Fayetteville’s live music scene is slowly coming back to life after a year of reduced or altered performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor Asa Hutchinson ordered the closure of all restaurant dining rooms and bars March 19 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. He announced May 11 that restaurants could reopen at limited capacity and with social distancing guidelines in place, but for venues centered around live music, these guidelines made holding shows a challenge. Regarding performances, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently suggests spacing musicians out farther than six feet on stage and considering suspending performances involving wind instruments.
Jenna Melnicki, lead vocalist for the ‘60s band Jenna and the Soul Shakers, said the pandemic caused big bands to reconfigure the way they approached performances. Many resorted to performing in smaller groups at smaller venues, including Melnicki, who turned to booking gigs with her duo, Jenna and Tony, and her trio, Jenna and Friends, during the summer.
Her ‘60s band performed together on April 3 at George’s Majestic Lounge for the first time since the pandemic started. Feeling the energy from the crowd and seeing people dancing to their music was “nothing short of magical,” Melnecki said.
“Being on that big stage and having a room full of people up dancing in front of the stage, I’m still riding cloud 9 from it honestly,” Melnicki said. “It was really really incredible.”
Steve Dimmitt, lead singer and guitarist for The Overworked and Underpaid, transitioned to performing solo and duo acoustic shows in the wake of COVID-19. When owners of local music venues first approached him about performing acoustically, Dimmitt said he immediately agreed, because he wanted to be part of a solution that would provide some sense of normalcy.
His favorite part of in-person performances is getting to connect with the crowd, Dimmitt said.
“The best thing for me and the reason that I like connecting with the crowd so much is because of the smiles and the joy that we’re blessed to be able to give to people,” Dimmitt said. “Not being able to do that sucked, but we’re proud to get back to it.”
The Overworked and Underpaid’s first gig since the start of the pandemic is set for April 30 at JJ’s Grill Springdale.
With the decrease in live music performances, many musicians experienced a steep decline or halt in income. These financial challenges inspired Jordan Ellington, the frontman for The Formals, to start a moving and delivery company in July 2020 called Magnolia Logistics. Through this business, Ellington has provided job opportunities for his bandmates and other local musicians who have lost their income due to a lack of live performances.
During the absence of live shows the past year, the band members tried to get together at least once a month to play together, because music is an integral part of their life, Ellington said.
“I consider myself an artist, and (music) is my canvas,” Ellington said. “I just couldn’t be happy without it.”
The Formals played their first in-person gig in over a year April 10 at Moonbroch Brewery in Rogers. Not being able to perform has been suffocating for Ellington, and being back on stage for the first time was truly amazing, he said. From looking back on videos of the performance, he said he could tell that his bandmates felt the same way.
“Even playing sad, depressing songs, we just had giant grins on our faces,” Ellington said. “It was so needed.”
The Formals’ next show is set for May 22 at Hartgroves Park in Fort Smith.
Angie Messner, owner of Six Twelve CoffeeHouse and Bar, said her business slowly started to bring back live music over the summer about four nights a week. With several of the larger music venues closed, Messner hosted many new musicians as they searched for more places to perform. Live music has been a silver lining for her business during the pandemic as she has transitioned to having performances seven nights per week and is booked for the rest of the year, she said.
Messner has continuously altered Six Twelve’s performance protocols to meet the CDC’s changing guidelines, such as attendance capacity and social distancing for both the audience and the musicians on stage, she said. She has put up television screens with the musicians’ information and Venmo accounts, a mobile payment app, so that customers can tip them without using tip jars. Last month, Messner also began live streaming performances on Facebook so that people could watch them from home.
“We’re just trying to pivot with the pandemic and respect people’s comfort levels,” Messner said.
For Melnicki, live streaming became an avenue to continue making and sharing her music. Melnicki said she does not think she would have thought of live streaming her shows if it was not for the pandemic, but she thinks it is a good way to connect with people who may not have been able to attend the show in person.
Melnicki is excited to see the live music scene in Fayetteville slowly start to come back to life, and many musicians are eager to get back to playing regular gigs, she said.
“With all of the craziness in the world, (music) provides a way to just forget about it for a couple hours and have a good time and celebrate,” Melnicki said. “It’s a good thing, and I would say it’s a vital part of the heart and soul of Northwest Arkansas for sure.”