EASTON — At first glance, from above, the Avalon Foundation’s Stoltz Pavilion looks like something Frank Gehry would have created. The tent looks alive, a great white bird dedicated to saving live music in the age of COVID-19.
Upon entering, like any tent, it seems bigger inside. Two parabolas arc over head with lights and the framework to keep the whole thing aloft without any poles.
The Avalon Foundation — which operates the Avalon Theatre in Easton — lives on a constant stream of musical talent. The foundation had to shut its main hall down in response to COVID back in March and only reopened in a limited way in September.
The Avalon’s bottom line was being hurt by the virus. As were many downtown small businesses and restaurants, which benefit from concertgoers attending shows.
Dancing and cavorting, like in the old days with Bootsy Collins, was definitely out. So you have all these music loving citizens with no place to go.
The Avalon needed a new solution as the state was shutting down during the start of the pandemic.
“We decided to move forward with the Stoltz Pavilion when the governor moved us to Phase 3. Given how much safer it is outside, we determined that we would focus on an outdoor venue rather than trying to mitigate risk inside. Obviously, if the governor orders further limits on outside gatherings we will adhere to them,” said Al Bond, president and CEO of the Avalon Foundation.
Bond is referring to the phases of reopening
The protean Avalon board members thought way outside the box. What would happen if they set up a performance venue next to plenty of parking and no immediate noise ordinance problems? They solved so many problems with this expansion. They looked to donors for help with this $210,000 endeavor. Jack and Susan Stoltz were generous and provided the land to build the venue.
Their son Keith Stoltz, who also runs the Electric Lady Studio in New York, said, “For me The Stoltz Pavilion is a continuation of the longterm commitment of the Stoltz family to the Avalon Foundation. Just as importantly it will provide a creative solution to the challenges caused by the pandemic and hopefully become a permanent addition to the community. The whole industry depends on figuring this out.”
The community also contributed.
“Other important partners are Rauch Engineering, architectural and engineering services; Sharp Energy, propane on an ongoing basis; and Easton Utilities, providing both electric and internet service — all gratis,” said Bond.
They have also solved more down to earth concerns like, “How do I get a drink around here?”
You can order drinks with a QR code that sits on your table and pay with a credit card. The drinks come right to your seat. All without contact. There are even luxurious portable restrooms like you see at weddings.
The foundation assumes that everyone goes to a show with a friend. So, tickets are sold in pairs. As the show goes on, the evening gets cooler. As the talent gets hotter, your feet get cooler. Just keep tapping. There is propane heating at all of the patio sets. Patio sets come in two- and four-person configurations with a little propane fire pit burning.
To keep COVID-safe, attendees are escorted to their seats and then are told to stay seated. You see friends you wanted to talk with but must hold off the urge. You can wave. They insist, kindly, that everyone keep their masks on, covering both mouth and nose, except to take a sip of their drink. This makes the sing along aspect of the show a little muffled and humid.
The sound is great — generous and open — full throated basses and shimmering trebles and round and pleasing reverb.
“The structure is specifically made for sound environments,” said Bond. Both to create great sound inside but also to dampen sound on the outside.
Ryan Finch, the Avalon’s sound engineer, said, “I am having a blast mixing these shows. Feels like I’m mixing outdoor festivals again.”
The artist playing on Sunday, Nov. 8, was Martin Sexton. It was the third show for the new venue after opening on Nov 5 with a show by Susan Werner.
Suzy Moore, artistic director of the Avalon, has a unique perspective in that she books all the talent. She gets to hear how they liked the new space.
“The artists are like, ‘We haven’t seen anything like this.’ They were totally in love. It sounded good. It felt good and they were over the moon. It is a terrific space to be yourself,” she said.
Sexton is a mellifluous singer songwriter who soars from yodels to funky grunts. He seemed really grateful for a gig. Any gig. Even for human contact beyond his family. And he complimented the space’s sound. Sexton said he spent a lot of time with his family during COVID-19 and worried about the future of live music and the venues that host concerts.
The Avalon team even added a live stream simulcast component. So, say you can’t make the show, you can stay home and watch the performance at home for $25. They have video cameras taping everything. It even turns into another revenue stream. Given that the Avalon lost roughly half of its floor space to social distancing, every viewer counts.
The Avalon and the musicians who play its venues are trying to survive. They are scrappy and smart. Times are lean. Budgets are tight. Who knows how long COVID-19 will linger as a problem?
But it feels good for the fans and the musicians just to get out.