3 Kirk MacDonald Virginia MacDonald at the Rex bannerAnd so, here we are again, again. 

If you’re interested in the usual subject matter of this column, you already know that as of January 31, musical venues in Ontario will be permitted to operate at 50 percent seated capacity or 500 people, whichever is less, then move to 50 percent on February 21, and full capacity March 15 – just in advance of the two-year anniversary of Canada’s lockdown restrictions.

It is impossible to say whether or not the province will end up sticking to this schedule. It’s also impossible to know for sure, at this point, how quickly individual clubs will respond to what’s allowed, stage by stage. By the way, for most of the venues that I write about here, “clubs” is a useful misnomer: the majority are restaurants/bars, with diverse staffing needs that include kitchen staff, bartenders, hosts, managers, music bookers, and more. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the hiring/rehiring process in this industry is not simple, and takes time, training and money. The booking process is also complicated: there are a number of decisions that have to be made about artists whose shows have been postponed, artists who are currently scheduled but who may not be ready to return to the stage, and a number of other COVID-era scenarios. 

All this being said, it is a good time to be cautiously optimistic, to get out of the cold, and to enjoy some live music once again. Here’s a taste. 

Read more: Fingers crossed towards full capacity

emmet ray 260 nt6i8Just 8760 little hours ago, in December of last year, most of us were hunkering down, keeping safe, and preparing for a very different winter than we’d enjoyed in years past. Visits home were cancelled; stockings were half-heartedly stuffed; home-office chairs swivelled disconsolately from Zoom meetings to Zoom cocktail hours. This year, however, things are looking just a little bit brighter: vaccination rates are up, case rates are down, and – though the threat of the pandemic looms, ever present on the periphery – it is looking as though we may indeed have a more conventional (and decidedly more sociable) holiday season. 

As of December 16, we will officially be at the five-month mark of music being back in Toronto and environs in the kinds of venues I usually cover in this column. For some audience members, this has meant five months of being back in venues, watching musicians return to the stage after a lengthy intermission, and witnessing restaurants, bars and concert halls sort through the thorny logistics of making COVID-safe adjustments, training new staff and, often, enacting new payment policies to ensure a more equitable and fair disbursement of funds to musicians. For other audience members, the return to live music has been slower, whether because of worries related to COVID transmission, a change in lifestyle, or – as has happened for so many people – a move, enabled by a shift to remote work, from a dense urban area to somewhere with more affordable housing options and more accessible outdoor spaces. 

Whatever the case may be, there are quite a few exciting shows happening in December. If holiday shows are your thing, there are a number of options, including the Kensington Holiday Bash (December 10, Grossman’s Tavern), A Charlie Brown Christmas and Castro’s Christmas Party (both December 12, Castro’s Lounge), Tom Nagy’s Christmas Experience (December 17, The Jazz Room), and the Jason White Christmas Special (December 18, also at The Jazz Room).

Read more: What a difference a year makes!

Ted Quinlan. Photo credit: Bill Beard.The crunch of a crisp brown leaf underneath one’s foot; the chill of the wind as it comes off the lake; a Conservative premier embroiled in a minor controversy about his comments regarding immigration and labour. Though the pandemic is far from over, it certainly seems as though Southern Ontario is getting back to its typical autumn rhythm. 

Things are much different, however, than they were at this time last year: with a proof-of-vaccination system in place, steadily declining case numbers, and capacity limits gradually being lifted for a variety of indoor business spaces, we may be forgiven for permitting ourselves a sense of cautious optimism. It is a great relief to be able to contemplate the idea of meeting friends for a drink and a show without feeling an immediate sense of imminent dread (although I suppose this is somewhat dependent on the show and the friends in question).

Read more: Fall with a spring in its step

Photo by Ori DaganAh, September. Across the country – as books are cracked open, backpacks are zipped up, and “”back to school” carries a whole different set of connotations: a pervasive sense of COVID-related anxiety weighing heavy on the collective national consciousness. It still doesn’t quite feel as though things are getting back to normal. It does, however, feel as though we’re gradually heading in the right direction, further potential lockdowns notwithstanding. Let’s hope so: for the venues I cover here, it’s a knife-edge situation still. 

As I have documented in multiple pieces over the last year, the pandemic has been exceptionally difficult for Toronto’s club scene, not least, as I outlined in a recent article, the exorbitant insurance premiums that venues have been asked to pay this year. For many venues, this development intensified existing financial hardship, introducing yet another element of precariousness to the Sisyphean task of hosting live music. 

The changing season, however, brings with it a kernel of hope. Though jazz venues don’t follow the same seasonal cycle as classical institutions, the relatively recent date – July 16 – of the return of live music means that this fall represents a potential turning point for clubs. Having had the summer to hire/re-hire staff, implement new safety protocols, make changes in payment policies, and attend to the myriad other demands of the reopening process, clubs are as ready as they’ll ever be to get back to business, whatever that may look like as the fall progresses into winter. 

Read more: For the clubs it’s not a moment too soon

Last month, the Kensington Market Jazz Festival and the Canadian Online Jazz Festival provided concrete examples of virtual engagement on a large scale, showing programmers, audiences and musicians what digital festivals can look like. Musicians, meanwhile, have spent the year grappling with questions of engagement on a deeply personal level. 

With live audiences largely inaccessible, being a professional musician in 2020 has also meant being a recording engineer, a videographer and a social media planner. It has meant paying more for an upgraded internet connection, purchasing studio monitors and interfaces, and soundproofing apartment bedrooms. It has meant, in a virtual world, that musicians must contend with an idea of themselves as a brand, a glowing, disembodied presence on the screens and speakers of listeners. 

This month, I spoke to six different musicians – saxophonist/vocalist Emily Steinwall, drummer Jon Foster, producer/keyboardist Adrian Hogan, guitarist Rod Rodrigues, drummer Robert Diack and guitarist (and WholeNote contributor) Sam Dickinson – about their experiences with the great virtual shift. What follows are extracts from our discussions that involve home recording, livestreaming, brand maintenance and authenticity. Many thanks to these interviewees for their generosity and honesty; all told, I received close to 7,000 words worth of material, enough for several months’ worth of coverage at my standard word counts here.

Read more: Going Digital: Six Musicians Reflect on the Great Virtual Shift
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