hosting music events once a month rather than every week, Hermes said.

“We did have a lot of local support, which we put on our backs now,” Hermes said. “I think it’s really important that I do address that I appreciate all of the customers.”

Mackey’s Hideout in McHenry began hosting outdoor music events again, including Earth Mother on Saturday. Although the bar used to host various indoor bands, they don’t feel it’s safe enough to go back to it yet, owner Bill Mackey said.

“It’s been rough. Music’s a big part of my business,” Mackey said. “We were probably down 70% [in] sales.”

Carina Lopez

Carina Lopez working as a reporter for the Northwest Herald as part of a spring 2021 intern. She is currently also reporting for the Royal Purple at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Carina has a year of professional experience in the media industry. She is a local in the McHenry County area and enjoys community events.