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Red Clay Music Foundry leads Atlanta’s return to live, indoor concerts

The sign reads live music tonight as Eddie Owen's Red Clay Music Foundry is the first local venue to hold a live concert since the pandemic closed its doors in March to see the Justin Varnes Sextet perform on Monday, July 27, 2020 in Duluth.  Photo: Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
The sign reads live music tonight as Eddie Owen's Red Clay Music Foundry is the first local venue to hold a live concert since the pandemic closed its doors in March to see the Justin Varnes Sextet perform on Monday, July 27, 2020 in Duluth. Photo: Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Somebody had to go first.

So why shouldn’t it be Eddie Owen, an Atlanta music venue luminary, to take those initial, cautious steps?

On Monday night, the owner of Eddie Owen Presents at the Red Clay Music Foundry, stood on stage at the Duluth venue, an audience of 11 people scattered mostly in pairs around the 260-capacity music room, and he smiled.

“This is our first socially distanced effort. Thank you, thank you, thank you (for coming out),” he said.

Behind him, the Atlanta-based Justin Varnes Sextet, an ensemble of ace jazz musicians — some of them wearing masks, all spaced generously — kicked into their opening song, “Fergimore Island, TX Blues.”

And with that, live, indoor concerts returned to Atlanta.

A few patrons look on from the shadows as Justin Varnes plays the drums leading his Justin Varnes Sextet in the first live concert at Red Clay Music Foundry since the pandemic closed its doors in March.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
A few patrons look on from the shadows as Justin Varnes plays the drums leading his Justin Varnes Sextet in the first live concert at Red Clay Music Foundry since the pandemic closed its doors in March. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In addition to selling $25 in-person tickets — Owen made about 75 available — the concert was also livestreamed on the EOP Live YouTube channel with a tip jar for the musicians. About halfway through the concert, 65 streams (or households) were tuned in, and the virtual donations tallied more than $400.

It is not a financially viable situation, Owen said. But for now, this combination of minimized audiences with livestreamed shows will have to suffice.

“I’m afraid not to do something,” Owen said, sitting in the lobby of the venue, a foot away from one of many sanitizer gel pumps in the building. “I feel I have to keep the brand and the name out there.”

On July 1, Gov. Brian Kemp decreed that live performance venues could reopen. The announcement was accompanied by a list of 23 safety mandates, including social distancing requirements of six feet between people, which means Owen can’t even fill half of the theater, his barometer for making a profit.

As Owen can attest, despite the loosening of statewide business restrictions, Atlanta’s music venues are still walking the tightrope between appeasing music lovers eager for live interaction and making sure a relaunch is safe and sensible.

Susie and Kimball Magee (right) look on as Eddie Owen introduces the Justin Varnes Sextet at the Red Clay Music Foundry to 11 patrons that purchased tickets. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Susie and Kimball Magee (right) look on as Eddie Owen introduces the Justin Varnes Sextet at the Red Clay Music Foundry to 11 patrons that purchased tickets. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Susie and Kimball Magee are members of the first category.

The Duluth couple lives a few minutes from the venue and regularly attends shows, regardless of the performer.

“She’s addicted to live music,” Kimball said.

His wife nodded in agreement and said despite being unfamiliar with the Justin Varnes Sextet, she still wanted to return to a familiar haven.

“There is not much on our calendar,” Susan said wryly.

The Magees, both wearing blue facemasks, expressed no concern about attending a concert.

“We figured Eddie would have it under control,” Kimball said.

Indeed, Owen is instituting every possible safety precaution at the Red Clay Music Foundry, which also includes a music school. (Usual attendance is about 245; there are currently 23 students taking lessons.)

The door remains locked, and patrons are allowed in one group at a time — six people, maximum — for first-come, first-served seating. Masks are required while in the lobby or walking around, but can be removed when seated. A Plexiglas barrier has been erected at the bar, but for now, Owen is also acting as drink runner — he’ll provide his cell phone number for fans to text their order, which he will deliver. (Payment will be settled after the show.)

And then comes the after-concert requirements.

“Tomorrow we’ll clean high to low,” he said, pointing toward the second level. “Any time there are people in the building.”

On Friday, Eddie’s Attic — the Decatur music haven that Owen established in the early 1990s, sold in 2002 and helped manage until 2012 — plans to hold its first live show with Georgia country artist Eric Dodd. The concert is sold out — with tickets capped at 65 people in the 165-capacity venue — and the Attic has instituted several changes.

Patrons are asked not to attend if they’ve recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19 (or are experiencing any symptoms), and facial coverings and social distancing will be in effect during check-in and any time not seated at a table.

The venue kitchen remains closed, but attendees are allowed to bring their own food; the bar will be open, so no outside drinks are allowed.

Eddie Owen opens the doors to Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth for the first live concert since the pandemic closed its doors in March.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Eddie Owen opens the doors to Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth for the first live concert since the pandemic closed its doors in March. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Most other local venues, including The Earl, The Masquerade and Smith’s Olde Bar, haven’t set a return yet.

Josh Antenucci, event producer and managing partner of Rival Entertainment, which manages Center Stage, said there is “no opening in sight” for the Midtown Atlanta complex.

Last week, the venue staged a nine-hour livestream event for Fanpass Live with Waka Flocka Flame and others, which Antenucci deemed an operational success. But, he said, it also “reaffirmed our position that doing this to scale with an audience will be no small task.”

Last month, City Winery was hopeful about reopening in mid-July for a series of shows with much-reduced capacity in its 300-seat performance space. (The music room is equipped with movable tables and chairs, which would allow for easier seating modification.)

But on July 21, City Winery instead announced that its Atlanta location in Ponce City Market — which had opened its patio for takeout food in June — would temporarily shutter. (Outposts in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Boston are also closed for now.)

There is, however, a glimmer of optimism for local venues nationwide that are struggling with a lack of income and inability to reopen.

The National Independent Venue Association, established in May, achieved a notable landmark last week with the introduction of the bi-partisan Save Our Stages act in Congress. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) are supporting the initiative, which would, in part, establish a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers and talent representatives and allow recipients to use grants for costs incurred during the pandemic.

Locally, Center Stage, The Masquerade, The Earl, Smith’s Olde Bar, City Winery, Eddie’s Attic, Red Clay Music Foundry and several other music locales throughout the state are part of NIVA, along with about 2,000 venues, promoters and festivals nationwide.

“The Save Our Stages Act is literally the lifeline that the live entertainment industry needs,” said Greg Green, talent buyer for The Masquerade. “Few, if any, businesses can survive many months with zero income. This legislation recognizes the importance of the live entertainment industry to the fabric of our lives and will allow thousands of venues from coast-to-coast to make it until next year.”

Venues resuming operation is crucial not only for those staging the shows, but for the musicians who have also grappled with a stalled industry.

The Red Clay Music Foundry concert was the second performance for Varnes and his sextet since March (they played Sunday night for about 60 people at Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock), and it was a momentous occasion for another reason.

The Monday night show celebrated the release of the band’s now-ironically-titled “Survival Instinct,” which they recorded on stage at Red Clay Music Foundry late last year. It was released in January, but the pandemic’s arrival quashed any plans for promotion.

Now, Varnes said, even playing for a small crowd trumped the alternative.

“I have so much gratitude. I’m happy to have a gig, happy to see Eddie and happy to have gear around, to be honest,” he said backstage. “We want to show that we can provide just a little bit of normalcy for the music scene in Atlanta.”

But, reality still looms.

“I’m already getting emails about shows we had booked for November and December getting postponed,” Varnes said. “It might be a while before we can play again, so we’re going to enjoy this little oasis of performances.”

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