My iPhone rating “Guster tour, Pros and Cons” was getting more and more unbalanced.
Our impending club tour, booked nine months ago after a run halted by COVID in March 2020, was in jeopardy. We assumed then – it seems like ages ago – that the winter of 2022 would give us enough time to present a safe tour for us and our fans. Other groups made similar plans as our industry tried, once again, to regain its footing after the crushing wave of Delta. Tickets for our shows went surprisingly fast, and a few venues sold out almost immediately. Despite a pandemic that continued to dominate the news cycle, our workplaces and our lives at home, our fans seemed eager to jump into the mass of humanity that is a rock concert.
Enter Omicron. Early data from South Africa suggested where U.S. case rates were heading, and most experts seemed to predict the highly contagious variant would be prevalent by the time of our tour. My bandmates and I started wondering, should we postpone? I was of two conflicting minds: The show must continue and There’s no way we’re getting out of this. Hence the list.
Obviously, the public health concern was at the forefront. Omicron was seemingly everywhere, and we were basically about to have a beach party with a tsunami on the horizon. Also concerning was the fact that even if we were able to safely gather the crowds, we could actually lose money if we were unable to complete all of the shows due to a positive case on the bus. Many current COVID protocols for touring musicians, which are usually self-imposed, involve regular testing; without layoffs, a band or crew member with a positive test would throw a huge spanner in the works, potentially crushing our touring machine.
These rules also include a litany of behavioral restrictions for tour staff. Sample language: “Do not eat in restaurants/bars/cafes. Take-out is ok. Seek to avoid indoor spaces where you are unmasked and other people outside your bubble are unmasked. One would expect that we stay backstage or on the bus almost every moment, essentially isolating ourselves from the places we would be visiting.One of the most enduring parts of my job is just being able to explore the cities we find ourselves in. Being sequestered backstage, while eminently doable, felt like one more cut in a thousand.
I was also struggling with how our energy on stage would feel. Was I going to be able to stand in front of our fans every night and honestly say, “It’s good to be here. I’m glad we’re all gathered in this room tonight”? In the weeks leading up to what was to be our first show, I was bombarded with anxious thoughts: It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t sound like what we or our fans need right now. And if I couldn’t accept that basic premise — that it was safe to come together and commune through our music — it felt irresponsible to step up to that microphone and into the aerosol haze night after night.
I couldn’t speak with authority about the most important element of our calculation: how did our audience feel about coming to our shows? What started as direct messages to the group (Are you canceling your concerts? Where I have plane tickets and hotels booked, are these concerts taking place?) quickly turned into requests (I hope you will cancel your concert in Boston; he doesn’t feel safe right now). So I sent it back to our fans, which became the Twitter post that ultimately killed our tour. On January 3, we published:
On a scale of one to ten, would you be comfortable attending a live concert in January?
(1 – “I’m never leaving my house again” and 10 – “What is a Covid?”)
I’m just trying to wrap my head around this thing… 😅
—guster (@guster) January 3, 2022
Twitter’s responses underscored for us the responsibility we had as a catalyst for a mass rally. As live performers, we share the goal of bringing together hundreds or thousands of people for a few hours in one room. Even though most of our fans remained COVID-free, what if one of them brought the virus home to their children? What if our show directly led to the hospitalization of a vulnerable senior? Concerts earlier in the year became known as superspreader events; is that really what we’re supposed to do here?
One particularly heavy band, Zoom, concluded with a collective decision to postpone the tour. We were able to find new dates for the biggest pair of shows in Boston. And we keep scrambling for the rest of the makeup shows.
Watching our peers struggle with these same dynamics has been heartbreaking. Our friends from Vermont, Phish, have delayed their annual Madison Square Garden race for four nights. Adele postponed three months of weekend shows in Las Vegas the day before her first gig, saying: “Half my team is down from covid.” Elton John, Jason Isbell and the Fugees have all cited COVID in canceling or postponing their shows. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy summed up the chaos: “A lot of rocks and a lot of tough spots.” For groups and promoters, there is no perfect solution. It’s not an ideal time.
But performers are not alone in this emotional and practical gymnastics. Each of us, whether we’re in a band or not, has struggled with this mental math for the past 22 months. Every time one of us sends our kids to school, declines or accepts an invitation to a backyard barbecue, sits down at a restaurant, visits parents, or goes on a work trip, our brain math lights up. We have all become amateur epidemiologists with calculators in hand, tallying up risk exposure x fun quotient x emotional needs x material needs to know whether to stay or leave. When simple coexistence in society becomes an existential threat, who is not completely exhausted?
Yet this pandemic is predictable only in its unpredictability. For now, the boosters appear to be offering strong protection against Omicron, hospital admissions may be starting to decline in some parts of the country, and even Anthony Fauci, ever the sunniest of prognosticators, said he thought there might be a “turnaround” across the country soon. This is how a surge of genuine hope seeps into many of my conversations for the first time in a long time. Maybe sooner rather than later we will find ourselves safely in a post-Omicron world, a post-pandemic world, a real Bourbon Street USA Sign me up, I can’t wait to get back to work.