by Mark Van Streefkerk
Last spring, restaurants and bars braced themselves against a flurry of rapidly escalating news about the COVID-19 virus that led to a statewide lockdown mid-March. In the midst of so many unknowns, one unfortunate fact was certain: Live music venues were among the first to close. In the months since, it became clear that if they survived, the same venues would be the last to reopen. Now that the state has lifted pandemic restrictions, live music, performance, comedy shows, and even dance parties are returning to South End venues. Here’s what the return of live entertainment will look like for Rumba Notes Lounge, Clock-Out Lounge, and The Royal Room.
Rumba Notes Lounge
Columbia City’s destination for African music and cuisine, Rumba Notes Lounge has kept the kitchen open throughout the pandemic, serving both African favorites and American cuisine. Now that the state has reopened, owner Frank Ulwenya said regulars are eager for live music again. “A lot of people have been vaccinated now and they’ve been asking for live bands. I think the response will be very positive, especially since people have been asking,” he said.
The lounge’s first post-pandemic live event for the public took place on July 2 with Goody Bagg, a band that plays jazz, Latin, and R&B music. The next was on July 3 with Rhumba DB. Upcoming events include African Nights, presented every Saturday night by DJ Babo, and will also include other musicians to be determined. Stay up-to-date with other live events as they are added on the Rumba Notes’ Facebook page.
Ulwenya also mentioned Rumba Notes is air-conditioned and that they’ve added catfish to the menu “by the people’s demand.” Customers can enjoy a burger, wings, or an African ugali dish, served with collard greens or kale and your choice of meat, at indoor or outdoor seating or order to-go through third party delivery apps.
The return of live music to the Clock-Out Lounge is something co-owner and talent booker Jodi Ecklund and her team are ecstatic about, but reopening a venue that was pared down to just a pizza kitchen, featuring Breezy Town Pizza, for over a year is proving stressful. In pre-pandemic times the Beacon Hill bar also offered a little bit of everything when it came to entertainment: political debate viewing parties, drag shows, trivia nights, the popular weekly comedy show Joketellers Union, and of course, live bands.
Ecklund, who’s been booking bands and performers for over 20 years, explained that booking a solid calendar of shows could take two or three months. She’s ultimately aiming for live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday, a goal she expects to meet by August or September. But adding shows also means hiring more staff, which is tricky when the events haven’t happened yet. Ecklund noted that a lot of Clock-Out’s staff who were furloughed during the pandemic have “gone on to either go back to school, or gotten another job, or changed careers.” Now, she says hiring for event coverage has been difficult.
Right now, the first event on the books is the popular drag show TUSH! on July 29, hosted by Betty Wetter. Joketellers Union will start up again in August, a month that also includes Friends trivia, a night featuring Pink Lotion and guests The National Honor Society and Skates, and Ceremony, an ’80s-wave dance party that used to take place at (now-closed) Re-Bar. Expect the calendar to fill out even more as Ecklund lines up more talent. “Nobody has a crystal ball, but the one thing we do know is that when shows do come back, I think they’re going to be very well attended because we’re seeing ticket sales happening with little to no promotion,” she said.
In a cruel twist of fate, Clock-Out was forced to close last year on the actual day of their second-year anniversary. Their third anniversary also came and went during the pandemic. Ecklund promised next year’s anniversary will be “a big bash that everybody’s going to talk about.”
Being such a new venue at the beginning of the lockdown was an especially precarious position, but Ecklund found support and resources through the Washington Nightlife Music Association (WANMA), an association of independent music venues that started during the pandemic. Through WANMA, Ecklund was able to learn about grants and funding that kept the lounge afloat throughout the year. The association’s weekly virtual meetings will continue even after the state reopens, providing valuable camaraderie among venues.
“WANMA has been a saving grace for me,” Ecklund said. She also noted that conversations between venue owners and industry veterans have spurred important dialogues around equity. “That’s something I’m very passionate about … I think there’s going to be more conversations happening and more transparency.”
Future shows and events will be added to Clock-Out’s calendar on their web page and Instagram account. Clock-Out Lounge has air-conditioning and is family-friendly until 8 p.m.
The Royal Room
Fans of The Royal Room are going to have to wait a little longer before seeing live music at the Columbia City venue. One of The Royal Room’s owners, prolific composer and musician Wayne Horvitz, said the first show will happen Sept. 15 with “Piano Starts Here,” a series featuring solo pianists.
“I’m glad we’re going to wait a little while,” Horvitz said. “Summer is slow for us anyway, traditionally. We’re going to do a little bit of work, some upgrades … I think when we open we’ll look a little spiffier than we were [before] we closed.”
Some of those upgrades include work on their Steinway B grand piano, the stage, and bathrooms. During the pandemic, The Royal Room had transitioned their space into a recording stage for weekly (and sometimes twice-weekly) streaming shows. Viewership steadily declined as summer began, especially with people going out more as vaccination rates increased. The venue’s last streaming program was on June 20. Horvitz is grateful to never have to say “‘Thank you’ to nobody” ever again. “There’s no applause at the end. The whole thing just feels so strange,” he said.
During the closure, Horvitz was able to further develop the South Hudson Music Project, of which he is executive director. The not-for-profit promotes and produces collaborations across genres and cultures and will take over the programming of The Royal Room in 2022.
Thanks to COVID-relief funding, The Royal Room was able to pay off their back rent. The venue is owned by the Royal Esquire Club, an esteemed Black social club, landlords that Horvitz said have been “so easy to work with and patient during this whole crisis.” Since people would rather be outside for the summer, Horvitz saw the timing was perfect to improve the stage and hire more staff before a later reopening date. After the “Piano Starts Here” event, the Royal Room is planning a grand reopening party Friday, Sept. 17, with more details to be announced later.
One of Horvitz’s projects, Electric Circus, is slated to play at the end of September. The ensemble includes 18 musicians and a light show and takes rock, pop, soul, and funk riffs from the ’60s and ’70s and combines them, “kind of like a cut and paste thing, but it’s live,” Horvitz said. Electric Circus was scheduled to play just after the mid-March 2020 closure of live venues. They’ll finally get to return to the stage, 18 months later.
Check The Royal Room website around the middle of July for more updates on upcoming shows.
📸 Featured Image: The Clock-Out Lounge in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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