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Delta Blues: Touring Artists Face New Challenges in an Ongoing Pandemic

Brian Buchowski | Writer

Lehigh Valley residents are flocking back to live music venues this fall. But while audiences relish a return to normal, some artists are struggling to adapt to the challenges of COVID-era touring.

Many venues, in the absence of clear guidelines, are shifting responsibility for vaccine requirements and mask mandates to the artists themselves. This shift forces entertainers to make a choice to either feel safe onstage, or draw the ire of unvaccinated fans.

“It’s frustrating,” said Johanna Sö, violinist for Canadian band The Town Pants. “In addition to trying to focus on doing our jobs well, we’re also expected to lay down the law to keep ourselves and others safe.”

Sö admits that she’s having difficulty leaving her stress and anxiety behind when she steps onstage. “There’s a little cloud that I just can’t seem to shake,” she said. “I’m still full of questions. Is my being here irresponsible? Are audience members vaccinated?”

Her worries are far from unfounded. Fewer than 20% of Americans under the age of 18 have received their first dose of a COVID vaccine, and many are frequent concertgoers. The high transmission rate of the Delta variant, coupled with loosening restrictions and a return to indoor gatherings, is fueling a troubling surge in new infections. Artists like Sö are left wondering whether their decision to tour is making the problem worse.

Still, she acknowledges that not every challenge she faces is directly related to the virus. After almost two years at home, adjusting to the hectic and exhausting schedule of touring life is daunting.

“The toughest thing about our first show back was that our set time was scheduled for 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.!” she said. “I had gotten used to being in my pajamas by 8.”

She likens live performance to a muscle which, if neglected, can atrophy.

“No amount of jamming in our bedrooms or playing live streams in front of a camera really prepares the body for the rush of being back in front of a live crowd.”

For now, that rush is enough to keep Sö and her bandmates out on the road. Nevertheless, she feels that something has tangibly changed. The ever-present spectre of the pandemic haunts her, both on and offstage, and it’s emotionally and physically draining.

“It’s sort of like performing while grieving someone you’ve lost,” she said. “You can still get on stage and do your job, but that grief you’re dealing with is there for you as soon as you get offstage.”


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