While touring has all but ground to a halt for the past seven months, some big-name acts are beginning to venture out again. And in the Palm Beach County market, they have a found perhaps the perfect venue: The Pavilion at Old School Square.
A few weeks ago, the Pavilion re-launched its popular Friday concert series, which has proven to be a harbinger of things to come; later, it announced that feel-good genre hopper G. Love would be performing Nov. 24. And just this morning, three more national acts were announced. Dec. 5 marks the return of “Carols by Candlelight” with Matthew and Gunner Nelson, sons of proto-rocker Ricky Nelson; Dec. 10 will see a performance from soulful singer-songwriter KT Tunstall; and modern swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will play a holiday-themed show Dec. 11.
“It’s a different and unique situation that’s happening now, where a lot of the larger organizations you would normally see putting together major tours—the AEGs, the LiveNations—are still dark at the moment, because they can’t commit to the variations in everybody’s state and county rules and regulations,” says Holland Ryan, Old School Square’s chief operating officer. “Whereas these artists, for the most part, are comfortable with getting out and doing a smaller show. So what would normally be a giant 20-tractor-trailer type show, they’re coming out in a bus, because they just want to play to their audiences. They’re just getting back to their roots, and playing their music. So they’ll do little shows in various states and see how it goes.”
That Old School Square is now serving as a central spot for regional tours in South Florida is a victory for what might be called the campus’ incremental approach to reopening. While Ryan says his team “started to come up with ideas on how we could have a safe and sustainable concert experience for our patrons as early as April,” they held off until the time was right, watching as other live-music guinea pigs opened prematurely—like Funky Biscuit, which opened, then closed, then opened again this week, and Boca Black Box, which opened, then closed, then reopened again.
All the while, Old School Square was redesigning its Pavilion capacity to meet CDC guidelines for social distancing. At great expense, it installed 3,000 linear feet of French barricades and 123 pod seats for parties of up to four. It is in the process of applying for GBAC STAR Accreditation, the gold standard for safety compliance in COVID-era hospitality and entertainment. This means that concerts at the Pavilion, even when sold out, will look quite different from their previous capacity, which could reach 10,000.
“While the state has opened up all restrictions and there’s no social distancing required of us any longer, Old School Square is wanting to take that a step further and say, no, let’s start out safe, let’s get everybody to know the rules, what we’re doing, and if everything goes smoothly and the numbers decrease, we’ll increase our capacity,” Ryan says. “But right now, we’ve dropped our capacity to 500.”
As a result of the added cost to research and install the new seats and barricades, the venue’s Friday concerts are no longer free, but they’re not terribly expensive either. Standard pods for four run $45, or about $11 per ticket, and VIP pods for four run $150 and include table and bar service. Prices vary for the national touring acts.
So far, Ryan’s patient and rigorous approach has been paying off. The return of Friday concerts, last month, brought a 90-percent capacity despite being announced just nine days in advance.
“There was a lot of interest, not only from patrons but also a lot of other municipalities that have come by and subsequently reached out to ask how we did this, how did we push this through the cities, the counties?” Ryan says. “At this point there are five municipalities that reached out personally to me, to say, ‘can we work with you to create a plan, because we’re desperate to get started again. Our audiences need this. How can you help me?’ And I’m working with them independently, with Old School Square, to show them a way to move forward in these crazy times.”
In the live music world, we still may be a long way from that much-desired “return to normal,” if such a distinction is possible. But for those of us a little tired of virtual everything, Old School Square is helping us getting a little bit closer to the energy and electricity that only a performer and fan, symbiotically connected in the same space, can generate.