Searching for the Live-Concert Buzz in a Pandemic with Sara Evans

Sara Evans performs the national anthem before Game Two of the 2015 World Series in Kansas City, Mo. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
The country star connected with her audiences at three Virginia venues.

Match a highly motivated country-music star with three eager venues in a state that allows up to half capacity in entertainment facilities, and what do you get? A very early test of what’s bound to be a long and grinding path back to live performing arts in the coronavirus era.

Yet here’s the surprise from a flash tour by Sara Evans around the state of Virginia last weekend: After all the masks, temperature checks, and distancing rules are accounted for, the measure of any event’s success remains the buzz-worthiness of the individual concert atmosphere, just as it always was before.

Imagine three very different audience vibes multiplied by the stress of the pandemic, and you’ll have a sense of the variety of what Sara Evans and her fans from every generation encountered. Evans came armed with a new CD to promote and her own “Born To Fly Records” label to support. The all-cover-songs album, titled Copy That, stretches beyond country music to a variety of rock, pop, and even disco styles that Evans sang as a kid in bar bands.

The May 15 album release by her own label was followed by Virginia’s July 1 entry into its “Phase 3” reopening, which may contain a cornucopia of cleaning and distancing rules but has a strikingly permissive limit on entertainment venues that can theoretically run up to half-full if their normal capacity is under 1,000 people. But the limit is easier to reach if the venue is something other than a traditional auditorium where distancing rules between individuals or households make it impossible to fill anywhere near half the space.

So on the evening of July 24, the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, Va., east of Roanoke in the state’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley, commandeered a lot across the street for an outdoors performance that wasn’t that hard to pull off once the early-arriving crowd had made its way in. Circular “pods” were marked off for individuals and family groups that had passed through temperature checks, with masks required only when individuals moved out of the pods. Under a crescent moon after an early-evening rain, a relaxed and appreciative crowd of several hundred greeted Sara Evans’s older hits and several selections from Copy That.

Saturday’s double performance at the historic Beacon Theatre in Hopewell, Va., south of the state capital of Richmond, was more fraught with pandemic adjustments. The 669-seat theater had to be widely separated out for individuals and household groups. Most significantly, everybody was required to wear a mask throughout the show.

The audience at the early performance tried to make up for the scattered atmosphere with an unusual amount of shouted encouragement for Evans. But it was clear that it took some adjustment for her. “It’s surreal to see you all in facemasks,” she blurted out at one point. “You are smiling, aren’t you?”

But then Evans hit paydirt Sunday evening at a venerable club in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. On July 10 the Birchmere Music Hall amazed — or horrified — the entire rest of the Washington area’s performing-arts establishment by reopening with various local and small-time acts leading up to Sara Evans’s appearance July 26.

The 500-seat club is set out with dinner tables and chairs for its regular food-service operation that precedes every show. And although ticket sales were capped at fewer than 200, the effect was a natural spreading out of the audience. It helped immeasurably that all of the servers were outfitted with complete clear face-guards, and the audience members were required to don their own masks only when they got up from their tables.

Throughout the weekend the effect of the coronavirus was never far from every aspect of the mini-tour, including the insistence by all parties that the performers themselves remain fully protected. Rather than what Evans called her “normal big show band,” she brought a trimmed-down “acoustic band” with two guitarists — one of them her 21-year-old son, Avery Barker — and two backup singers including her 17-year-old daughter, Olivia Barker.

Under current restrictions, the Birchmere couldn’t allow more than six people on stage anyway, although the club’s low-slung ceiling helped significantly with the acoustics compared with the other two venues. Determined to promote Copy That from the beginning, Evans openly admitted that the album’s final track, a cover of Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” was challenging to sing live with her trimmed-down acoustic band, with guitarist Ben Thompson rendering the opening piano-ballad figure and limited overall power to bring off the song’s climactic key-change final verse.

