I’ve been previewing performances at the Somerset Abbey for quite a while now and enjoy their mix of local and international acts, and let’s face it, we need all the live show venues we can get in this area. As far as I’m concerned, music is one of the essentials during this pandemic and up until October of last year, Tom and Stacy O’Brien brought in bands and entertainment to central Maine and their Madison-based venue. I was curious to find out how COVID-19 affected them and what their plans are for this upcoming new year, so I reached out to Stacy.

Q: Now, just for the record, you and your husband were able to do 50-person shows through part of 2020, correct?
O’Brien:
We were lucky, our life before I moved back to my hometown of Madison we had a tent company, so we have a tent, and we have heaters. We’ve got all kinds of things (from) our other life, but you can only keep a tent so warm. Our last shows, even with four heaters going on out there it was still cold, so around October we decided, “That’s it!”

Q: I imagine that this COVID-19 pandemic had a large impact on you folks there at the Abbey.
O’Brien: Oh, yeah, huge! We’ve been trying to grow this thing anyways. We were starting to feel like, “Alright, we’ve arrived!” Then COVID happened. And you know, you get scared, because we were worried that people could forget about us. It’s scary, and the impact that it’s taken, and more than just that, there’s the disease itself and the choices that you make trying to be safe but still be in business. Then it seems like you’ve got an aspect of people that no matter what you do or try, they’re pointing a finger saying that you’re doing it wrong. And that’s scary, too, because these are your friends and neighbors and your customers. You want people to come, but you don’t want people to feel unsafe. You’re trying to tread water and stay in business.

The whole thing has been incredibly difficult to navigate, but I feel pretty good about what we did last year. We did have a tent — we were lucky that way, not everyone has one. We were able to put on shows and most of the acts that we worked with just wanted to be working; it’s their livelihoods, too. They were looking around and all of a sudden places that they were playing were drying up, so they made some decisions, too. So they came up and worked with us, sometimes taking a lot less than what they normally would, because we were limited to just 50 people. But they were happy to play out, and we were happy to have them.

Q: And the bottom line?
O’Brien: We had our summer last year, and I think it was OK. I’m looking forward to this year. In some cases I’m repeating some of the shows that we did have, because I don’t want the last show that I had with some of these people to be one where they had to take so much less money. So, I’d like to have them back.

Q: Well, I’m guardedly optimistic about the start of this vaccine roll-out. How about you?
O’Brien: I’m hopeful for the whole vaccine thing. I realize not everybody’s going to want to take it, but I’m hoping it ushers in some sense of normalcy … so we can get out and see our neighbors and go out again, you know?

Q: Yup, I do. Now after you stopped the performances, what did you do with the downtime?
O’Brien: Well, we’re filling it with (projects). Tom’s looking to get a new light system to go inside for when we do open up.

Q: Do you have any shows lined up for this new year?
O’Brien: We’ve got a couple of things booked in April, and then we’re hoping to just start booking things in May. The summer will be in our tent again.

Q: Got any names you care to drop?
O’Brien: We’ve got the Screaming Orphans and Albannach booked again this year. We’re trying to duplicate what last year’s summer was supposed to look like. But again, will they be able to travel? They’re coming from the U.K., so I don’t know.

Q: I’ve worked with the Screaming Orphans before. They’re a great group, kind of quirky.
O’Brien: Yeah, and I love Albannach; they’re phenomenal. I’ve seen them a couple of times at Loon Mountain, at the Highland Games, and I was really excited to get them booked here. Then I was so disappointed that they couldn’t come, so I’m really hoping that they can come this year.

Q: Earlier you mentioned that you had a couple of shows planned for April, could you talk a little more about that?
O’Brien: Yeah, it’ll be still inside, 50 people tops, no singing, no dancing — it just sounds so impressive, doesn’t it (chuckle)? No singing and no dancing! Talk about taking the fun out of life. One of our first shows on April 10 is a drag show, and they don’t sing. They lip-sync to music that they play. They dress up and dance, but that’s part of the show. So for our part, it’s going to be more just a seated thing; you come in and pre-order your dinners. You’re going to watch the show as they perform and do their thing, and then that’s that.

Q: What’s the second show going to be?
O’Brien: I have booked the Juke Joint Devils for April 24.

Q: Oh, I like those guys!
O’Brien: Yeah, I love the music anyways, but they’ve been doing it without singing. So I’m hopeful. I’m hoping that people aren’t negative about the fact that they aren’t singing; that it’s just music. But it’s the same thing, come in, grab a bite to eat, sit, listen to a couple of hours of music and hopefully feel a little sense of normalcy through it all.

Q: Over all, are you optimistic about the 2021 season at Somerset Abbey?
O’Brien: I am. I’m optimistic by nature anyways, but I do feel good about this. I think that things will get better. I just have to go on believing it’s going to be that way, so I can’t hold back and not book my season and then all of a sudden it’s here.

Q: What acts do you have booked so far?
O’Brien: Lez Zeppelin’s coming back in early August. I’ve got Vyntyge Skynyrd, a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band, coming in June, and I’ve got the Studio 2 Beatles guys coming again — we haven’t hammered out a date — and I want to get a hold of Pete’s Posse from Vermont.

Q: Well, it sounds like I’ll be covering acts coming back to central Maine once more — my fingers are definitely crossed! Is there anything, Stacy, that you’d like to get across to the folks reading this conversation?
O’Brien: Just that our last show was at the end of October, and we’re going to try to reopen in April. I’m really hopeful that things are going to be different by then.

Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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