In some ways, it’s as if the coronavirus pandemic never happened. For the past two weeks, blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland has been at the Abilene Bar & Lounge. Oliver Wood, singer and songwriter of The Wood Brothers, was at Anthology. Irascible and invaluable social critic Steve Earle was at Point of the Bluffs Winery.
It was always like that back then.
Although I had heard scattered reports that something was in the air, my first real feeling of a pandemic came in early March 2020. I was sitting at a bar in a restaurant in downtown Rochester and I noticed that each time the bartender vigorously sprayed the counter with disinfectant.
Over the past 15 months or so, some places of entertainment have continued to operate with varying degrees of recognition of what is happening in this county; more than 600,000 have now died from COVID-19. We’ve seen venues trying out concert versions of the drive-in, plexiglass between bartenders and customers, socially distanced tables. Masks required except for eating and drinking, although I could never quite understand how sitting in front of a burger and a beer was a preventative virus like a mask.
And entertainment has responded by migrating to virtual platforms. Musicians playing live for advice on your laptop. The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival stays alive by going entirely online.
And now? The sudden outbreak of events this summer took me by surprise.
It’s an uneven return, that’s for sure. Large touring events take longer to come together. So the Auditorium Theater schedule is largely postponed from the pre-pandemic Rochester Broadway Theater League and scattered events such as the August 19 “Old School Summer Jam” with Dru Hill, Ginuwine and Montell Jordan. The Lake Darien Amphitheater offers leftovers from its 2020 schedule. The Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center has a lineup that approximates the type of shows we would expect from the venue before the pandemic: Brandi Carlile, King Crimson, Harry Connick Jr. and the usual country stars.
The uncertainty has led to the cancellation of many major summer festivals like the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. The GrassRoots Music Festival bailed out the summer, returning with a series of smaller weekend events; Rochester’s sacred steel powerhouse, The Campbell Brothers, premieres July 23.
Virtual presentations are not ceding the territory they have fought for over the past 15 months. Writers & Books has worked in this vein throughout the pandemic through virtual events with writers. Her next presentation is with acclaimed Rochester novelist Joanna Scott, who has a free presentation on her new collection of short stories, âExcuse Me While I Disappear,â at 7:30 pm on July 22.
With a dearth of live opportunities, local musicians have prepared new music. While his opportunities to perform live with the Hi-Risers and Los Straitjackets have remained calm, guitarist Greg Townson is hosting a record release party on July 23 at the Abilene Bar & Lounge for the new instrumental album he created in the void, “Off And Running!”
What we are really seeing is the return of life in the smaller, less complex outdoor shows.
Finger Lakes Opera, and a cautious but thoughtful summer of “The Marriage of Figaro, with Wine, is a nerd offering at Lincoln Hill Farms in Canandaigua.” Toronto’s Celtic indie rockers Enter the Haggis perform at Lincoln Hill on July 24. It’s one of the new locations – others include the Earthlings Jurassic Farms and the JCC Canalside Theater – that have emerged from the wreckage of the pandemic.
The University of Rochester has quietly announced that restrictions on its venues – Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theater, Kilbourn Hall and Hatch Recital Hall – have been lifted; good news for the Rochester Fringe Festival to return in September. The party in the park has resumed, with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (and a busy tribute band schedule). Bands on the Bricks is back at the Public Market.
The Bug Jar, Rochester’s home for indie rock, reopens August 6. The Geva Theater Center and Blackfriars return to the stage; Geva has Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” musical on August 3rd. Downtown’s biggest club, Anthology, has an intriguing show on August 3 with Japanese Breakfast, an indie group led by Michelle Zauner, a woman of South Korean descent whose autobiography has become a New York bestseller. York Times.
The cinemas are open again. It’s “Cat Video Fest” this weekend at the Little Theater. The cats are probably fine, I just don’t know how to communicate with them. So for people like me who can’t survive on a diet of superhero movies, there’s the usual heady fare at The Little and The Dryden.
In many ways, it looks like the good old days. Actor Billy Bob Thornton becomes a musician at Point of the Bluffs. Ani DiFranco also has a concert there. As we roll out from August and into the fall, Abilene Bar and Lounge celebrates the music of George Harrison, Johnny Cash and John Prine.
But we’re not done with it yet.
Abilene still has a vaccination-only policy. We have lost restaurants and concert halls that are unique to our community. And with the surge in COVID-19 cases, Los Angeles has just reinstated indoor mask requirements. The lanes seized by COVID-19 remain open for the Delta variant, no matter what.
It is not finished.
John Vito, the sage of O’Bagelo’s
John Vito was best known to the general public in Rochester as the owner of O’Bagelo’s, the bakery, sandwich shop and temple of brutal wisdom on State Street. He later owned Baked & Carved in the East End.
But as Vito’s life evolved, his kidneys were failing him. He turned to making health-conscious videos and even wrote a book about cooking for your kidneys.
I knew Vito, who died on July 7 at the age of 56. I appreciated his sardonic spirit and his passion for the problems of the city. But others knew the Rochester native much better. Annie Dennis was just a kid when I moved her street over a quarter of a century ago. She posted this memory of Vito on Facebook and allowed me to share part of it:
O’Bagelo’s was my first job, I started when I was 16. I worked every Saturday for my middle and high school years, and during the week during summer vacation.
John was tough on me. He would call me if I was doing something the wrong way or if I was working harder, not smarter. He would challenge me and ask me questions to make me understand for myself why what I was doing was not the most efficient way to complete a task. He was a jerk, he frustrated me, he pissed me off.
All my adult life I have always thanked John for teaching me critical thinking in the workplace and showing me firsthand what it means to work hard on something. During my senior year of high school, all of John’s help was gone so he was running the store, completely on his own, from opening at 6am until he could clean the place after it closed. I would go after I got out of school and help him do the mess. He would be super laid back to agree whether or not I showed up after school, but I know he was always so relieved to have help.
I found out about his health issues through the vineyard and kept up to date, always rooting for him to get better. I have been fortunate enough to run into him several times over the past few years and to spend time talking. Thinking back to when I worked for him, telling him about his battle with kidney failure and his journey to getting his kidney transplant. About how his work had turned into educating people through food on how to eat well when you have kidney disease, through his Cooking for Your Kidneys project.
He’s always been a great person to sit down 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 with similar health issues. Now is the time for him to rest.
Vito’s visit is at 11 a.m. on August 28 at Arndt Funeral Home, 1118 Long Pond Road. His memorial service will be celebrated immediately after the visit at 2 p.m.
Jeff Spevak is the Arts & Life editor of WXXI. He can be contacted at [email protected].