Social distancing and Plexiglas shields: How Saskatoon live music venues are keeping shows on the stage

"The venues that are doing it, they're investing in live music ... it's a lot."

Patrons of the Black Cat Tavern in Saskatoon can see live music again — as long as they’re comfortable with watching musicians play from within Plexiglas cubicles onstage.

“All these venues cover the protocol. It’s great,” said Gillian Snider, a multi-instrumentalist with the band The Whiskey Jerks. “It’s an investment. The venues that are doing it, they’re investing in live music … it’s a lot.”

Snider noted that nobody is particularly thrilled about playing shows from inside a box, but it’s one of the safest ways to ensure live music can continue.

As Snider put it, everyone on both the performer and the venue side of the live music equation is doing everything they can to get live music back in front of a crowd, however reduced that crowd may be.

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“We’re at a point right now as musicians, that if this is what it takes, we’ll do it. We’ll put up with it,” she said.

Black Cat Live’s Mykel Somvong was on rhythm guitar and vocals during a set at Black Cat Tavern. The venue has plexiglass barriers to keep musicians and guests safe within Saskatchewan Public health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic so that live music can still go on. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Under provincial regulations, live music performers must be at least four metres away from anyone in the audience. All musicians are expected to wear masks at all times, unless they are “playing a woodwind, brass or other instrument operated by breath,” and musicians are required to keep two to three metres of distance between each other on stage, depending on the instrument being played — unless, of course, there is a barrier between them.
Somewhere Else Pub and Grill was one of the first venues in Saskatoon to embrace the shields, rigging a system to hang Plexiglas from the ceiling above its small stage for live performers. Other measures — like closing off the dance floor to give plenty of space between performers and patrons — are also in effect.

Kitchen and entertainment manager Chris Valleau said the struggle now is finding groups small enough to perform safely on the stage who still feel comfortable performing.

“We do have a pretty decent-sized crew of regulars that know we have live music, and they don’t care who’s playing, they’re just going to come watch,” Valleau said.

At Black Cat Tavern, the relatively new and extensive shielding separating the crowd from the musicians — and the musicians from each other — has been affectionately dubbed “the fish bowl,” according to Mykel Somvong.

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Somvong, the kitchen manager and a performer himself, said he found performing from inside “the fish bowl” to be very comfortable, almost akin to playing in a recording booth.

“Businesses need to pivot in order to weather the storm that this COVID is. In the future, we’re going to want a strong musical community,” he said.

The biggest difference, according to Black Cat Tavern’s music booker, Vince Geiger, is that a venue like the tavern is best known for hard-hitting metal and punk shows. With limited attendance, no standing room for concerts, and performers confined to Plexiglas cubicles, the live music might still sound great, but the atmosphere is totally different.

“A lot of it is a future investment … what we’re known for is shows, so it’s just a matter of doing what we can,” Geiger said.

Not all venues have chosen to continue hosting live shows through the pandemic. The Bassment jazz club in Saskatoon, which opened for around seven weeks in the fall for live shows, announced in a statement on its website that all events are “suspended” until COVID-19 restrictions change.

The Broadway Theatre has been extremely limited in hosting live events, closing to the public on Dec. 11 and extending that closure in early January.
Heidi Munro, a prominent singer in Saskatchewan and a vocal proponent of the Re-Open Live Music Saskatchewan group, lauded the venues that have been taking steps to keep hosting shows when possible, but she also noted that everyone in the industry “is taking a huge hit” financially, and opening up isn’t doable for some venues.
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Munro said the government guidelines for different venues to host shows safely have been somewhat unclear. The next step is creating more appropriate guidelines for larger venues to feasibly reopen in the same way smaller venues have, she said.

“My thought was that, in these theatres that are 400 or 600 seats, that are only allowed to have 30 people in the audience … it’s a huge theatre stage,” she said. “I totally respect the reasoning. I don’t understand it. And I don’t think it’s wrong to question it.”

Munro is slated to perform with Scott Patrick on Valentine’s Day at the Six Twelve Lounge in Saskatoon — another venue putting on socially-distanced shows — but said she can’t wait until she can play with all of her bandmates in front of a full crowd again.

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