A look forward at the return of Berkeley’s live music scene

Photo of Vampire Weekend performing
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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The first restaurant I ever visited in Berkeley was a little pizzeria on Shattuck Avenue called Cheese Board Pizza. It served a single kind of pizza each day and operated in partnership with the bakery a few doors down. The real charm of the place, however, was the live music.

One of the most heart-wrenching casualties of the pandemic was the loss of in-person concerts. Coachella was cancelled, local gigs were postponed and the performances that used to animate restaurants, bars and late-night venues seemed to vanish overnight.

I interviewed C.J. Calvert, a worker-owner of the Cheese Board Collective that runs the pizzeria, about what the pandemic did to its ability to host artists.

Prior to the pandemic, Cheese Board’s website promised that “live music at both lunch and dinner is part of the daily schedule.”

Calvert expressed doubt about an immediate return to the music that used to enliven Cheese Board’s regular lunchtime and dinner atmosphere.

“I don’t know if we have any plans to open that back up on June 15 when the state does. Currently, a lot of it has to do with a health concern for our staffers. We’ve lost a couple co-workers in one way or another through the pandemic,” Calvert said. “I’d be surprised if it was this summer.”

In line with restaurants, popular off-campus venues such as Cornerstone Craft Beer and Live Music have also opted to postpone live musical acts as they work to stay afloat in quarantine.

Even the live music performances that used to come around once every few game days have dissipated as the party moratorium continues to dampen social spirits on Greek Row.

And so, the question remains: What will it take for live music to return to Berkeley?

The state itself continues to work toward lifting restrictions, announcing that by June 15, all sectors of the economy are allowed to reopen fully under the condition that hospitalizations are low and stable and that vaccines are accessible for all those who are eligible. The city of Berkeley is on track to clear both of those benchmarks, administering 106,000 vaccines and vaccinating 40% of the population older than the age of 16.

As of now, Alameda County is firmly in the orange tier of reopening. That means that live indoor events and seated performances are “allowed with capacity limits and mitigation measures,” according to the city’s website.

Despite the odds, my hopes for a fall rebound of the Berkeley music scene remain high. Vaccinations are steadily on the rise, and eligibility is widening. Venues, artists and music lovers are eager to revive an essential fixture of Berkeley culture.

Outside Lands, one of the most popular music and arts festivals in the Bay Area, postponed the event from its normal time in early August to late October of this year.

“Halloween 2021 just got interesting,” read the Instagram post announcing the addition of Glass Animals, Kaytranada, Flo Milli and other artists to the rescheduled ticket. This bodes well for other festivals in the area as the industry kicks back into gear.

Of course, artists have found creative ways to perform all along the way. NPR’s esteemed “Tiny Desk Concerts” squeezed “Home” into the title to offer a self-directed series for artists in quarantine. Bay Area band Dirty Cello was reported as performing at both a nudist resort and an Oakland zoo to pay the bills through the last season.

ASUC Superb Productions, which hosted MadeinTYO and EarthGang at the Welcome Week concert in 2019, has continued to host artists virtually. This Cal Day, Superb is set to host artists Rina Sawayama and Japanese Breakfast followed by a Q&A. While these events are better than your average Spotify playlist, the experience of seeing an artist riff in person is not easily replicated.

This time has been hell for artists, venues and venuegoers alike. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that the tidal wave of pent-up social energy is about to break, bringing sweaty, stranger-filled mosh pits that much closer to reality.

Contact Luke Stiles at [email protected].