The return of live music brings excitement and new challenges
Noah Kahan serenades the audience at the Majestic Theatre in Madison. Photography by William Aversa
The music blasts through the speakers so loudly that your ears begin to ring. You can feel the floor beneath you shake as the crowd screams out the familiar lyrics. As you jump up and down, your feet stick slightly to the beer-soaked floor while you smile ear to ear, remembering the days when standing next to sweaty strangers was the last thing on your mind.
The intoxicating feeling of standing in a sea of people singing your favorite song with your favorite artist 50 feet in front of you is what live music is all about.
One hundred and fifteen years ago, the Majestic Theatre opened its doors, and 21 months ago, the Majestic closed its doors due to the pandemic. For 17 months, the Majestic stood empty and dark. A building that was once home to lively concerts from rock to folk and everything in between didn’t host a concert for over a year. But now, we’re back — maybe with masks and vaccines, but once again that familiar sensation of hearing the pulse of live music from the speakers is alive in the Majestic.
On the night of Oct. 16, Noah Kahan, a pop singer from Vermont, took the stage of the Majestic. The energy vibrated through the venue while the audience sang the lyrics to his songs almost as loudly as the speakers delivered Kahan’s voice.
Live music exists to give comfort in the dark times and to make the joyous times even more exciting. Finally, it seems like we are out of the dark hold the pandemic put on live music. Kahan’s show took work from dozens of people who will never be thanked; individuals who came to the theater long before Kahan was on stage and stayed long after he exited.
People like Reanna Roberts, Frank Productions’ venue director for the Majestic, the Sylvee, High Noon Saloon and the Orpheum Theater, work behind the scenes to ensure the magical feeling of live music for all who attend a show. Roberts has spent 12 years in the live music industry, 10 of which she spent working exclusively at the Majestic. Show days can vary considerably in length, and Roberts says she works an average of 14 hours per show day. With schedules well over the typical 9 a.m to 5 p.m. day, it is apparent that those who work in the live music industry love what they do.
“It’s so weird to me now that I don’t work in it to go to [concerts] because it almost makes me emotional because I’m like, I can’t believe I literally did this every day,” says Cassidy Schrader, former event manager at Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee.
The Majestic requires masking and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a recent negative test. Photography by William Aversa
Singer-songwriter Noah Kahan sold out the Majestic Theatre in Madison in October 2021. A year before this show, the venue was still closed and silent. Photography by William Aversa
Roberts arrives at the venue, opening the doors for other staff who are essential to setting up, such as the catering team. The groundwork begins, trucks are unloaded and staff begin to show up. The touring crew gains familiarity with the Majestic as its members begin to put together their set. Roberts begins her work communicating with tech workers and stagehands.
“You get goosebumps and you get chills, and you can feel all the people in the room have that same sort of wavelength energy,” she says. “That’s the best part. And you can’t get that from listening to Spotify or from a livestreaming of a concert, you can only get that at shows.”
“You get goosebumps and you get chills, and you can feel all the people in the room have that same sort of wavelength energy.”
— Reanna Roberts
Doors open to the public and audience members begin to file into the building. One member of security works his way up the line checking vaccination cards against photo IDs, while another strikes up conversations at the beginning of the line while he waves a metal detector over the audience members.
“Show me some real estate!” one security member jokes, and the man in line happily opens up his arms and steps apart his feet. After one last check-in to prove drinking age, audience members move toward the stage.
Ahead of the show, various staffers work on the out-of-venue side of shows to ensure shows are booked and executed properly. Grace Parshall, a marketing coordinator with Frank Productions, helps spread awareness of shows and get tickets sold through various marketing efforts. For Parshall, this means posting on social media in real time for shows, but that usually requires more work on the front end on such things as advertising and digital ad spending.
Parshall and the rest of her team ensure that the Madison community knows about the show — after all, if the show isn’t made visible to the public, it can’t be successful.
“It really is like a teamwork between us and the public because we need people to come to shows. We can put them on, but we want the community to come to them,” Parshall says.
Blake Rose, the opener, saunters onto stage in a striped sweater, while the crowd is still trickling into the venue. Rose is grinning ear to ear when he tells the crowd that this is his first-ever tour. Some people are chatting among themselves, others are grabbing a drink at the bar. The majority of the crowd, however, is nodding their heads along to the first song as Rose begins to strum his guitar.
At the bar you can overhear a couple conversing about Kahan, hoping that he will play his song “Maine.” The bartenders are smiling and exuding positive energy while slinging drinks, it is apparent that even the staff is happy to be back here.
Local venues have to find staff that keep the concerts alive. While concertgoers are itching to get back inside, stagehands and security are at a disadvantage. With dwindling staff numbers, those on hand fill extra shifts and work longer hours, doing what needs to happen to keep the show going.
“At its core, it’s just like customer service, whether you’re interacting with patrons or with the actual band, and just making it a good experience,” Schrader says.
A hush falls over the crowd ever so briefly, followed by screams that echo across the Majestic as a shadowed figure makes it to the mic. The lights go up and Kahan appears, his long, black hair shining under the light. You can feel the buzz radiating off of the audience and, almost as if in a trance, everyone starts to dance.
After his first song, Kahan addresses the crowd: “Thank you for singing the words, I write a lot of songs and to be completely honest I forget a lot of the lyrics. To know that you guys are right there with me is just wonderful.”
“We love you, Noah!” a fan screams from the balcony next to the stage. Kahan closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and moves on to the next song.
In the dark, audience members stand side by side, connected through the music, connected through an energy that radiates from the stage. The concert staff ensures that the energy is there, whether by making sure the touring artists have soft towels or that the audience feels safe and comfortable.
“I think it’s such a unique service you provide, it’s an experience for people that can be really cathartic, and really joyful and a memory that will stick with them,” Parshall says.
The lights turn on brighter, but this time the stage is dim and the audience is bathed in light. Audience members are smiling and taking their last selfies of the night, then turning to leave. But work for the venue staff is far from over. The venue must be cleaned, and every piece of Kahan’s band’s equipment must be broken down and loaded onto the tour bus. The bar must close and be cleaned, and eventually the venue must be locked up. The audience files onto the sidewalk, where Kahan’s name has already been removed from the marquee so the next artist can take the stage.
And just like that, the Majestic is silent and empty for the night.
“Even on the absolute worst day when everything is an entire dumpster fire and everything goes wrong, it is still better than a day without a concert,” Roberts says.
DUSK page photo credit: Photography by William Aversa