There have been moments in the past year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic where it’s felt like some societal customs would never return. Handshakes: Over. Salad bars: Done. Karaoke: Seems risky.
Every time I’d get an alert that a concert I was looking forward to had been delayed, cancelled, or indefinitely postponed, I would jump to the catastrophic conclusion that live music, as we knew it, was over. As it turns out, that’s not the case.
On Monday evening, I cautiously attended my first indoor concert in 669 days. The Yo La Tengo tickets had been purchased during that brief window of hope and possibility in the beginning of July, when Oregon’s mask requirement was lifted and for a moment, we considered the future. The idea of activities beyond COVID were dashed by the arrival of the delta variant, but we still kept the tickets, holding onto the future promise of a familiar social gathering.
The evening began on what felt like a sidewalk conveyor belt outside the Wonder Ballroom, a mixture of old and new routines. Bag check, security pat-down, ID check, vaccine card check, ticket scan, and a reminder to keep masks on throughout the evening. I smiled at the woman who checked my ID when she held up the card and glanced at the top half of my face. “Thank you for smiling,” she tells me.
Entering the venue feels like traveling backward in time. We’re greeted by hand sanitizer stations and a breeze from giant ceiling fans with the wingspan of an albatross. Three-foot plexiglass walls separate merch stand cashiers from the public and bartenders from customers. People shyly pull down their masks to sip plastic cups of draft beer or mixed drinks, and make small talk.
The trio entered the stage shortly after 8:30, barely acknowledging the masked crowd before diving into a shimmering sea of synths, tambourine shakes, and soft vocals.
I quickly learned that many quirks of a live show haven’t changed: People still snake through crowds beer-first, the guy next to you whose dancing incorporates a lot of arm movements will still elbow you in the boob twice, a mysterious fart will appear and linger in the middle of the first set, someone will shout “WE LOVE YOU GUYS” during a pause between songs, and there will still be something making the floor mysteriously sticky. Social distancing fades as the night goes on (and more alcohol is consumed), meaning you may have to nudge the tipsy woman swaying in front of you and politely shoulder through a group of people to find your spot after a bathroom break. (A warning: They won’t be able to see you mouth the words “Thank you” when you squeeze past.)
Yo La Tengo has been making music and touring for more than three decades—the kind of experience reflected in their casual midst-of-a-pandemic stage presence. Lead guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan seemed genuine in his affection for the Portland audience, stressing how nice it was to be among people. His wife, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley smiled and waved at the crowd like she was seeing extended family for the first time after getting vaccinated. And James McNew, the bands’ bassist, smirked as the audience nodded along to his funky bass line in “Autumn Sweater.” By 11:30, the crowd was stomping its feet for more—sparking an encore featuring former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and former R.E.M. touring member Scott McCaughey.
Despite the palpable joy of the audience, emotions didn’t dissolve the safety measures of the event. Fans sung along to songs behind masks, and no one crowd surfed—the ultimate super-spreader activity. Wonder Ballroom staff kept their eyes on the audience, appearing to keep tabs on individuals’ adherence to the mask requirements. For being inside a dark room with more than 60 people after months of crossing the street to avoid walking too close to another person, it felt oddly safe. None of the fears I had imagined taking place as the concert date approached—A fight over a person refusing to wear a mask! A sweaty mosh pit! Someone sneezing directly into my eyes?—came to pass.
Perhaps it was enough to be standing amongst vaccinated strangers, swaying to a melody that had been long-quarantined to headphones, remembering that these moments haven’t disappeared.
If you’re vaccinated and want to remember that you can still experience nice things in an uncertain world, take yourself to a live show. The ringing in your ears the next morning will feel like a treat.
Yo La Tengo is playing a second show at the Wonder Ballroom tonight at 8:30. Tickets are still available online.