Interview: Crooners' Andrew Walesch talks about live music as winter comes

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Crooners Supper Club, photographed in 2019.
Crooners Supper Club, photographed in 2019. (Helen Teague/MPR)

Since early summer, Crooners Supper Club in Fridley has been holding live concerts with precautions taken to deter the spread of COVID-19. Andrew Walesch, the venue's music director, talked about how it's been going — and what plans are as weather turns increasingly adverse.

"I've been at Crooners literally since the very beginning," said Walesch, who became music director five years ago next month. "It's been a wonderful experience — particularly interesting and challenging, here as we all know, in the COVID era."

Walesch said he and his colleagues "had been following what various venues and places were doing in Europe" when they decided to announce a series of drive-in concerts in May — later pushed back to June after Gov. Tim Walz extended a stay-at-home order. "They were extremely successful," he said. "Almost every show was sold out."

Since Crooners started hosting shows again, the format has "evolved," said Walesch, based on public health authorities' recommendations and the comfort of audience and artists. Spaced table seating was added as an option under two large tents, and those shows are continuing despite the wintry October weather. "We have a heater and we have side walls to keep it somewhat warm," said Walesh, but at the same time we want to make sure we have lots of air ventilation in that tent."

As an artist himself, Walesch has performed "at every single step along the way." Drive-in audience members were initially blasting their horns in place of applause, but then "there was just blasting of horns every night. It was driving our neighbors crazy, and we realized, okay, we've got to get this under control." Nor was it a good idea to allow people to scream out their windows, so Crooners finally landed on distributing whistles that attendees can use to express their appreciation.

The venue is now preparing its indoor spaces to host audiences at reduced capacity. Audience size for mainstage shows will drop from 200 to about 80, and renovations for that space are ongoing. "We're putting in all new HVAC," said Walesch. "We're putting in all new filtration. We've removed the ceiling to add a lot of height to the room, and we're working on how we can introduce lots of fresh air into the space."

The smaller Dunsmore cabaret room is surrounded by windows, and has been open for about the past two weeks. "We have what we're calling sort of a fusion ventilation system," said Walesch. "We can open up most of the windows surrounding the room along with the HVAC system," one not connected to the rest of the venue. While audiences have felt comfortable there, said Walesch, most attendees continue to prefer the outdoor tent.

"I sing a lot of music from the Great American Songbook," said Walesch. "There's a wonderful song that's called 'How Do You Keep the Music Playing.' I love that song so many ways, but especially right now, I think, that's what we're trying to do...we have to keep music alive. We have to keep art alive. We have to give people hope, and we have to give people positive experiences."


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