COVID-19 encore: Garth Brooks, Neil Young cancel performances while industry tries to avoid another shutdown

·8 min read

The return of live music this summer felt like a return to normalcy, bringing the anticipation of fall stadium jaunts, mega-lineup festivals and the communal experience of concertgoing.

But with the surging delta variant of COVID-19 comes deflation and a nagging sense of deja vu.

On Wednesday, Garth Brooks canceled five stadium tour dates, saying in a statement "In July, I sincerely thought the pandemic was falling behind us. Now, watching this new wave, I realize we are still in the fight and I must do my part." Brooks canceled shows in Cincinnati, Charlotte, Baltimore, Seattle and Foxborough, Massachusetts. An estimated 350,000 tickets will be refunded.

Neil Young announced he would not perform at this year's sold-out Farm Aid in Hartford, Connecticut. In a message posted to his archives website, he wrote, "My soul tells me it would be wrong to risk having anyone die because they wanted to hear music and be with friends."

Brooks and Young's announcements followed a flood of live-music adjustments the week before. Stevie Nicks nixed her handful of 2021 festival dates; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival canceled for the second year in a row; and artists including Limp Bizkit, Michael Buble, Fall Out Boy and Lynyrd Skynyrd axed tours, shuffled dates or missed shows due to COVID-19 cases within the band or crew.

Covid and concerts: Do you need a vaccine to attend?

Stevie Nicks canceled her 2021 tour dates over COVID-19 concerns.
Stevie Nicks canceled her 2021 tour dates over COVID-19 concerns.

Concert promoters are again scrambling to adjust to the ever-shifting landscape, which means everything from requiring vaccinations or negative tests to asking live music fans for patience heading into what is unfolding as a confusing and unstable fall.

Varying state and city guidelines regarding masks and vaccinations have prompted many promoters and venue managers to install their own mandates in an effort to prevent a complete unraveling of the fragile concert scene.

Recently, both major concert entities – Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents – unveiled protocols to combat the surging virus. They will also require staff and employees to be vaccinated.

Within the next two months, Live Nation's fully owned and operated venues and festivals in the U.S. will require all artists and fans to either show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test where permitted by law.

Along with numerous amphitheaters in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Miami and Tampa, Florida, the Live Nation umbrella also includes Irving Plaza and the Gramercy Theatre in New York, the Hollywood Palladium in California, and Fillmore outposts in Denver, Minneapolis and New Orleans.

“Vaccines are going to be your ticket back to shows, and as of Oct. 4 we will be following the model we developed for Lollapalooza and requiring this for artists, fans and employees at Live Nation venues and festivals everywhere possible in the U.S.," said Live Nation Entertainment President and CEO Michael Rapino in a statement Friday.

AEG Presents will implement a vaccine mandate for entry into any of its owned and operated clubs, theaters and festivals in full effect by Oct. 1 – also where permitted by law. The date was chosen to allow unvaccinated ticketholders time to receive their shots or to wait for information about “limited” refunds.

The Killers are one of the bands on a Live Nation-promoted tour that has decided to implement vaccine mandates at some shows.
The Killers are one of the bands on a Live Nation-promoted tour that has decided to implement vaccine mandates at some shows.

Some of the venues under the company’s guidance include Webster Hall and Brooklyn Steel in New York, The Roxy and El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and soon-to-open The Theatre at Resorts World Las Vegas. AEG also oversees The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Coachella Music & Arts Festival, among others.

Jay Marciano, chief operating officer of AEG and chairman and CEO of AEG Presents, said in a statement that he is “confident and hopeful that, at the end of the day, we will be on the right side of history and doing what’s best for artists, fans and live event workers.”

More: How COVID-19 has affected the arts

'Friend to the vaccinated'

Jason Isbell had a simple reason for the protocols he’s installed at his live shows, only allowing fans with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Jason Isbell, shown performing in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2019, is mandating vaccines or negative COVID-19 tests to attend his concerts.
Jason Isbell, shown performing in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2019, is mandating vaccines or negative COVID-19 tests to attend his concerts.

