RALEIGH — Mason Via of Danbury is having a lot of fun.
“So much fun,” Via, who had just boarded a bus for Florida, tells Carolina Journal. “It’s great. It’s killer.”
Via, in his early 20s and a wildly talented string musician, has accomplished so much already. So much to be thankful for. Now, especially. Now that the music is back.
The music, well, went to sleep in March 2020, when state governments closed just about everything except for stores and supermarkets.
Clubs featuring live music were told to close. Music festivals were canceled. Live shows? All gone.
Gov. Roy Cooper, citing falling COVID infections and increased vaccinations, this month reopened the state, albeit not totally free and completely. Enough so, though, that fall festivals can start booking, and music clubs, opened with limited capacity since March, can again start making money.
Via, son of singer and songwriter David Via, spent his savings recently on a move to Nashville, which was struck by a tornado in March. So, there was that. The COVID shutdowns soon followed.
“When the pandemic hit, everything got canceled … it was very hard for me,” said Via. “I just moved [to Nashville] to be with people all the time and to network. It felt like a global apocalypse.
“It got a little out of hand.”
He returned to North Carolina.
“There’s nothing for me here right now,” he remembers thinking at the time, referring to his exit from Music City.
Right now meaning then. Before he walked to the precipice of stardom.
Via applied for lots of jobs, he says, and spent some time as a substitute teacher at a military academy. He still played music and sometimes even earned more than he did before COVID. Maybe people paid more out of sympathy, he said.
Before the pandemic abated and governors relaxed mask mandates and the like. Before Via got a ticket to American Idol, making it into the top 40. Before Ketch Secor, the leader of Americana rock stars Old Crow Medicine Show called about an audition.
“‘We’re looking for a new guy,” Via recalls Secor saying, “‘and we think you might be it.’”
Before Secor told Via to pack his things and move to Nashville. Before Via took the stage at the iconic Grand Ole Opry, and before he got on that bus to Delray Beach.
Via’s other band, the one bearing his name — Mason Via and Hot Trail Mix Band — is scheduled to play June 27 at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary as part of PineCone’s Lakeside Bluegrass Series.
Koka Booth reopened to the public April 1, after 15 month of silence. The theater will host movie nights, jazz and bluegrass artists, and the N.C. Symphony. National festivals such as MerleFest in Wilkesboro, which moved its traditional April dates to September, are back. The International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass, online last year, will, too, likely return with in-person shows, as well as virtual ones.
The IBMA and city of Raleigh are in the midst of negotiations to keep the mega-festival in Raleigh through 2024. The city would pay a total of $180 million for the three-year deal.
“In 2019,” city council minutes say, “the event saw more than 200 acts perform, 218,000 attendees, and generated $18.65 million in direct economic impact alone. Since the inaugural event in 2013 the IBMA festival has generated an attendance of nearly 1.3 million with an economic impact of $80 million for Raleigh and Wake County.”
The downtown event is scheduled Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, although IBMA has yet to release a schedule of artists and other events. An announcement is expected in early June.
“I’m honored and grateful to have worked so closely with our incredible partners in the City of Raleigh over the past six years,” Paul Schiminger, who retires as executive director of IBMA at the end of May, said in a statement. “I’m also excited that before handing over leadership responsibilities of the IBMA to a terrific new executive director, Pat Morris, we can put the finishing touches on an extension to keep IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh through 2024 and hopefully well beyond. The IBMA and our entire bluegrass music community deeply appreciates the strong bond formed with Raleigh to present the most important week in bluegrass anywhere in the world.”
IBMA, in non-COVID years, brings in myriad performers to downtown Raleigh, with stages dotting the streets — from the Capitol to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts to the Red Hat Amphitheater — immersing fans in bluegrass and country. The music spilled over into music bars around town, part of the popular IBMA Ramble, in venues such as the Lincoln Theatre, Kings, and the Pour House Music Hall.
A year ago, the usually eclectic bars were eerily quiet. Empty.
The Pour House, a venerable venue on Blount Street, has been a hub for live music since 1997. Last fall, Adam Lindstaedt let me in through a side entrance, over a row of sandbags at the door’s threshold. He owns the club, along with a record shop upstairs.
Never mind the dust, he said then before grabbing a stool at the bar, the dormant beer taps along a wall just a few feet away. He paused to adjust the yellow and black bandana covering his mouth. Shook his head.
“If it wasn’t for loan money, we would have gone out of business a month ago,” he told me. “We would have gone bankrupt.”
Things are better now, he says. Much better.
“A little crazy, now that things are ramping up again,” Lindstaedt told CJ this week. “We have direction now. It’s not a world of unknowns anymore.”
The club reopened in March, on Fridays and Saturdays. At 19% capacity and limited to table seating. Lindstaedt personally seated every customer, explaining the rules so often he finally decided to make a recording and play that instead.
“That was getting really exhausting.”
Buy merchandise from the table, and we’ll bring it to you. Masks, when not drinking or eating, were required.
“That was fun to enforce,” Lindstaedt said, noting that restaurants, for instance, had been open for months, and masks weren’t required at tables.
He said those rules inherently toned things down. The crowd quieter, the dancing, jumping, screaming, and cheering cast aside. Think of this as going to a movie or theater, he told customers. Simply sitting and enjoying the show.
Lindstaedt, and bar and club owners like him, are trying to brush off the dirt and pull themselves from the craggy holes of debt created by the lockdowns and suppressions. At limited capacity, Lindstaedt said, it takes five shows to make up, financially, for one show with a sold-out crowd. A lot of extra work for a fraction of income, he said.
The Pour House returns to full capacity this weekend, so expect things to get louder, and profitable.
Let there be music.
The line is borrowed from an old song by AC/DC. But it couldn’t ring truer. Music played in front of a crowd. Good music. Bad stuff, too.
“I missed it so much. It’s so gratifying,” said Via, who’s jumping back into the live scene at full speed without a helmet, as the newest member of one of the world’s most dynamic bands. A double-shot of energy and high-proof rhythm.
Via will try to match that unrivaled energy, which, he says, “blows my mind sometimes.”
The music, now live, loud, and unadulterated, will no doubt help.
“Things are good,” he said.