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After A Silent Year, Live Music Returns To Planet Bluegrass

Stacy Nick
Bonnie Paine performs as part of Planet Bluegrass' new Spring Grass series.

As mask mandates drop around the state and at various stores and restaurants, capacity restrictions on crowds at outdoor places like Coors Field and Red Rocks are also being loosened.

At Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, the sounds of “normal” began March 20 with Chris Thile. The singer-songwriter opened the venue’s new Spring Grass series.

“We've never done this before,” Planet Bluegrass president Craig Ferguson said. “But this year, we had to. It just seemed that we were compelled by this year.”

Ferguson and Planet Bluegrass are no strangers to disaster. A 500-year flood ripped through town in 2013, submerging the venue and causing more than $2 million in damage.

“I guess I'm a little worn out. You know, I kind of forget about the float a little bit,” Ferguson said from his home on the Planet Bluegrass grounds. “We had that flood in September and had that festival the upcoming summer. This plague was not quite as forgiving.”

For the first time in its 30-year history, the organization had to do the unfathomable - skip an entire festival season. No RockyGrass. No Folks Festival. No Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

But this spring, Planet Bluegrass will host 29 concerts before Memorial Day. And while the audiences have been smaller in order to follow health and safety guidelines — emotionally, Ferguson says these shows have been huge.

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Mathew Altmin (center) gets ready to enjoy his ninth concert at Planet Bluegrass this season.

“Every show someone comes up to me with tears about just how it makes them feel,” he said. “And it's pretty easy to see the look on people's faces. It's real raw human experience. Most of it is joy, you feel like it's joy and relief and almost just to release the people. OK, finally, the world, maybe we'll get back to normal. Here is a start.”

At a recent Spring Grass show, Mathew Altmin, of Denver, said “normal” for him was coming back to the venue.

“Planet Bluegrass is just sacred ground for me,” Altmin said. “This will be my ninth show for the Spring Grass series here at Planet Bluegrass. Can’t get enough of it. I mean, it’s such a beautiful venue, and they’ve done such a good job of cordoning people off and separating people.”

The venue instituted a corral system that allowed fans to purchase a space for up to six people. An online system allows concertgoers to skip standing in line and to order and pay for food, drinks and even merchandise — all from the corral. Planet Bluegrass has also been experimenting with live streaming, including offering it for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Ferguson says they’ll likely stream all of the shows this summer, not only to give those who still don’t feel comfortable an option, but also to see if it's something the general public would be interested in post-pandemic.

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Jeannie Schubert (right) toasts the return of live music with her friends.

“For a long time we didn't want to have any cameras because it would impact the artists being recorded,” he said. “I don’t really feel like that this year. So we're going to experiment, see how it feels. There's something nice about just the live, you had to be there (aspect). But since you can't, we're going to see how this goes.”

Jeannie Schubert, of Lakewood, says the long-awaited return to live music has been worth it.

“So many of us have been through so much this year,” Schubert said. “And to be able to come back here and have this, a new beginning back from the pandemic. It just means a whole lot — family and friends being together again — it’s heartwarming.”

It’s that way for the artists coming to play, as well.

After the show, Colorado singer-songwriter Bonnie Paine reminisced about her first live performance since the pandemic began.

“It was lovely — just to see people together is really, really nice,” Paine said. “I think it’s important for us — I know it’s important for us — now. It felt so good to play music with other people. I’ve been playing music by myself for so long.”

That made for a slightly awkward start, she said.

“I felt incredibly naked at first because I haven't played amplified in such a long time that that was definitely kind of startling,” Paine said. “And so I surprised myself with how nervous I was … It took a lot longer to relax and kind of just get inside of the music.”

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Instead of packing in the venue, Planet Bluegrass set up a corral system to keep fans socially distanced and safe.

Paine says she hasn’t booked many shows at this point and is hoping to ease back into things. She’s spent the past year working on new material and recording.

As for Planet Bluegrass, there’s RockyGrass in July and Folks Fest in August. In the meantime, Ferguson is preparing for the crown jewel of the season, the Telluride Bluegrass Fest in June. Surprisingly, he says the constant changes in safety precautions haven’t been that stressful.

“You know, it should be, but it's not,” Ferguson said. “I think we're all used to not knowing … I don't expect to have it together. I don't think it's really realistic. As we get two or three weeks out, it will probably change.”

And just a few days after this interview, things did change again when Gov. Jared Polis lifted most of the state’s mask mandates and social distancing requirements. Polis also said capacity limits and other health precautions — including at venues like Planet Bluegrass — will be phased out by June 1.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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