The Bug Jar is a slim sliver of Rochester real estate. Four small rooms, if you count the two bathrooms, at the corner of Monroe Avenue and South Union Street.
Yet, it is such a big deal in Rochester’s music scene. I’ve written it before, I’ll write it again: Red Creek and The Penny Arcade are in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. The Bug Jar, which reopens Friday, should be there as well.
“We’re chomping at the bit,” co-owner Bobby Teresa says of the Bug Jar comeback, before adding a note of caution. “But now with all of this COVID stuff kinda coming back, popping its ugly head, it’s making us a little nervous.”
The Bug Jar’s stage has been silent since March 2020. After three decades, a long life for an indie music venue, it took the coronavirus pandemic to shut down the place.
The club is home to the city’s underground rock scene. Local bands just starting out. Local bands that have been playing there for years. Rochester’s Joywave, which tours internationally, frequently played the Bug Jar as it was getting its act together. Half of Atlanta’s Grammy-winning metal rockers, Mastodon, played in the Rochester band Lethargy, another Bug Jar regular.
And the Bug Jar has been a destination for indie bands criss-crossing the country in vans, just looking for a place to stop for the night and play. It’s well-known local lore that the club has played host to major acts before most of the country knew who they were: The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and Lizzo.
Booking shows is a science. Doug Kelley, whose day job is laser amplifier technician at the University of Rochester’s laser lab, handles the bulk of it for the Bug Jar. Friday night’s reopening night is sold out at 150 tickets — as we said, it’s a small place — although some tickets will be available at the door, if you get there early enough. And the lineup feels like the old days. Four raucous Rochester garage rockers: Checks and Exes, Saint Free, Overhand Sam and Bad Weapon, and House Majority.
It will be local bands that carry the Bug Jar for the next five weeks. The first national band to play the club will be a very cool West Coast psych-pop outfit, The Levitation Room, on Sept. 14.
After that, like the rest of us, many of the national touring acts are trying to read the COVID tea leaves.
“The Spits got in touch with us; The Queers, they were trying to set something up for fall of 2021,” Teresa says. “And then it was going back and forth and a lot of them decided, ‘Let’s just hold off to 2022.’”
The Bug Jar has survived the pandemic on a diet of T-shirt sales and an online crowdfunding effort that easily passed its goal of $20,000. That covered the Bug Jar’s rent for 2020. It’s loyalty from a largely niche audience that values the club’s contribution to the Rochester arts scene.
But what about the state and federal money aimed at keeping entertainment venues alive as well? U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer showed up in March for a press conference touting the $16 billion Save Our Stages grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration. There’s also the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant. And the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which seemed a better fit for the Bug Jar, since most of its revenue comes from alcohol sales.
“Pretty hip place,” Schumer said as he stood beneath the Bug Jar’s most-notable interior décor: kitchen appliances and living-room furniture, bolted upside-down to the ceiling.
But hip doesn’t pay bills. Despite Schumer’s photo-op, Teresa says the Bug Jar has yet to see any state or federal money.
“I did hear that there was going to be a second wave,” he says. “And hopefully we will be included on the second wave.”
Restaurants and clubs have reacted to the pandemic by applying caution to varying degrees. Abilene Bar & Lounge, like the Bug Jar, was closed for much of the pandemic. It reopened with a strict policy of admitting only people who can provide proof of vaccination. Two more clubs, Radio Social and Lux Lounge, added vaccinated-only policies this week.
Other venues remained open for vast stretches of the pandemic, with little mind to vaccines and social distancing, and criticizing that choice is a little too easy; some restaurant and club owners invested their life’s savings in their businesses.
Masks are a part of the debate as well.
“It sounds like it's turning into a personal choice issue,” Teresa says.
At the Bug Jar, “Feel free to mask up,” he says. “It’s your prerogative, right?”
It’s more than that, now. In this fast-developing landscape, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello pointed to the surge in new COVID-19 cases and issued a statement earlier this week that read, “In order to slow the spread, we’re strongly recommending all Monroe County residents wear a face mask when indoors, where we know the virus spreads even greater.”
The pandemic has been a routine of negotiating uncertainty. It wasn’t too long ago that we were washing our hands hourly and spraying disinfectant on every flat surface within reach.
“Let’s follow Monroe County’s guidelines, whatever they might be as of Friday,” Teresa says. “Who knows, we could find out something on Friday, right?”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.