Let’s go back to the beginning of March 2020. How were you feeling? Were you making plans for the summer? I guarantee a pandemic shutting everything down for the next few months and affecting every aspect of our everyday lives was the last thing on your mind. I clearly remember checking my email and the interwebs for music festival announcements while applying for press passes for the ones that already had all of the details set. I was looking forward to going to shows and seeing what the next few months would bring. I was also looking forward to spending part of my summer seeing live music at the great music venues that call South County home.
Even though I’m from Connecticut and I’ve spent most of my time in Rhode Island while living in Providence where I currently live, I have roots in South County. Many summers of mine have involved spending 4th of July with my cousins at the annual cookout they have at their beach houses near Scarborough Beach in Narragansett. During my college years while attending Rhode Island College in Providence, I actually spent a couple years going to more shows at the Wheel House when it was on 294 Great Island Road in Galilee than I did in the city I lived in. A few years later, I handled the booking calendar at that spot during the summer of 2017 before it closed down that fall. There’s something about the area that has always made it feel like another home for me and whenever I’m there I always get memories popping up in my head.
The scene in southern Rhode Island is a bit different than the other ones around New England. There’s a big folk and jazz presence with a variety of rock, punk and jam bands weaving themselves in between while the University Of Rhode Island in Kingston serves as a creative incubator for young up and comers. The venues that house these acts are each uniquely great in their own way. Pump House Music Works on 1464 Kingstown Road in Wakefield also functions as a guitar workshop with music classes and when you walk in you’re literally in the workshop with guitar frames hanging from the ceiling. The Ocean Mist on Matunuck Beach is right on the water and during a summer evening it’s the best place to grab a drink while watching a major act perform. There’s also The Knickerbocker Music Center on 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly where the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Booker T. Jones, Jon Batiste, Roomful Of Blues and other legends have graced the stage.
When it comes to outdoor shows, Paddy’s Beach Club on 159 Atlantic Ave. in Westerly has had big names including Talib Kweli, Spiritual Rez, Twiddle, Lettuce and Freddie McGregor perform on Misquamicut Beach. There’s also the Misquamicut Drive-In up the street on 316 Atlantic Ave. where they worked with The United Theatre on 5 Canal St. to have live music this past summer. The partnership proved to be successful with Martin Sexton, The Adam Ezra Group, The Ghost Of Paul Revere and Deer Tick playing in front of socially distanced folks in cars. The Rhythm & Roots Festival has been happening every Labor Day Weekend at Ninigret Park in Charlestown for the past few decades and it’s one of the funnest events you could ever experience. Along with having a tent full of zydeco and Cajun music that goes on during the entire festival, Keb’ Mo’, The Mavericks, Los Lobos, Roseanne Cash, The Duhks, Dustbowl Revival have been some of the many great headliners that have performed.
Because of COVID-19, a lot of things have changed with these musical institutions. Paddy’s and the Ocean Mist have resorted to using their restaurant capabilities to stay afloat with the latter also having the curbside pick up option available. Rhythm & Roots decided to go virtual this year to raise money for the 2021 edition of the festival by broadcasting past performances. Pump House Music Works spent the summer and fall having socially distanced shows on their front lawn. The Knickerbocker Music Center converted their stage into a recording studio where they’ve had plenty of acts coming in to do some sessions. Despite these changes and uncertainties, next year does look to offer hope for some normalcy.
If everything goes according to plan with the COVID-19 vaccine, the public should be able to take it by the spring after it has been given to the first responders, medical & healthcare workers and the most vulnerable. This means that there’s a good chance we’d be able to gather and run events as normal by April and/or May, which is great news for live music. As of press time, all of the venues I have mentioned are still in business and The United Theatre is due to complete their renovation into becoming a multi-use arts space by the start of next summer at the latest. With the next stimulus package finally being passed, these fantastic establishments can get the financial assistance they need from the Save Our Stages Act. Hope is definitely a key part of this, but after what we’ve gone through in 2020, if you don’t have hope then what do you have?
2020 was a bummer of a year for all of us in so many ways. If you love live music and seeing friends at your favorite local venue, this year was even more of a bummer. Music brings people together and there’s nothing quite like being at a packed show with a bunch of bands, artists and musicians from the town you call home. There’s a mix of pride and belonging that goes with that feeling and we could definitely use something like it these days. Here’s to this year going away and being hopeful that 2021 is the start of something better.