Butler County live music venues are open but adjusting in 2021: How they’re doing

Flying Buffaloes and Motherfolk performed at RiversEdge Amphitheater Thursday, August 6, 2020 with limited capacity to meet social distancing requirements. The RiversEdge concerts series is normally free but they have fenced off the area and attendees must now purchase tickets to reserve a square marked out on the grass designated as their seating area. The squares are spaced out around the venue with plenty of room to walk between them and stay distanced. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
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Flying Buffaloes and Motherfolk performed at RiversEdge Amphitheater Thursday, August 6, 2020 with limited capacity to meet social distancing requirements. The RiversEdge concerts series is normally free but they have fenced off the area and attendees must now purchase tickets to reserve a square marked out on the grass designated as their seating area. The squares are spaced out around the venue with plenty of room to walk between them and stay distanced. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

When it comes to reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, live music venues have been some of the most cautious in restarting shows. But even once they were finally given the go-ahead, there were a lot of adjustments as the facts on the ground changed.

As recently as last May, RiversEdge, the Hamilton amphitheater that typically holds free summer concerts, planned on continuing the restrictions from 2020. Everyone would be masked and there would be paid admission with a minimum of six tickets to be purchased for a socially distanced “pod.”

“We had a show scheduled for June 4,” said Adam Helms, Director of Resident Services for Hamilton. “As soon as the health orders were rescinded, we went back to full capacity. We’d had two shows prior to that. We asked the city council and the Hamilton health director (if we could go back to normal), and they said yes.”

Helms reflected on the era of socially distanced shows.

“We had 14 shows (last summer), and zero COVID cases traced to that,” he said. “The audience did a great job. It was drastically different. Normally during a high-energy rock show, you have people crowding in front of the stage. People were still clapping and cheering, but it didn’t have the same energy or intensity. But I think people were just grateful to have live music (in 2020). I think we were the only ones around here doing it.”

The Sorg Opera House reopened in February 2021 after spending 2020 restoring the building and just staying afloat.

“We had some great donations that allowed us to pay our bills,” said Joel Green, a Sorg board member. “It was tight, but we made it through.”

The Sorg normally seats between 700 and 750 people. When it reopened with restrictions, only 170 people were allowed to attend, with sections of seats blocked off in every row. Everyone was masked with hand sanitizer stations.

“People were able to obey the rules and enjoy themselves,” Green said. “They were very cooperative. They understood the situation.”

Although the concert experience itself at RiversEdge is back to normal, some aspects are still being affected by the pandemic.

“We normally have concerts on Thursday nights,” Helms said. “But because we thought we had to sell tickets, we moved a lot of shows to Friday and Saturday nights, because we figured people would be more willing to buy a ticket if they didn’t have to work the next day.

“Our first (back to normal) show was the Nielsen Trust, which is basically the guitarist from Cheap Trick and his kids. I thought that would be a bigger show, but I think some people were still leery about full capacity. Scotty Bratcher was next, and he’s usually a big draw, and we were packed for him. I’m not sure what next year is going to hold. It depends on the bands’ schedules. A lot of are making up dates. Festivals are still being moved or canceled.”

The popular annual Whimmydiddle Festival also underwent a radical alteration.

“Whimmydiddle is normally a two-day event,” Helms said. “And when we were looking at paid admission for that, just one ticket would’ve been $150, and with having to buy a minimum of six, that’s like $900. You can’t go from free admission to that. So, we’re doing a spread-out, four-part series instead, and keeping it free.”

Speaking of admission, Helms said the venue faced some backlash when it charged for tickets in 2020.

“Some people were saying we were profiting from COVID,” he said. “But it was strictly a break-even endeavor. We had to do something to balance the loss from food and beverage sales. We had to move mountains to make live music happen in any way, shape, or form. We’re a nonprofit. I don’t see a cut of anything. I’m actually the city clerk, who handles nuisance abatements during the say. (RiversEdge) happens after hours.”

Thanks to reopening and the generosity of the community, the Sorg has been able to do some restoration work.

“We had some plays that surpassed expectations,” Green said. “People were not only buying tickets but buying a lot more concessions than we expected. Thanks to a very generous donation, we were able to put new carpet throughout the entire theater. We just finished sanding, staining and sealing our stage. Next week, we’re getting new curtains. We got some big shows coming up, with AJA, a Steely Dan tribute band. We’re back to normal, until we hear otherwise, though I hear they’re thinking about starting (the restrictions) again.”