LOWELL — While unsurprising, the recent announcement that the 2021 Lowell Folk Festival had been canceled still sent a ripple of sadness through music lovers in the Mill City and beyond.
Though the coronavirus vaccine is being rapidly deployed, there wasn’t enough time to ensure that the iconic event could go off without a hitch so, as the saying goes, better safe than sorry.
Of course, as one music festival went away for yet another year, the natural follow-up question was: What will become of the Lowell Summer Music Series? After all, if logistics didn’t allow for thousands of music lovers and festival attendees to navigate through the cobblestone-lined streets on a hot July weekend, how could 1,500 or so music fans pack Boarding House Park all summer?
Remember, the Lowell Summer Music Series didn’t happen last year either, so the natural inclination would be to think that if the Lowell Folk Festival can’t happen, neither can the Lowell Summer Music Series.
Think again, said Peter Aucella, general manager of the Lowell Summer Music Series and Lowell Festival Foundation, who is among the chief architects of both programs.
“We have been actively planning the 2021 Lowell Summer Music Series,” Aucella said, “though some show dates may move later than June, and we have several more artists beyond what you see on our website that are being cautious about announcing so they don’t have to reschedule after folks have purchased tickets if health conditions require that.”
Thus far, there are nine shows in the 2021 LSMS lineup: Gaelic Storm, June 19; Los Lobos, June 24; Jake Shimabukuro, June 25; Joss Stone, July 10; Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, July 16; Colin Hay Band, Aug. 7; JJ Grey & Mofro, Aug. 12; Tower of Power, Aug. 21; and John Hiatt, Sept. 3.
“It’s a very different issue than the Lowell Folk Festival, where the audience descends on the downtown and takes up every empty space,” Aucella said. “LSMS can limit capacity and reduce the number of attendees, but the Folk Fest really can’t do that, especially at places like JFK and the Dance Stage.”
Aucella is pleased with the confluence of recent virus-related developments, including the Biden administration’s stated goal of getting everyone vaccinated who wants it by the end of May; Gov. Charlie Baker allowing concerts at 50% capacity with a maximum of 500 people; and Baker reopening elementary schools in early April and allowing events at Fenway Park and TD Garden at 12% capacity; and Lowell’s removal from the high-risk community list, although it was placed back in that category last week.
Aucella said there’s also plenty of uncertainty, including:
— “If people get their shots by the end of May, is that really just the first shot? Will it be the end of June by the time folks get their second shot? Then two weeks for herd immunity?”
— “Will Baker increase concert capacities for summer? Right now, singers and horn players need to stand 10 feet apart? How would that work with Tower of Power? Six-feet social distancing is required between audience members of different groups of people.”
— “Reopening everything, including restaurants, schools, stores and events could mean a spike in infections, which could lead to a retrenching.”
Boarding House Park and the Lowell Summer Music Series enjoy certain advantages that will allow them to have the concert series. For instance, Boarding House Park is outdoors and there is no fixed seating, allowing people to spread out.
Aucella said the start of the series can be delayed from mid-June to mid-July and run into September. “We are working on some date changes now that will be announced soon.”
LSMS is prepared to operate at 50% capacity, which would allow for just over 900 people (the official capacity is 1,848 so 50% would be 924 people). “If 50% with a maximum of 500 people is OK now, I’d like to think it would be possible to get to 50% with a maximum of 924 people by July.”
LSMS isn’t booking blockbuster shows that would require full capacity. You won’t see Lyle Lovett, Indigo Girls, B-52s, Beach Boys, etc. That allows lower-cost acts to operate within the capacity limits.
“Some of the shows we have booked will certainly ‘sell out’ and not meet all demand. Based on past shows, that would probably include Kenny Wayne Shepherd as well as newcomer Joss Stone,” Aucella said.
And finally, what about rain outs? There were none in 2019, the last year the series was held, but the Lowell High School auditorium, where shows are held if rain does fall, holds 1,600 people. LSMS would need approval to run LHS at 60% indoor capacity if a show had maximum sales at 50% outdoor capacity.
Aucella said LSMS can make operational changes, including reducing entry lines thanks to a move to digital tickets, allowing attendees to be scanned into the park with minimal delay. Food concessions may be limited and restroom cleaning upgraded. There may also be no opening acts to reduce the amount of time people are together.
Aucella has participated in regular virtual meetings with the Save MA Stages group that is assessing reopening strategies. The group includes venue representatives from Narrows in Fall River, Center for the Arts Natick, Regent Theatre in Arlington and The Town & The City Festival in Lowell.
He adds that a number of groups are providing technical assistance to the concert industry with detailed reopening plans, including the National Independent Venues Association and The Event Safety Alliance.
“Safety will be the key,” he said.
Thanks to advocacy from MassCreative, whose executive director, Emily Ruddock, used to work at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Aucella said state Sen. Edward Kennedy has filed legislation to provide $200 million through the Massachusetts Cultural Council that would help venues reopen.
“It will help us, as we have eaten into our reserves to cover costs over this last year when we could not do shows,” Aucella said. “Both Senator Kennedy and Save MA Stages are focused on how to get the decisions we need to reopen.”
At this point, Aucella said LSMS needs governmental clearance at the federal, state and local Board of Health level to restart. A 6-foot social-distancing requirement is too restrictive, and LSMS needs decisions in the next month.
“There is a lot of work to do if we are going to proceed, so we need to know that by mid-April for a mid-July start,” he said.
Perhaps aiding the effort is the recent announcement that the Newport Folk Festival will indeed take place on July 23-25. That’s the same weekend as the Lowell Folk Festival would have taken place, but Newport is a ticketed event where organizers can control capacity.
“Hopefully, it will help us make the case for LSMS,” Aucella said..