With COVID cases continuing their three-month decline, vaccines flowing and artists with a year of material ready to perform, the coming months are shaping up to be great times to attend live music in Tucson. Of course, many local venues are not quite ready to host indoor concerts. Those with patios are utilizing their outdoor spaces, and even indoor-only venues are finding unique ways to get music to the masses—or prep audiences for when the time is right.
The Fox Theatre is collaborating with the Downtown Tucson Partnership to bring back live music, but this isn't a traditional indoor concert series, because the music may very well come to you. Troubadour Thursdays takes place throughout April, and serves as a "downtown patio tour," where local musicians will move throughout downtown and perform to multiple restaurants and open areas. Each week features a different style of music, and all of the travelling "troubadours" are local.
According to Bonnie Schock, who became executive director of the Fox Theatre mere weeks before COVID brought live concerts to a halt, the theatre staff spent most of late 2020 planning out different events, but multiple times they were wiped out. The Troubadour Thursdays series ultimately came into focus in mid-February as a way to get more music downtown, and benefit nearby businesses that have shifted to open-air concepts.
"We adapted, and let it grow and change based on how the realities of how the public health concerns shifted," Schock said. "Because we can't really bring people into the theatre, we looked at how we can have events in a way that meets people where they are and in a safe way, and of course helps us launch music again in downtown with some regularity."
Each Thursday, the musical groups will begin their tour at the Fox and then proceed throughout downtown with stops at seven restaurant patios: Charro Steak & Del Rey, The Hub, Batch Tucson, Ten55 Brewing, La Chingada, 47 Scott and Senae Thai Bistro. Each stop will include 10- to-15-minute music performances. This transitory experience is intended to call back to the traveling style of traditional troubadours, and also feature a modern "pop up" feeling.
"We very much see our role at the Fox as an economic anchor for downtown, because the partnerships we have with dining are very important," Schock said. "So we really wanted to use the opportunity to highlight all the wonderful patios that had developed, because in this time everyone has gotten creative and moved outside."
For their performers, Fox looked at what types of music are safer during COVID, and decided to stick with only acoustic, no larger than a duo, and no music with horns. (That is to say, instruments that don't have the potential to spray.) The musicians are also provided with personal protective equipment, and are making sure to not physically enter restaurant spaces.
The series kicks off on April 1 with the Kiko Jácome Duo performing a mix of original and classic songs in Tucson's signature desert rock style. Jazz week follows on April 8, with Hot Club of Tucson performing Django Reinhardt-inspired jazz on guitar and violin. On April 15, University of Arizona music graduate Sophia Rankin performs folk music. Sonoran Dogs member Peter McLaughlin and multi-instrumentalist Alvin Blaine perform bluegrass on April 22. And to close it out on April 29, Tucson familiars PD Ronstadt and Don Armstrong perform their brand of Americana.
"We really had an enthusiastic response; people are looking for ways they can come back and have a relationship with the audience through their work," Schock said. "We wanted to appeal to different tastes and different aesthetics, and that's something that's true of the Fox's programming overall. We have an intentionally eclectic mix of programs that are intended to move across interests and demographics. That might not entirely be the case here, because it's only five shows, but it's definitely intended to be a mix of styles."
Beyond Troubadour Thursdays, the Fox Theatre is aiming for fall to return to indoor shows, in accordance with planning from most of the national touring industry. However, many elements, including the size of shows, are still being planned. These upcoming shows include 2020 events that were cancelled due to COVID, as well as new concerts.
"Things have changed, and they very well may change again, so we don't want to make firm promises until we know for sure. But fall is very much the target, and I feel confident at this point that we're going to be able to make that happen," Schock said.
Just up the street, Hotel Congress has managed to host music on their outdoor stage through most of the pandemic—and things are only expanding with new funding and new concert series. On March 17, the Rio Nuevo District board of directors voted to provide Hotel Congress with $300,000 to build out their Copper Hall space, improve restrooms and provide more staging on their plaza.
The Hotel Congress plaza is keeping busy with their Jazz Fridays series hosting performers like Duo Vibrato, Pete Swan and Flute Juice Jazz. Congress Cookouts on Sundays combine local blues music with specialty barbecue food, and Soul Food Wednesday opens up their space to local black-owned businesses for a combination of food, music and vendors. Their fan-favorite Retro Game Show night is also returning on Sunday, April 4, with a blend of comedy, trivia and costumes.
Hotel Congress staff says turnout has been very positive for these outdoor events, and reservations at their Cup Cafe are strongly encouraged due to limited seating in line with COVID safety measurements.
"Everything has had to go by feel," said Hotel Congress entertainment director David Slutes. "If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I may have said we're returning in the fall. But things seem to be getting up and running quite quickly... Everyone wants to play, and the guests are definitely craving it. The response has been wonderful, the tips bands are getting have been terrific, and it's just a good feeling right now."
