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The sun was sinking below the horizon as musician Rob Alford started his first set on the patio at Pup’s Steakhouse in Wilson on a beautiful Friday night in mid-June. Alford, with an acoustic guitar strapped over his shoulder and a selection of harmonicas at his fingertips, was playing in front of a crowd for the first time since COVID-19 basically shut down the restaurant/bar/live music scene in March.
“It was kind of herky-jerky getting started,” Alford said. “Quintin (Hedgepath, bass player) and I hadn’t played in the same room for six months. I forgot lyrics, but I owned the mistakes and just went on. I was just trying to shake the rust off. But everyone there was just happy to be out after months on the couch.”
But no one was happier than Alford, who went from playing 15 to 20 shows each month to zero shows for weeks and weeks.
“It’s mind-boggling the amount of income being lost by musicians these days,” Alford said. “I’m picking up a gig now and then, but there is such uncertainty. Music was my main source of income.”
Alford said he didn’t want to ask area restaurant owners for work, so he waited until restaurants called him.
“I figured Brian (Smith, general manager at Pup’s Steakhouse) would call me whenever it was time,” Alford said. “I knew a lot of places were going through hard times, so I didn’t want to be the pesky guy asking something from them.”
Pup’s did not jump into hosting live music immediately as Phase 2 of the state’s reopening process began.
“When we were first allowed to open our dining rooms and patio, we focused on sanitation and safety for our guests and staff for the first two weeks,” Smith said. “After we were comfortable with ‘the new normal’ we felt more than ready to start having live music again. Pup’s Steakhouse has become known for having live music every Friday and Saturday night. It’s what has made us Wilson’s favorite outdoor dining choice, great food, drinks and live local music.”
Pup’s seating capacity for the patio dining area is normally 106, so at 50% capacity the restaurant was allowed to have 53 people on the patio during Phase 2 of reopening. The restaurant strictly adheres to the social distancing of 6 feet apart, and staff measured patio tables to be at least if not more than 6 feet apart. Pup’s conducts daily health screenings for its staff and has signs posted throughout the restaurant reminding guests to wash and sanitize their hands often and to practice social distancing.
“Since our patio is more conducive to live music with the limitations on spacing with social distancing, we at this time will not be able to have live music inside during this phase,” Smith said. “So Mother Nature plays a huge role in whether or not we will have live music on any particular night.”
Local musician Steven Stewart, who performs as a solo artist in addition to playing with The Smashed Cardinals and TripleWide, was one of the first artists to play at Pup’s when restaurants began opening up in early June.
“I could tell they had spaced the tables farther apart and groups that seemed to come together seemed to want to stay together,” Stewart said. “You could tell people were happy to be out, and they were a very appreciative crowd in terms of applause and cheering.”
Stewart said that he also had to “shake off the rust.”
“Since March, I had only played once before at a neighborhood gig and at a taped event for a Whirligig Park fundraiser,” Stewart said. “I hadn’t played for more than an hour at a time since March, and I had a thought about halfway through the first set, ‘Oooo, three hours. Can I do this?’ My fingers were a little tender by the end of the night, but that was it.”
Stewart said that the crowd was thanking him for coming out that night and playing for them.
“Everyone was having a good time, and they were appreciative of being able to be out,” Stewart said.
Although outdoor performances seem to be going well right now, Stewart worries about live music going forward into the summer.
“This summer’s performances will be interesting, and if allowed, I’d love to be able to go out and play, but it’s just going to be weird,” Stewart said. “I feel pretty fortunate that I’m a musician who has a weekday job. Those who do not have been having a really hard time.”
Alford, who works at a music store for supplemental income, said that his calendar used to be “all black” with marks showing his performance schedule.
“I was playing from three to five days a week,” Alford said. “It hit me hard.”
Still, Alford was encouraged by the crowd at Pup’s in mid-June, saying that it was obvious that they appreciated both his talent and willingness to perform.
“I found that even with limiting seating capacity, the tips increased,” Alford said. “So many people were putting money in. I’ve noticed that often when playing outside, people won’t make that trip up to the stage to put a tip in, but they did that night. And it wasn’t large bills but rolls and rolls of $1 bills. People are going through so much right now, so it meant so much to me that people were willing to do that.”
MUSIC VENUE OPENINGS DIFFER IN WILSON
Not all restaurants and bars are opening for live music as restrictions ease. The state was still in Phase 2 at the time of these interviews.
217 Brew Works will remain closed until all restrictions are eased by the state, and Brewmasters is also taking a cautious approach.
“We won’t be featuring any live music until the state allows more people to gather,” said Mindy Dawson, with Brewmasters. “We are very conscious of how many people we allow in our building in order to protect our customers and staff. Right now, we are limiting the number of people inside to 75. We are following the governor’s guidelines, so we’ll pretty much know when everyone else does about when we can reopen.”
Although the Brewmasters location in Goldsboro has an outdoor stage, the Wilson location does not.
The New Normal, formerly Da Bayou, reopened in late June with live music already on the schedule. The restaurant’s outdoor seating area has a full schedule of bands booked for July.