All the things Michele Arcand missed the most during the pandemic came back to her on Friday during the Nathanial Rateliff concert at Thompson’s Point, leaving the Portland woman swooning with joy: The music she loves, friends to laugh with, and the community she needs.

With the return of live music to Portland, she got all that – and a beautiful sunset.

“I feel like I have come home,” said Arcand, a disc jockey at WMPG in Portland and dedicated music fan. “We are finally able to let our emotions flow – with other people. We have not been able to connect with each other, and this” – she spread her arms wide as if to embrace the 6,000 people who joined her – “this is how we are going to come together again and feel good about ourselves again. Music brings people together. Music takes all the funky hills away.”

With boundless optimism and enthusiasm, Portland music fans triumphantly welcomed the return of live music, sitting together at Merrill Auditorium for an opera on Wednesday and dancing in the muddy grass at Thompson’s Point for a sold-out rock ‘n’ roll show on Friday. Along with a concert by the country band Brothers Osborne scheduled at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Saturday night – moved from the Maine Savings Bank Pavilion at Rock Row late last week – the array of musical options represented a significant marker in the return to what one hopeful concertgoer described as “the before times.”

Concertgoers cheer for Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats at Thompson’s Point in Portland on Friday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

‘WE’RE READY’

But as they celebrated the return of live performance to the city after a long hiatus, many also worried their celebrations would be short-lived with a surge in the coronavirus related to delta variant. Promoters urged people to get vaccinated to ensure there will be more concerts to come.

“I am so glad we are here and reopening – and incredibly nervous,” Lauren Wayne, who books concerts at Thompson’s Point, said prior to Friday’s sold-out show by rocking R&B combo Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, who were joined by blues-rockers the Marcus King Band, and a late addition to the bill, the exuberantly powerful Allison Russell. “Are we going to start going backward again after our first show? Will people please go get the vaccine? That is what it is going to come down to, ultimately – how many people get the vaccine will determine our course from here,” she said.

Friday night felt surreal, Wayne said, and emotional – all in a good way. “We’re hopeful and we are super-psyched. A lot of us have been working really hard for the last 17 months, and we feel we are in a good position,” she said. “We have a lot of new hires who are also super-psyched to be here, and they are part of the team already. We’re ready.”

Opera Maine’s Wednesday night presentation of “The Elixir of Love” was the first performance at Merrill with a live audience since the pandemic, and opera fans also were ecstatic about being back. “You don’t realize how badly you miss something until it’s taken away, and then you realize how much it means to you,” said Roberta Oliver, 68, who lives in Casco and Florida. “I really missed music.”

The 600 or people who attended the performance rose to their feet at the end, rewarding the stars Sarah Tucker, Joshua Wheeker and the rest of the cast and orchestra with a long, ravenous ovation that moved through the house like a wave, swelling from the floor to the balcony. Hearty, sustained standing ovations are common during an opera curtain call, but Wednesday’s was tinged with a shared sense of triumph among performers and audience.

Paul and Janet Aliapoulios of Freeport read the program before the start of the Opera Maine production “The Elixir of Love” at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Wednesday. The couple said they have been coming to the opera here for almost 20 years and were happy to be back. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The ovation at the end felt like a relief and a celebration” said Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine, which presented a second performance on Friday night. “It was wonderful to be able to welcome audiences back. Everybody who was part of getting to opening night was grateful and just celebrating the moment.”

Like Wayne, Koelker urged arts supporters to get vaccinated so arts groups can plan other concerts with confidence. “I hope people will continue to get vaccinated so we can get back in Merrill for the Portland symphony, Portland Ovations, (organ) concerts and everything else. We need to stay on top of these vaccines,” she said.

People who attended the opera were asked if they had experienced recent COVID 19-related symptoms when they entered the city-run Merrill lobby. Masks were required and will be required at events at Merrill until further notice, said Andrew Downs, director of public assembly facilities for Portland. “This policy will continue to be reviewed as conditions in the city and state change,” Downs wrote in an email. ”We work closely with all of our lessees regarding city policy and any additional requirements they would like to see implemented for their particular event or performance. The safety of our guests, staff, performers, and presenting organizations is most important, so we will be monitoring these conditions and policies very closely, and adapting as necessary.”

MASKS STILL FRONT AND CENTER

Indoor masking could become the norm for concerts and plays for the immediate future. In New York, theater owners and operators announced last week they would require theatergoers to be vaccinated and wear masks to attend performances, and some presenters plan to bar people younger than 12 not eligible to be vaccinated from attending. Masks will be required at Portland Stage Company when “Ring of Fire” opens this week, and Wayne said she expected masks would be required for concerts at the State Theatre.

