Nico and Jeff perform within the Ironwood Stage and Grill’s custom sound booth. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS

Music venues around the city have begun to reopen following their closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not without a big change. Ironwood Stage and Grill, The Blues Can and Mikey’s on 12th Avenue have introduced sound booths, which allow vocalists to sing — something Alberta’s current regulations do not allow for. 

The sound booths are rooms or spaces that contain a plexiglass screen that blocks droplets from reaching the listeners in the audience, something that helps to comply with Alberta Health Services’ requirements for live music and entertainment.

Patrick MacIntyre, owner of the Ironwood Stage and Grill, says this idea came to him pretty early once everything was being shut down in March. 

“When phase 2 of Alberta’s plan didn’t include live music… I decided I could build [the booth] quite easily. I used to be a carpenter, so it helps.”

Nico and Jeff perform within the Ironwood Stage and Grill’s custom sound booth. Photo courtesy of Sam Phelps.

Stage 3 of Alberta’s plan only allowed for instrumental music to be played by bands performing. MacIntyre then implemented his sound booth idea into the stage at the Ironwood and could play shows with vocalists, which would not have been possible before.

MacIntyre says he kept his booth idea quiet until they played a couple of shows at Ironwood, and then shared the ideas with other venues around town.

“The musicians support me as much as I support them, so if I can get other venues presenting music, and my musician friends still playing music, that’s something I’d be most proud of.” 

So far, MacIntyre says that the reception has been positive with those who come in for shows, but numbers are down. Currently, with physical distancing regulations, Ironwood can hold up to 60 guests, depending on the numbers within groups that arrive at the venue, which is significantly down from the 181 they previously had before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Instrumental is good in spurts, but we do four hour shows here and if people are going to be sitting here for a while, we don’t want to do that.”

Teena Wilson, The Blues Can.

Another Inglewood venue, The Blues Can has welcomed back live music – thanks to the sound booths MacIntyre helped build. Teena Wilson, manager at The Blues Can says this is due to the booth.

“When we can’t do live vocals and only instrumental shows, that doesn’t work for us. We’re a live music venue. That’s what we do,” Wilson says.

“Instrumental is good in spurts, but we do four hour shows here and if people are going to be sitting here for a while, we don’t want to do that.”

Wilson says the experience has been different with the regulations put in place, especially with some small changes inside. She says they have had couples two-stepping on the sidewalk outside, because of physical distancing regulations within the venue.

Greg Smith (left) and Teena WIlson (right) stand outside the Blues Can in Inglewood. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS

A different atmosphere for performers:

For Tom Phillips, who performs as part of Tom Phillips and Friends on Tuesdays at The Blues Can, the experience of singing in the booth was a definite change, but a welcome one. 

Phillips usually plays as part of a six-piece band, but that changed as harmony singers could not share the booth. So the group becomes a three-piece. While the experience is different than the past, Phillips is making the best of it.

Tom Phillips poses with his current three-piece band inside The Blues Can. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS

“The first time, I thought it was going to be super weird. But everyone immediately started listening. I’ve played with these guys for a long time, and they know what’s going on. It’s all about listening hard to each other. We can’t do any visual cues like jumping around.”

Phillips says the music itself sounds great, even with the booth. MacIntryre added a few tapestries and changes within the booths to make it acoustically receptive, removing the “bouncing” that can occur. He also says there is less sound bleed from drums and guitars into the vocalist’s mic, which helps make a crisper sound. 

Tom Phillips plays inside the south booth installed on the stage at the Blues Can. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS

How to keep venues safe:

Jay Bowcott, who hosts open mic night at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue, says he is happy to be back hosting the events, but is wary of health and safety at the same time. 

“It’s been good. The struggle has been that people have to bring microphones and bring instruments, and I won’t budge on that. I’ve had a couple of people leave because of that, upset that they didn’t bring their own. They have to consider that it is because Mike and the bar are trying to be safe.”

Jay Boycott plays within a different variation of sound booth built to allow live music during open mic night at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS

Bowcott says it’s been slightly tough to advertise the event, with fears that the crowd might be large in a small space. He says he tries to remind those who come to the events to wear masks and be careful because he wants to keep the events going. 

Echoing that sentiment, Wilson and MacIntryre say as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and outbreaks are reported, the number of people who come out for live music goes down. For McIntyre, it isn’t surprising. 

“The mood and appetite for music ebbs and flows with what they see on TV that day, and rightfully so. No one wants to be put in harm’s way for a concert, even though they’re dying to see it.”

The interior of Mikey’s on 12th Avenue, set up for a socially distanced music experience. PHOTO: SAM PHELPS