In some respects, it’s as though the coronavirus pandemic never happened. Over the last couple of weeks, blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland was at Abilene Bar & Lounge. Oliver Wood, lead singer and songwriter of the Wood Brothers, was at Anthology. Irascible and invaluable social critic Steve Earle was at Point of the Bluff Vineyards.
This was how it always was, back in the day.
Although I had been hearing scattered news reports that something was in the air, my first real sense of the pandemic came early in March 2020. I was sitting at the bar in a downtown Rochester restaurant and noted that every time a patron would leave, the bartender energetically sprayed the counter with disinfectant.
Throughout the past 15 months or so, some entertainment venues continued to operate with varying degrees of acknowledgment as to what was happening in this country; over 600,000 have now died from COVID-19. We saw venues try concert versions of drive-in theater, plexiglass between bartenders and clientele, socially distanced tables. Masks required, except when eating and drinking, although I could never quite square the notion of how sitting in front of a burger and a beer was a virus preventive on the same order as a mask.
And entertainment responded by migrating to virtual platforms. Musicians playing live for tips on your laptop computer. The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival staying alive by moving entirely to the internet.
And now? The sudden blossoming of events this summer has caught me by surprise.
This is an uneven comeback, for sure. Larger touring events are taking more time to reassemble. So the Auditorium Theatre schedule is largely pre-pandemic Rochester Broadway Theatre League postponements and scattered events such as the Aug. 19 “Old School Summer Jam” with Dru Hill, Ginuwine and Montell Jordan. Darien Lake Amphitheater is offering leftovers from its 2020 schedule. Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center has a lineup that edges toward the kind of shows we’d expect of the venue pre-pandemic: Brandi Carlile, King Crimson, Harry Connick Jr. and the usual country stars.
Uncertainty led to the cancellation of many big summer festivals like the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. The GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance bailed on the summer, only to return with a series of small weekend events; Rochester’s sacred-steel powerhouse, The Campbell Brothers are featured July 23.
Virtual presentations are not surrendering the territory they fought for over the last 15 months. Writers & Books has been working that vein throughout the pandemic through virtual events with writers. Its next presentation is with acclaimed Rochester novelist Joanna Scott, who has a free presentation on her new collection of short stories, “Excuse Me While I Disappear,” at 7:30 p.m. July 22.
With a dearth of live opportunities, local musicians prepared new music. While his opportunities to play live with the Hi-Risers and Los Straitjackets remained quiet, guitarist Greg Townson has a July 23 record-release party at Abilene Bar & Lounge for the new instrumental album he created in the vacuum, “Off And Running!”
What we’re really seeing is life returning to the smaller, less complex outdoor shows.
Finger Lakes Opera, and a cautious but thoughtful summer of “The Marriage of Figaro, with wine, is a highbrow offering at Canandaigua’s Lincoln Hill Farms. Toronto’s Celtic Indie rockers, Enter the Haggis, play Lincoln Hill on July 24. It’s one of the new performance spaces -- others include the earthy Jurassic Farms and the JCC Canalside Theatre -- that have emerged from the pandemic wreckage.
The University of Rochester quietly announced that restrictions on its venues -- Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, Kilbourn Hall and Hatch Recital Hall -- have been lifted; good news for the Rochester Fringe Festival’s September return. Party in the Park has resumed, with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (and a schedule heavy on tribute bands). Bands on the Bricks is back at the Public Market.
The Bug Jar, Rochester’s home for indie rock, reopens Aug. 6. Geva Theatre Center and Blackfriars are edging back into the scene; Geva has the Johnny Cash musical “Ring of Fire” on Aug. 3. Downtown’s biggest club, Anthology, has an intriguing Aug. 3 show with Japanese Breakfast, an indie band led by Michelle Zauner, a woman of South Korean heritage whose autobiography became a New York Times best seller.
The movie theaters are open again. It’s “Cat Video Fest” this weekend at The Little Theatre. Cats are probably fine, I just don’t know how to communicate with them. So for people like me, who can’t subsist on a diet of superhero flicks, there is the usual heady fare back at The Little and The Dryden.
In so many ways, it does feel like the old days. Actor Billy Bob Thornton becomes a musician at Point of the Bluffs. Ani DiFranco has a gig there as well. As we ease out of August and into the fall, Abilene Bar and Lounge celebrates the music of George Harrison, Johnny Cash and John Prine.
But we’re not through with this yet.
Abilene still has a vaccinated-only policy. We’ve lost restaurants and music venues that are distinctive to our community. And with COVID-19 cases soaring again, Los Angeles has just reinstated indoor mask requirements. The pathways seized by COVID-19 remain open for the Delta variant, and whatever may follow.
It’s not over.
John Vito, the sage of O’Bagelo’s
John Vito was best known to the general Rochester public as the proprietor of O’Bagelo’s, the bakery, sandwich shop and temple of blunt wisdom on State Street. Later, he owned Baked & Carved in the East End District.
But as Vito’s life evolved, his kidneys failed him. He turned to making health-conscious videos, and even wrote a book about cooking for your kidneys.
I knew Vito, who passed away on July 7 at age 56. I appreciated his sardonic wit, and his passion for city issues. But others knew the Rochester native much better. Annie Dennis was just a kid when I moved onto her street more than a quarter-century ago. She posted this remembrance of Vito on Facebook, and gave me permission to share some of it:
O’Bagelo’s was my first job, I started when I was 16. I worked every Saturday for my junior and senior years of high school, and during the week over summer vacations.
John was tough on me. He called me out on things if I was doing something the wrong way or if I was working harder, not smarter. He challenged me and would ask me questions to get me to figure out on my own why whatever I was doing was not the most efficient way to accomplish a task. He was a smart-ass, he frustrated me, he pissed me off.
My whole adult life, I have always credited John for teaching me critical thinking in the workplace, and for showing me firsthand what it means to work hard at something. During my senior year of high school, all of John’s help had left and so he was running the shop, completely alone, from opening at 6 a.m. until he could get the place cleaned up after close. I would go after I got out of school and help him with the mess. He would be super casual about being OK if I showed up or not after school, but I know he was always so relieved to have the help.
I found out about his health issues through the grapevine and kept myself in the loop, always rooting for him to get better. I was lucky enough to run into him a few times in the last few years and spend some time talking. To reminisce about when I worked for him, to talk to him about his battle with kidney failure and his journey to getting to his kidney transplant. About how his life work had turned to educating people through food on how to eat properly when you have kidney disease, through his project Cooking for Your Kidneys.
He was always such an awesome person to sit and talk to.
He worked so hard for his business, fought so hard for his health, and worked to make the world a better place for those that had similar health problems. Now it’s time for him to rest.
Vito’s visitation is at 11 a.m. Aug. 28 at Arndt Funeral Home, 1118 Long Pond Road. His memorial service will be celebrated immediately following visitation at 2 p.m.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.