As I stood in a short queue at the Oriental Theater, I almost couldn't believe I wasn't dreaming. After over a year of not being able to attend any concerts, I was waiting to see local psych-folk band the Copper Children perform.
I've spent much of the past year alternately kicking myself for the shows I chose not to see before the pandemic put the kibosh on live music and making a never-ending wish list of acts I’d like to see when I have the chance again. So when I got the offer to write about a live show in Denver, I jumped at it, though a big part of me was hesitant. Was it really safe or responsible to see live music when people in Colorado are dying each week because of COVID-19?
As we slowly funneled into the theater, the venue’s staff took our temperatures and made sure we knew we had to wear our masks when we weren’t at our seats. The Copper Children was performing as part of what's dubbed the "O’s Safe Sound Series," which limits capacity at the Oriental, usually a 700-person theater, to a hundred attendees. The events have been going on without a hitch through much of the pandemic. This particular performance, which was billed as “socially distant,” was originally slated to take place in November, but was canceled because of a COVID-19 spike.
Being in a theater felt unreal, even before the music began. The air was smoky, and the lights were low. The crowd, which consisted of mostly young people, was ebullient. For a blissful moment, it felt like Denver was back to normal, a feeling that was fostered partly because most people in the theater had pulled their masks down and were enjoying drinks and the company of their friends. But have we really managed this virus enough for that?
The Copper Children is an immensely talented band. Frontman Zea Stallings yipped with glee and crooned with soul. Bass player Andy Babb stomped along to the rousing tunes barefoot. Keys player Erique Johnson blasted spaceship sounds from his motherboard. Singer Nyki Flyin boogied and bugled from center stage. Before one song, drummer Christopher Morgan expressed that the band had an interest in performing at Red Rocks, and I’d say it'll get a shot one day soon.
The Copper Children’s songs are far out and groovy. The band played hopeful music with energy and passion. In one of the group’s trademark numbers, Stallings sang: “I believe in magic/I believe in the good of man./I believe in something/Something you may never understand./And most of all/I believe in you.”
Unfortunately, the initial thrill of live music wore off quickly. Seeing a show right now is a matter of risk tolerance. We are at the tail end of an ugly, protracted pandemic, and while restaurants are increasing their capacity, people are getting vaccinated and live music is clawing its way back, COVID-19 still lurks.
Music is an art form that makes you dance. It can take the listener on a trip toward ecstasy. And it can make you let your guard down. Most of the crowd must have had a higher risk tolerance than I did. The audience was far smaller than at any concert at the Oriental before COVID, but it was still weird — and somewhat unnerving — to be in a screaming, shouting group of people, most of whom weren’t wearing masks. Moreover, as people got up and danced, the boundaries between the socially distanced groups, which were spaced out with collapsible event chairs, dissolved almost entirely. We left after the band’s first few songs.
Perhaps in a month, it will feel safer to attend a live show indoors. Perhaps it will take a couple of months. At some point, we will finally overcome the pandemic. And when we do, live music will be crucial. The local music industry has been hit especially hard over the past year. With little in the way of emergency government relief through most of the pandemic, shows like this have been an economic necessity, club owners say. And I hope that their businesses come back stronger than ever.
We need to yell and sing along to our favorite bands. We need to become fans of bands we weren’t fans of before — like I am now of the Copper Children. We need to dance.
Also, I find myself thinking not about how Denver’s music scene can return to “normal,” but how it can grow. When live music more fully returns, how can local musicians and music lovers alike imagine and create a city that is closer, more inclusive and more vibrant than it was before the pandemic?
I can't wait to find out.