Live music is back on in Seattle, but masks? Not always

At Nancy Wilson’s comeback show, a Northwest music writer re-discovers the joy of in-person concerts but questions unmasked audience members.

Nancy Wilson (center) and her band played live at Benaroya Hall on October 30, 2021. It was the first time the Northwest rocker had played in front of an in-person audience since March, 2020. (Ben VanHouten)

On Saturday, Oct. 30, I put on two masks, walked into Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, showed my vaccination card, plopped into a balcony seat, and did something I hadn’t done for 617 days: I attended a live concert.

Meanwhile, 80 feet away, Nancy Wilson of Heart stepped onto Benaroya’s stage and did something she hadn’t done for 601 days: She put on a live concert.

The next day, Nancy and I discussed our experiences in a postgame wrap up of sorts. I co-wrote her 2012 bestselling memoir Kicking and Dreaming with her sister, Ann Wilson, and we’re friends, so my personal review of the concert would be biased. But I’d echo her description of the night as “transcendent.”

Nancy lives in California now, but she grew up in Bellevue and lived most of her life here. “To be able to come home and see my people in the audience again, and to do it at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, it was really magical,” she said.

The night felt special to me, too, in ways I hadn’t suspected. I knew that to hear a live cello again after 20 months might make me weep, and it did. When Nancy started “Crazy on You” I rose to my feet and realized that a thousand other people — who were also standing — felt exactly the same way. This was not something that happened in any of the countless Zoom concerts I had attended.

Nancy experienced her own surprises while onstage. Although a seasoned performer, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, she was almost giddy with excitement. “I was so joyful, but it also felt overwhelming to be thrust into that again,” she said. She was joined onstage by her band — backed up by the Seattle Symphony — in a program that included some Heart songs, orchestrated by Seattle’s Andrew Joslyn. “I had to use muscle memory at first, and to call on my instincts when it came to stage persona. It was a heck of a high standard to start these songs in live performance with the symphony.”

In an October performance at Benaroya Hall, Nancy Wilson and her band were accompanied by Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which played orchestrated versions of Heart songs. (Ben VanHouten)

Nancy used the past year to release her first solo album, You and Me, which is half covers and half new songs, many of which she wrote with Seattle’s Sue Ennis over Zoom sessions. I had heard all of these songs when they were demos and did a Zoom Q&A with Nancy for her fanbase when the record came out in May 2021. But I had forgotten that the Benaroya show represented the live world premiere for the new songs from that record.

Part of the reason that detail slipped my mind was that I was nervous going into my first crowded concert hall after a year and a half. I’m immunocompromised, so even when concerts began opening up this year, I was more trepidatious than most. There are 7 million adults in the U.S. who are immunocompromised, and evidence indicates that vaccines are less effective for many of us.

The stories I heard from friends, and the pictures I saw on social media of the first large concerts, made me anxious because of minimal mask usage. When the delta variant came up, and the numbers of hospitalized increased, I stayed home and felt left behind.

Even as Washington state reinstated mask requirements at large events in early fall, the majority of crowds at big concerts have not complied. One of my friends had third row seats for Steve Miller at the Puyallup Fair on Sept. 3. He reported that an emcee for the evening reminded everyone in the crowd they were required to wear their masks “except when they are eating or drinking, and I know a lot of you will be drinking all night.” Poof, off went most masks, and my friend moved to the back of the crowd.

I’m a huge Death Cab for Cutie fan and watched every one of Ben Gibbard’s home Zoom concerts when the pandemic began. When Death Cab and the Foo Fighters opened Climate Pledge Arena last month, I so wanted to be there, but that would have meant being around 16,000 people. All of them were required to provide vaccine cards or negative COVID-19 tests to enter, and all were required to wear masks. But given the size of the crowd, in addition to stories of fake vaccine card usage circulating online, I made the decision to stay home.

My friends who were there reported — and photos on social media confirm — that a majority of the crowd took their masks off as soon as the concert began. Attendees at subsequent Climate Pledge Arena concerts (Coldplay and the Eagles) have seen the same behavior: Most people take their masks off when the event starts. Is this because they want to start talking as soon as the music kicks in? That makes no sense. With COVID-19 rates still high in Washington, it creates risks and, for immunocompromised people, a lot of anxiety.

One of my friends who works in public health left the Death Cab show once he saw the masks come off, brokenhearted that the debut of an arena dedicated to a better future had seen such recklessness. To me, it was disappointing that people in Seattle, a forward-thinking city, couldn’t comply with the minor inconvenience of keeping masked, particularly when it is a state health requirement.

At Benaroya, though, I had a different experience. In a crowd of 1,200, I spied only a few people who took off their masks (all were older white men, and I’m specifically talking about the four gents in Founders Tier Center, Row D — what the hell is wrong with you?). The Seattle Symphony organization reports that its staff is 100% vaccinated, and the players, 99%. Nancy and her band are all vaccinated and boostered. Perception does not always equal science, but I felt safer in Benaroya with more than a thousand Heart fans than I did on my last trip to Home Depot, where a few shoppers in the store defiantly wore masks on their chin.