But the pandemic was also played for laughs, especially as Evans relaxed into the club atmosphere at the Birchmere. “We’re so glad to be back on stage,” Sara told the Birchmere crowd. “2020 can kiss it!” All of the venues’ audience got copious reminders to buy the new CD and, when it comes out in September, Sara’s autobiography titled — as is her record label and her original 2000 signature hit song — “Born To Fly.” “Did you hear me say we haven’t worked since February?” she tickled the Beacon Theatre audience. And in a clever quip to the Birchmere crowd about audience limits, she announced that “there are no corona limits to buying my CD or my book.”

In the middle of the Birchmere show, somebody walked up to the stage and handed Evans two Birchmere-themed masks. “I’m not going to wear them right now,” she said, “but that’s just because I have great makeup.” An audience favorite at all of the venues was Evans’s 2010 hit song “A Little Bit Stronger” about the personal path to recovery from a breakup. Evans remarked at the hundreds of fans who’ve told her that in similar circumstances they’ve listened to the song over and over. “I feel that it’s helped so many people get through a breakup or a divorce,” she said. “Or a quarantine.”

The entire sequence of events was no walk in the park for any of the concert presenters, who had to work right up until the last moment to pull these events off both on the pandemically driven logistical details and the audience relations. “We get hit from both sides,” Laurin Willis, general manager of the Beacon Theatre, told me. Many of the theater’s regular patrons found it unbelievable that the venue was reopening, he said, while many others were amazed that it hadn’t reopened sooner and made fun of its supposedly “taking orders” from Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam.

And even if it was a daring move for Sara Evans to perform all over the state and for three venues to host her, there was a potentially encouraging note even for symphony orchestras and producers of live theater in addition to pop-concert promoters: Every concert drew a considerable number of older people, counter to some surveys that indicate that a great number of senior citizens won’t attend live events even when they’re broadly allowed.

That may be partly because Sara Evans’s live concert set lists and the new Copy That album actually encompass a broad range of pop music styles and periods. Of course Evans regaled each of her audiences with her very funny 2003 hit song “Suds in the Bucket” about an 18-year-old girl who suddenly elopes with her “prince in a white pick-up truck,” scandalizing her community. The song is both a commentary about families and growing up and also a bit of a sly send-up of country-music culture, and it includes a “yee-hoo” moment for the audience that’s just as fun for a metropolitan D.C. crowd as for one in Southwestern Virginia.

But the new covers album also includes a tour of pure country-music and country-pop crossover history that Evans also gave the live audiences. This tour notably includes Patsy Cline’s 1962 ballad “She’s Got You” from the year before her death in a plane crash, and the 1979 Poco hit “Crazy Love,” which Sara says was suggested for the album by her brother Matt.

There’s also a special piece of advocacy by Evans, “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” by the moderately well-known blues-rock singer-songwriter John Mayer. Although the song is not on the album, each of the weekend’s audiences were treated to “A Thousand Times a Day” by country legend Patty Loveless, whose voice has a striking similarity to Sara Evans’s own voice and who was something of a revelation to Evans’s own kids.

Well beyond all that, Sara Evans knows that her audience is also looking for mainstream pop and rock music that she herself grew up on. She told every audience that she was strongly conditioned by Fleetwood Mac, and she sang the cover of a Lindsey Buckingham song from her new album, the straight-ahead rock anthem “Monday Morning.” Evans was a little girl during the late-1970s disco era, and without a trace of embarrassment she delivered for her Virginia audiences the Bee Gees’ “If I Can’t Have You,” which was originally recorded by Yvonne Elliman of Jesus Christ Superstar fame but made it into John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and is now on the Copy That album.

Evans gave the Birchmere crowd the disco number in its acoustic guitar version, but for those who bought the CD that night, the bigger surprise on Copy That will probably be Sara Evans’s reachout to the Baby Boomer Broadway crowd. Copy That has an excellent and innovative cut of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” featured like many of Carole King’s songs in the Broadway musical Beautiful. The new Sara Evans version includes a “tolling bells” chiming effect running through most of the song that reflects the passage of time and the unrecoverable end of a relationship.

“You are really a beautiful audience,” she told the Birchmere crowd, adding: “Even better if you buy five CDs!”


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