They are also starting to book shows more in line with their Club Congress audience. These shows are still taking place outdoors in their plaza, but include indie rock and pop bands to reach a different audience than their blues and jazz series.
"The genre series are great, but I also want to get back to just booking good live music regardless of what style they fall into," Slutes said. "And frankly, you don't want to carve out nights for specific things when you might have other opportunities."
Hotel Congress is also known for their larger events like the Agave Heritage Festival and HoCo Fest, which often last multiple days and utilize various venues in the downtown area. And while the Hotel staff would love to announce these signature shows for later this year, as with everything else due to COVID, it's up in the air. As Slutes puts it: There's a million plans, but nothing set in stone.
"I really do think downtown is going to slingshot into a better place, into what downtown needs to be, which is not just a bunch of bars, but something with strong cultural and community activities that people can enjoy safely," Slutes said. "For as damaging as this time was, it was a nice opportunity for a re-fit."
Across from Hotel Congress, the Rialto Theatre has a few more months to wait before hosting concerts. But they've used this downtime to organize an exhibit more than a decade in the making. The Rialto Theatre Gallery Project, which opens to the public on Friday, April 2, showcases the wide variety of performers Rialto and its affiliates have hosted, as captured by their house photographers C. Elliott and Mark Martinez.
"We've had this asset for a long time and not really known what to do with it, so I guess a small silver lining in closing the theatre to music is it gives us time to inventory it all, print the photographs, map them and frame them," said Michael McGrath, who has served as a lawyer for the Rialto board since the 1990s. "It's almost like a journalistic cataloging of all the shows we've done over the years. And I've often wondered 'When are we going to close the theatre to show this display?' So it's always something I've wanted to do, because it's a treasure trove of musical history and some great photography."
Rialto's archive contains more than 5,000 photographs detailing shows since 2004. Rialto and their affiliate venues like 191 Toole hosted more than 400 shows in 2018 alone. From this massive collection, the Rialto Theatre Gallery Project shows 75 images from their shows, as well as concerts they produced at the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall, and a dozen concert posters designed by Ryan Trayte. Featured artists in the exhibit include Childish Gambino, Dave and Phil Alvin, Michael Franti, Tom Jones, Elvis Costello, Snoop Dogg and Durand Jones. Photos are available for purchase, and if bought, the gallery slot will be replaced with another image from the archive.
The gallery will also play a soundtrack of some of the artists on display, curated by Cathy Rivers, the executive director of KXCI Community Radio Station.
"We're really happy to have C. Elliott and Mark Martinez finally get their due," McGrath said. "We've had this great repository of images, and they've done such a good job chronicling what's happened at the Rialto, so it's nice to be able to feature them."
McGrath expects the gallery to be up until music returns most likely in the fall, but that's not to say it will stay the same. After a month or so of the initial 75-image gallery, Rialto plans to move into special exhibitions highlighting images from the Tucson Folk Festival, Tucson Jazz Festival and potentially an exhibition highlighting local musicians like Calexico and Howe Gelb. They plan to have a new one of these special exhibitions every month, potentially celebrating the city's blues and mariachi scenes as well.
"I'm hoping we can do the Folk Fest special to add it as part of the exhibition," McGrath said. "So it may be two-thirds Rialto collection and one-third of the Folk Fest, just like you'd have in a normal gallery: you have your more permanent collection and your special exhibitions."
To maintain COVID safety, the gallery viewing is reservation-only, and includes viewing stations so people don't bunch up at certain areas. The gallery itself is in the Rialto's auditorium, running from the back to the front, and even includes photos on the stage.
"I think that will be cool for people coming by, because they'll get up on the Rialto stage and perhaps see the theatre in a way they've never seen it," McGrath said. "We're trying to recreate the excitement of walking in the front of the Rialto to see someone you're interested in... Really we wanted to whet people's appetite, have them come down and see some great shows they attended or missed, and get prepared for the music actually coming back in the next several months."
Outside of downtown, multiple venues with outdoor stages are providing local musicians an outlet for their work. The ever-hospitable Monterey Court in the Miracle Mile area continually hosts local performers on their stage where audiences can enjoy food and a drink. While they focus on Tucson's folk and blues scene, Monterey Court also presents comedy, reggae and jazz. On Saturday, March 27, Monterey Court even held a songwriting competition and benefit concert for the upcoming Tucson Folk Festival.
The 36th annual Tucson Folk Festival takes place next weekend, April 10-11, at multiple stages throughout town. Hosted by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association, Arizona Arts Live, and the University of Arizona's Arizona Arts, the festival will take place at three different venues: a drive-in stage at Park Place Mall, UA's Centennial Hall and the Mercado San Agustin's Annex. Though it's titled the Tucson Folk Festival, performers come in from multiple states to perform and showcase "the very best of acoustic music."