One masked among many during a live performance at Thompson’s Point in Portland on Friday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Oliver gladly donned a mask for the opera. “I have no issue with it,” she said. Neither did her friend Connie Dehais, 69, of Portland, who described feeling both nervous and excited just before the performance began. “I am relieved, if anything, they have a mask requirement. If it was not required, I would still wear it.”

Among those who attended the opera’s opening night was Alice Kornhauser, executive director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, which hosts a weeklong festival of indoor concerts in Portland beginning Aug. 15. Fully vaccinated since April, she said she was not concerned about going indoors for a performance, but felt “a little bit of pause” with the idea of walking within a few inches of other patrons to find her seat in the middle of a row. For that and other reasons, she was glad people were required to wear masks.

When the Portland Chamber Music Festival hosts its concerts at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine, people who attend will be allowed to spread out so they feel comfortable, she said. “We usually try to discourage people from going into the balcony until we are at a certain threshold of sales. This year, if you want to sit in the balcony and spread out, that’s fine,” Kornhauser said. “We are hoping anyone who is comfortable showing up will show up.”

David Platt and Janice Drinan sit up in the balcony at Merrill Auditorium before the start of the Opera Maine production, ‘The Elixir of Love,’ on Wednesday. The pair said they got an email before the show letting people know they could switch their seats to the balcony if they wanted more social distance, so they decided to move up top. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

So far, festival ticket sales are on par with previous years – an encouraging sign, she said. “We are not too far off from normal,” she said.

There was little sign of the pandemic at Thompson’s Point on Friday. A few people wore masks, but the vast majority did not. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage and reveled in the return of their shared community. The biggest concern seemed to be the long beer lines and the low spots on the lawn that held water from the afternoon rain showers.

The first people through the gate were Deb McDonald and Garry Nolan, who drove up from Berwick. They brought chairs and staked out a place on the lawn. Pre-pandemic, they attended a half-dozen concerts a year at Thompson’s Point and the State Theatre. The couple found other things to do during the pandemic, and never hesitated when tickets went on sale. “We are here because we love Nathanial Rateliff and we love live music and we are so excited to support the State Theatre and all their ventures,” McDonald said. “This is what we do. We love it and we missed it.”

‘IT’S SERENDIPITOUS’

Friday night was Marian Starkey’s first local concert since the pandemic, but her third time seeing Nathanial Rateliff and Night Sweats in a week. “When I see them live, I am not a religious person, but that is the type of feeling I get – that church, oh-my-God-everything-is-amazing feeling,” said Starkey, 40, of Falmouth.

Amen to that, agreed Meredith Rives, a music fan from Chicago. “I happened to be coming out to Portland, Maine, on vacation and going up to Acadia, and I saw these bands were having a show here the very day I was going to be here,” said Rives, 53, who secured a spot on the rail in front of the stage as soon as the gates opened. “It’s serendipitous. I have been waiting to see these bands, and little did I know I would be fortunate to see them together. There was no way we could go wrong – good music, outside on a beautiful night in a beautiful place.”

Concertgoers cheer for Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats at Thompson’s Point on Friday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Like the other fans, Martin England of North Berwick was elated to be back at Thompson’s Point. The week before, he and his wife, Jen, were at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He’s also in a rock band, the Reconstructed, that has played a handful of gigs. He described his recent musical experiences as a performer and fan as “cathartic. People have been genuinely grateful and seem much more engaged during shows. I feel like, pre-pandemic, things were going sideways in terms of people’s attention spans during shows – lots of talking, looking at phones, not paying attention. I think this was a great global wake-up call for everyone who loves and appreciates music,” he said.

He felt his greatest sense of relief during the finale of last Sunday’s concert at Newport, when Chaka Khan made an unexpected appearance and sang “I’ll Take You There” with Allison Russell, who opened Friday’s show at Thompson’s Point and will be back with Lake Street Dive in three weeks. “Fifteen months of pent-up anxiety just flew right out the window,” he said.

England, 54, is holding tickets for the Green River Festival in late August in western Massachusetts, Lord Huron in September in Boston, and War on Drugs in January in New York. After 15 months of not knowing what was coming next, he’s glad to be able to plan for concerts six months out.

“Dang, I hope this vaccine holds up,” he said.


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