While onstage, Nancy found the audience’s compliance a relief. “When I saw that everyone was wearing masks, it made me feel safer,” she said. “Everyone was very diligent around the symphony and my band. Even with the audience masked, you could certainly hear people cheer.”

There were other unanticipated rewards. “I was pleasantly surprised with the patience people gave to the new material,” Nancy said. “Normally crowds are waiting for something they recognize, but because of COVID, people’s attention span for music has elongated. There’s more patience for new things, unfamiliar things, and people are willing to pay attention.”

I paid attention, too. I’ve seen Nancy play with Heart dozens of times, but I found myself watching every string she picked, tracking every movement of symphony’s strings behind her and hearing and feeling every bass beat and drum thump. When she kicked out her boot in exclamation during “Crazy on You,” it brought me — and all the other audience members — to our feet again, cheering.

She does that move often with Heart, but at a solo show she said it wasn’t part of the initial plan. “I don’t pull out ‘the kick’ unless it’s a wooden stage,” she said. “Benaroya was carpeted, but in the moment, I figured I’d do the kick anyway because I felt it.” Nothing I experienced on Zoom over the past 20 months has been as exciting as that moment.

The Benaroya show was also livestreamed to ticketholders but, typically, the feed froze at one point. And no camera could fully capture all the smiles onstage, even though some were largely hidden under masks, as Nancy sang “These Dreams.” This was only the SSO’s 12th in-person performance of the year, and the musicians’ enthusiasm to be playing before a live audience again was obvious. (I’d describe it as “infectious,” but perhaps that’s not the appropriate word.)

The last time Nancy performed live was on a cruise ship in early March 2020. We texted during that time, and she was extremely nervous as news of COVID-19 overtook everything. “We called it the Corona Cruise because the virus was already starting up,” she said. “The cruise itself was also hit with a windstorm, so it was surreal. We played our show, and then left the cruise early on March 3. That was the last show I’d played before Seattle.”

My last concert had been at Benaroya, a performance by Brandi Carlile on Feb. 21, 2020. That was an incredible show, but just 20 days later, when Patti Smith was scheduled to play the Paramount on March 11, the world had shifted dramatically. While I weighed whether to risk seeing Patti, the concert was canceled. Live music came to a stop.

In March 2021, Seattle’s Paramount Theater marked one full year of closure due to the pandemic. Like other local concert halls, it is now starting to host live shows again. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

One of my friends died of COVID-19 in Seattle on March 20, 2020. He was the 150th person in the United States to die of coronavirus (19 months later we are near 750,000 deaths).

My comfort level will likely increase if vaccination numbers go up and digital vaccine passports are instituted to assure that a small and entitled minority don’t fake their way into causing yet another spike — and once again kill live music (or me). I watched several videos of Sir Mix-a-Lot playing a live show Nov. 5 at Neumos, and from the angles I viewed, the raucous, dancing, sold-out crowd kept their masks on. So I suspect venue staff enforcement of state rules (or lack thereof) plays a large role. But if 20-something kids moshing at Neumo’s can keep their masks on — you can, too, Coldplay fans!

Nancy says Heart fans tend to be conscious and empowered, and extremely loyal to what she and sister Ann have created with their five-decade legacy. Ann played solo herself two weeks ago at the Neptune, and I feel guilty that I didn’t attend that show (but I heard the audience kept their masks on). I think it is certainly possible that with Heart fans being largely women, the Wilsons’ concerts are not an accurate sampling of the whole industry, as men are far less likely to be vaccinated or follow requirements.

Regardless of mask compliance, live music is continuing its comeback in a big way. Last week, news of Pfizer’s latest drug for COVID-19 treatment sent concert promoter LiveNation’s stock up 15% in one day. Demand for tickets at large shows and at smaller Seattle clubs has shot up. Just a few days after Nancy’s show, a video of another Benaroya concert went viral, showing violinist Ray Chen breaking a string and recovering seamlessly. While viewing it I wondered anew, “Why did I stay home and by chance miss something as special as that?”

Nancy felt so elated by her Benaroya show that later that night she texted me and said she wanted to do it again. She’s looking at dates ahead, perhaps with other orchestras. But first she is off to play a woman’s empowerment workshop, with just her guitar, and a fully vaccinated audience.  

She says that despite all her years of memorable concerts, from small clubs to giant stadiums, the Benaroya show will remain unique as the moment when she rediscovered live music. “It proved to me once again,” she says, “that a live band is a living, breathing animal.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Charles R. Cross

Charles R. Cross is the author of nine books including The New York Times bestselling biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven.