“We are hurting:” Boone bars cope with changes to live music

David Brashier

In normal times, bars in Boone offer an eclectic array of live music performances to entertain patrons. But, the COVID-19 pandemic means that whether bands are able to play or not varies on the establishment.

Tapp Room closed its doors to dine-in patrons in early March and didn’t reopen until late May. While customers were able to enjoy the bar’s food and drink specials again, Tapp Room curtailed live music performances.

Situational Awareness performing at Tapp Room. In the wake of the pandemic, bars had to decide whether or not to open spaces back up to live music. (Courtesy of Tapp Room)

“We used to hold concerts two to three times a week, and it was definitely one of our major pulls,” said Matt Manely, the general manager at Tapp Room. “There seems to be a great connection between the bands and their fans as well as between the bar and these concertgoers.”

Tapp Room resumed live music in July and swiftly improvised to adhere to mandated social distancing measures, Manely said.

The bar is currently hosting free acoustic bluegrass sessions featuring NADA Bluegrass Band every other Tuesday, and COVIP Sessions (COVID-friendly VIP sessions) every other Thursday.

“COVIP concerts we’re doing as intimate concert experiences,” Manely said. “We sell tables of six at $10 a head, realistically only seating 20-30 people total.”

Tapp Room also features Foothills Festival Express Fridays, a partnership with Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem. Every Friday, Manely streams live concerts performed at the brewery on a projector in the bar and offers drink specials on the Foothills beers.

Though Manely is discouraged that the music life normally seen at Tapp Room is only a fraction of what it used to be, he loves to see the enthusiasm his patrons share now that concerts have returned to the bar.

“Going from two to three concerts each week to just one, we are hurting from not being able to bring in bands like we used to,” Manely said. “But I’d say the enthusiasm surrounding our shows has been the same. People definitely want to see live music again, so they put a lot of priority on getting their tickets.”

While bars like Tapp Room are making the most of COVID-friendly live music, other venues err on the side of caution. Ransom Pub on King Street featured two to three performances each week before the pandemic but hasn’t made any attempts to resume since March.

“Live music definitely was a draw to the pub,” said Todd Hendley, a managing partner at Ransom. “We had regulars who came in on Wednesdays for the live bluegrass rounds, and we definitely had a late-night crowd Fridays and Saturdays for local bands.”

For Hendley, the silver lining has been the cut in expenses that come with hosting live performers. Having extra cash on hand has proven helpful while Gov. Roy Cooper’s current order prohibiting alcohol sales after 11 p.m. cut sales.

Despite the lack of expenses helping business, there’s no denying Ransom’s staff greatly desires to host live music again, both for business and the community atmosphere at the pub, Hendley said. For Ransom, it is only a question of when.

“The game has just changed so much, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the new normal will be for us,” said Hendley. “I wish I could give a start date, I wish I could know something.”

Noble Kava, a smaller, under-the-radar venue with a massive following amongst its patrons, is also playing it safe. While the bar’s staff is disappointed that they had to cancel live shows entirely, they are encouraged at the unwavering sense of community that has maintained itself in the meantime.

“(The community) has still been tight-knit,” said Kya Stillson, a bartender at Noble Kava. “There have been a lot of talks about mental health and how to stay positive, safe and healthy during this pandemic. It’s been really beautiful to watch.”

For Stillson, the music community surrounding Noble Kava’s live shows was less about the music and more about the people who came to watch in an intimate venue.

Artists frequently featured on Noble Kava’s stage have been coping with the loss of not getting to perform at a truly unique venue. For bands like Speedball, a local funk-rock/alternative group, their music career wouldn’t exist without the bar

“We were lucky to have a venue at the kava bar, in the beginning, we could play one night a week at,” said Lucas Triba, guitarist for Speedball. “We all met at the Noble Kava bar.”