‘From zero to something’: Concerts are cautiously returning to Northwest Arkansas

Kaia Kater played a socially-distanced, outdoor concert at the Roots Festival HQ on the Fayetteville square in fall 2020.

Photo: Meredith Mashburn

As he looks to book concerts for George’s Majestic Lounge or the The Walmart AMP, longtime music promoter Brian Crowne is searching for the middle.

Not as in middle-of-the-road talent, but more of a middle ground for concert patrons. He knows some of those who see the names of acts popping up the venues’ websites or marquees will opt to stay home and keep waiting out the pandemic. Others who have taken a less cautious approach to the ongoing global health crisis will have to take precautions to be admitted – distancing, sanitation and the wearing of masks are required.

Not everyone is going be pleased, Crowne said, but he’s working to protect more than just a few patrons. He’s also working to ensure the continued health of employees and the nearly 100-year-old live music venue on Dickson Street. The slow and cautious approach is the reality of the tenuous return of live music in Northwest Arkansas.

“We know we can’t go right back to normal. It doesn’t mean we can’t conduct ourselves safely,” he said.

Smokey & The Mirror’s Bryan Hembree and Bernice Hembree (left) performed with Bayard Blain at the Roots Festival HQ in fall 2020.

Photo: Meredith Mashburn

George’s closed for 140 days at the start of the pandemic. Concerts eventually resumed with outdoor shows in a parking lot next to the venue. Indoor shows returned later, with steadily more prominent artists and a higher crowd capacity to match.

Bryan Hembree, one of the co-founders of the Fayetteville Roots Festival, relayed a similar tale of a calculated and cautious return. Roots Fest piloted a pair of concerts adjacent to their headquarters on the Fayetteville Square. From those introductory events, organizers needed to ensure three things: that the event could be conducted safely, that the quality of the experience matched previous Roots offerings, and that fans’ voices were heard.

Feedback was very positive, which has led the Roots Festival to expand their series of downtown concerts. Thirteen shows have been announced, with more to come, Hembree said.

“2021 is not back to normal,” Hembree said. “Everything we’re doing is outdoor, and small capacity. That’s smaller than most shows we would do. It’s measurable momentum if we’re going from zero to … something.”

By April, Hembree and co-founders Bernice Hembree and Jerrmy Gawthrop plan to announce details on the Roots Festival, which took a hiatus in 2020 but will return in a modified format in 2021. The outdoor show series is meant to supplement the Roots Fest and provide additional opportunities to see live music this year, Bryan Hembree said.

Dave Matthews Band is scheduled to play at the Walmart AMP on Sept. 15, 2021.

Courtesy photo

Although there are occasional one-off shows or house parties where live music is featured, the Smoke & Barrel Tavern is the region’s other primary outlet for original live music. Previously home to multiple live music events per week, there hasn’t been a show at Smoke & Barrel in a year and counting.

For a small club like the Smoke & Barrel where it’s hard for patrons to spread out, the situation still presents itself as a waiting game. Smoke & Barrel co-owner Evan McDonald said “We’ve been made very aware how much our crowd wants live music back.”

A plan for a safe return, likely in the fall, is in development, he said. “Get vaccinated and be safe in the interim.”

It’s not only the responsibility of venue managers and staff to decide to host a show. Touring artists are making their own choices and finding their own new reality. A tour that might have passed through Rogers for an outdoor show at the AMP before an indoor arena show a few cities down the line isn’t feasible – or wise – in the current conditions.

“Everybody is trying to move forward, but they are moving at a pace that’s appropriate for their city, county and state,” Crowne said.

At George’s, that might mean an artist who would normally sell out the club might do two nights at half capacity this year. That’s a similar approach for the Roots Festival’s street concerts – iconic bluegrass act Del McCoury Band, for instance, is doing back-to-back nights instead of one larger show.

Phish is scheduled to play at the Walmart AMP on July 28, 2021.

Photo: Rene Huemer

For the AMP, flexibility will be the key, Crowne said, and shows will fluctuate in size. He has several tours with a date hold right now, which is what happens when a tour is forming. As artists wait to understand conditions at each potential stop, those dates remained penciled in but not fully confirmed or announced. Crowne is sitting on a “fire hose” of potential concerts for the AMP, he said. He said emphatically that more shows will be added to the roster for the fall, even as some artists continue to call off their tour plans, like country megastar Kenny Chesney did earlier this week. That tour cancelation nixed a Northwest Arkansas date.

Still, for the first time in some months, Crowne reports he’s able to begin forecasting the future. In his mind, it looks something like this: continued caution, but with more concerts on the way.

Roots Festival Outdoor Concert Series – 2021

All concerts take place adjacent to the Roots Festival headquarters in downtown Fayetteville. They are seated experiences and with food and drinks available for purchase. Tickets prices vary. For details, visit fayettevilleroots.org.

April 16 – Del McCoury Band (SOLD OUT)
April 17 – Del McCoury Band (SOLD OUT)
May 14 – Sierra Hull Band (SOLD OUT)
May 15 – John Fullbright (SOLD OUT)
May 16 – John Fullbright (SOLD OUT)
June 4 – John Moreland
June 5 – John Moreland
June 12 – Smokey & the Mirror
June 18 – Tre Burt
July 17 – Kayln Fay
July 18 – Mary Gauthier (SOLD OUT)
July 30 – Darrell Scott
July 30 – Darrell Scott

Walmart AMP Concert Lineup – 2021

The current lineup for the 2021 season includes the following acts. Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit waltonartscenter.org/AMP.

June 17 – The Backstreet Boys
June 20 – Steely Dan
June 25 – An Evening with Chicago
July 27 – Lindsey Sterling
July 28 – Phish
Aug. 8 – Megadeth with Lamb of God
Aug. 10 – The Black Crowes
Aug. 13 – The Avett Brothers with Tyler Childers
Aug. 14 – Alanis Morissette
Aug. 15 – Matchbox Twenty
Sept. 15 – Dave Matthews Band

George’s Majestic Lounge Spring/Summer Lineup – 2021

The current lineup for the spring/summer season includes the following acts. Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit georgesmajesticlounge.com.