March came in roaring like a lion for Chip McCabe, director of placemaking and events at the Hartford Business Improvement District. It left with barely a whisper. Now, he’s trying to figure out what the rest of the year may hold.
McCabe, who some know affectionately as The Metal Dad, has been working to reimagine part of Connecticut’s music scene in the midst of a pandemic. When coronavirus hit Connecticut in March, he was in the middle of overseeing a new “Winter Blues” music series. He was booking outdoor events for the spring and summer, and looking towards an annual fall harvest festival. Then everything stopped.
“The average festival [or] live music attendee has no idea the number of people and people hours it takes to pull off an event,” he said. “All the people behind the scenes, like stage hands and sound techs, they’re all losing their money and livelihoods.”
For McCabe, that reality has hit home over and over again in the past weeks. In mid-March, as the first wave of COVID-19 closures hit the state, he was over halfway through Winter Blues at City Place, a new concert series with musicians Jake Kulak, Frank Critelli, The Skipping Stones, Zaaqqara, Brandt Taylor, ArleneWow! and Kelly English.
McCabe didn’t want to lose the series, which held its fifth and final in-person performance on March 13. He moved it online, and watched as 85 people tuned in to watch Jake Kulak perform. In late March, the series continued online with Frank Critelli, and then ended in early April with Kelly English.
“Looking into more opportunities to help support our local musicians in these trying times while bringing music to the masses,” he wrote on social media at the time. “Stay tuned.”
In the meantime, he has continued to pivot. In a typical March, McCabe spends his time booking Hartford’s Pratt Street Patio Series and Wednesday Lunchtime Series, held on Constitution Plaza downtown. Since 2018, he’s added events dedicated to dance and mental health, including a monthly Pratt Street Salsa Social and Meditation Mondays, presented in partnership with Hartford Pilgrim Health Care and the Hartford Mindfulness Center.
By the time he is done booking, he’s usually churned out a calendar with with close to 75 events. It’s been a chance for him to give a platform to local artists including Orice Jenkins, Sarah Golley, Daniel Salazar, Tang Sauce and Heather Fay among tens of others. This year, he had started setting up a schedule that included Critelli, Shandy Lawson, Chad Browne-Springer, Kierstin Sieser, and Gentle Temper.
“Now all of them are up in the air” he said. “I’m still trying to book with a tentative June 1 start, but I’m keeping dates in September and October open if we have to change.”
Much of it remains out of his control. Currently, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has set May 20 as a potential start date to a multi-phase reopening. In his current plan, outdoor spaces are among the first that state residents can safely frequent. He has indicated that a second phase of reopening could follow as soon as June 20.
That could be good news for the summer concerts: both are held in large open spaces. Pratt Street, for instance, encompasses an entire city block. Constitution Plaza includes a giant open area in which there’s a fountain.
McCabe noted that money is still there for the performers—the Hartford Business Improvement District (Hartford BID) received grants and sponsorships before the closings began. What he doesn’t know is whether it will be safe to gather, and for how many people.
“There’s a ton of space for people to spread out, so if we can social distance safely then we can manage that,” he said. “We have more leeway than if we were in a venue.”
However, he added, “the last thing anyone wants is for their event to be ground zero.” If attendees can stand far apart from each other, that’s one thing. But last year, the Salsa Social typically brought in between 400 and 500 people.
“What in our unique ways, with our outreach and social media, can we do to support local artists?” he asked aloud during a recent interview. And perhaps more pressing: “How do we extend that out during these times?”
It’s something that McCabe is thinking about beyond the summer. In addition to his work in Hartford, he serves as entertainment director for the Glastonbury Apple Harvest & Music Festival which is held annually in October. This year, the 46th annual celebration is still planned for Oct. 18.
“We honestly don’t know what that or any major festival will look like this year,” he said. “But we’re fingers crossed and hopeful that it will look the same and feel the same. I will start booking it within the next couple of weeks, so we will have musicians when we return to some semblance of normalcy.”
He added that performers are also still looking ahead and hopeful in this time of uncertainty: several have been excited to hear from him. As workers in the gig economy, many have been without a reliable source of income since March.
“If you are an artist who went to part time so you can tour, your personal financial world has been crushed,” he said. “The gig economy has been decimated and that includes sound people, booking agents, lighting techs…if we can do something to put some of that money into the gig economy we’re going to do it.”
As he forges ahead with booking for both jobs, he added, “we are trying to safeguard ourselves” for what may happen if a second coronavirus wave forces closures in the fall.
McCabe is drawing on years of supporting the arts and artists in Connecticut: in addition to his job with the Hartford BID and his role at the Glastonbury Apple Harvest & Music Festival, he is also a freelance arts writer for the Hartford Courant. Years ago, he grew his love for statewide artists while working as a marketing manager for the Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield Advocates.
He’s written two books, the self-published 666 Days of Metal and 100 Things To Do in Hartford Before You Die, published by Reedy Press. He also runs The Metal Dad, a personal website and blog devoted to both metal and non-metal music (click here for a recent post on local bands Mercy Choir and Kierstin Sieser), and hosts an eponymous show on Cygnus Radio. He is also known for the music program “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” also on Cygnus Radio.
In the past weeks, he’s kept his eye on Small Biz Bonds, a new program set up by the Hartford Chamber of Commerce. In the program, a person can buy a gift certificate from participating local restaurants and businesses, and automatically receive an additional 20 percent for use on or after July 1 (for instance, a $100 gift card becomes a $120 gift card).McCabe has been contemplating ways to do something similar with local musicians.
“Maybe buy a CD now and in August get a t-shirt or an event entry?” he suggested. “We need to figure it out so musicians don’t lose out.”
“My mother imparted on me at a young age to ‘Hope for the best, plan for the worst’ he later added. “I am the eternal optimist, but in the back of my mind I’m planning for the worst case scenario. I’m trained for this situation. Thanks, Mom!”
While he doesn’t know what the next months will look like, McCabe’s vision for the future of the arts community includes all areas of Connecticut. He praised the amount of talent across the state, which he described as “bubbling under the surface.” He also stressed the value of the arts in the midst of the pandemic.
“A lot of people are hurting. People want a distraction. You just need something else in your life.”