“I don’t feel right on stage while I think people might be getting deathly ill in the crowd. I don’t think it’s fair to the audience or to the crews at the venues or to my crew to put people in a situation where they’re possibly risking their lives or taking the virus home to their kids, or they go to school and give it to other kids. It just didn’t feel right,” he told Rolling Stone.

The alt-country singer also changed his Twitter profile to read, “friend to children, the vaccinated, and those with certain underlying medical conditions.”

Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, canceled a concert in Houston on Wednesday after Isbell said the venue owner “flat-out refused” to comply with his safety requirements (venue administrators said they didn’t have enough time to execute the protocols).

Isbell’s show mate, Lucinda Williams, reiterated her support of his policies and announced on Twitter that her own upcoming dates would include the same guidelines.

“There is no debate. We simply can’t risk the health of fans, band and crew and we can’t be complicit in playing unsafe shows that contribute to the disastrous situations that are occurring at hospitals everywhere. If we as artists must lead then we will. No safety, no show,” she wrote.

John Mayer, at left, Bill Kreutzman and Bob Weir of Dead & Company In Concert at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 2015 in New York City.
John Mayer, at left, Bill Kreutzman and Bob Weir of Dead & Company In Concert at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 2015 in New York City.

Dead & Company, the group including Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti, also announced this week that fans must provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours prior to entry "for the health and safety of all" at the shows.

“There are no exceptions to these policies,” the band said in a statement.

Dead & Company's tour began Monday in Raleigh, North Carolina.

And starting with their Aug. 27 show at The Gorge Ampitheatre in Washington, fellow jam-banders Phish will also require proof of vaccination or a negative test within 48 hours, which will suffice for fans attending multiple shows at the same venue.

In her statement about staying off the road, Nicks, 73, noted that even though she is vaccinated, she is still being “extremely cautious” because of her age.

“My primary goal is to keep healthy so I can continue singing for the next decade or longer,” the Fleetwood Mac songstress said.

Festival or petri dish?

The day before its July 29 kickoff Lollapalooza executed a mandate that fans show proof of vaccine or a negative test for entry into the festival.

While some still criticized the decision to corral about 385,000 people in Chicago’s Grant Park over a four-day weekend, the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, defended the event because it was taking place outside.

Festivalgoers enjoy Day 1 of the Lollapalooza Music Festival on Thursday, July 29, 2021, at Grant Park in Chicago.
Festivalgoers enjoy Day 1 of the Lollapalooza Music Festival on Thursday, July 29, 2021, at Grant Park in Chicago.

In the two weeks since Lollapalooza, 203 attendees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and none who tested positive had to be hospitalized or died, according to the Chicago Department of Health Commissioner Allison Arwady.

Other upcoming festivals around the country are following a similar blueprint by requiring vaccines and/or negative COVID-19 tests taken within a 72-hour window.

About 60,000 fans are expected to attend the free We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert on Saturday on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park with marquee names including Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Hudson and Paul Simon.

Even bigger throngs are estimated for Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee (Sept. 2-5); Summerfest in Milwaukee (Sept. 2-4, 9-11 and 16-18); Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas (Sept. 17-19); Music Midtown in Atlanta (Sept. 18-19); and Louder Than Life in Louisville, Kentucky (Sept. 23-26). All will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

The October production of Austin City Limits Music Festival, featuring headliners such as Billie Eilish, Duran Duran and George Strait, is sold out. The event usually attracts about 75,000 fans to Zilker Park each day of the two-weekend gathering, spurring a group called Cancel ACL Fest to urge organizers to scrap this year's festival.

Citing the laws passed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to prohibit vaccine passports and mask mandates, the group feels, “For the public safety of all that live in Austin, it’s best to cancel the festival.”

As of Thursday, the petition on Change.org had more than 2,000 signatures.

But as uncertainty in the industry looms, there is optimism that newly instituted guidelines and protocols will help curb a concert implosion.

"We know people are eager to return to live events and we hope these measures encourage even more people to get vaccinated," Live Nation's Rapino said in a memo to employees last week. "That is the number one thing anyone can do to take care of those around them and we are encouraging as many shows as possible to adopt this model.”

Contributing: Mike Snider

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Garth Brooks, Neil Young cancel as music industry tries to avoid shutdown