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Live entertainment starting back up in Sault watering holes - but not all can afford to pay for play

Soo Blaster held a hip-hop show last weekend to get its name back out there, but other bars are backing off from live entertainment altogether. Here's why
Guelph-based hip-hop artist Robbie G took the stage at Soo Blaster last weekend, marking the estbalishment's first time offering live entertainment since closing under COVID-19 restrictions in March. Photo supplied

A couple of bars in the Sault are slowly settling back into offering live entertainment after being on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although the costs associated with pandemic precautions have hamstrung some bar owners, a select few are still willing to go on with the show.  

Last weekend, roughly 40 people showed up at Soo Blaster for Guelph-based hip-hop artist Robbie G and a number of supporting acts, marking the first time the establishment has put on a show since the pandemic took hold. 

Das Kumar says that he impressed with the crowd's response to the show, and its willingness to adhere to public health measures in place.

“It’s a different way. The people have been enjoying it so far,” Kumar said. 

Ownership and staff at Soo Blaster describe to SooToday what the hip-hop show looked like - tables placed six feet apart, with no more than six concert-goers to a table. 

Wait staff served tables, discouraging guests from milling around the venue. And, like all other bars in Ontario, dancing is a no-go.  

Kumar says Soo Blaster didn’t make a dime by hosting the show that weekend, but deemed it necessary to begin filling the void of live entertainment locally. 

“This is the very first one - we learned lots of stuff,” he said, referencing last weekend’s hip-hop show. “It’s been a long time closed, and we need to get our name out.”

Kumar now hopes to hire local artists to play Soo Blaster in the immediate future but says he needs the province to increase the limit on indoor gatherings in order to make a buck from putting on a show, given all the additional costs incurred from undertaking additional cleaning precautions. 

He says that even an increase of the limit to 100 people would help him greatly because Soo Blaster has a large enough room to easily accommodate social distancing guidelines with that many patrons.  

“I’m looking forward to getting my capacity up,” Kumar said.  

Current COVID-19 restrictions hinder hiring of entertainment

But for smaller pubs like The Whisky Barrel, square feet and cash flow remain obstacles to even entertaining the notion of reintroducing live entertainment. 

Co-owner and manager Dunbar Thompson tells SooToday that The Whisky Barrel’s regular capacity of 60 would be substantially less with current public health measures in place.  

“In order for me to have a band in here, because my place is so small, I’d have to encase them in either plexiglass, or they would have to wear masks to sing and stuff like that,” he said. “Both things are not ideal.”

Thompson considers his establishment to be something of a public house - The Whisky Barrel doesn’t charge a cover or sell tickets for live music. While the pub doesn’t focus on music, it uses live performances to add to its clientele base. 

But given the current cap of 50 people, it’s pretty much impossible to bring live music in and make money. 

“We, as an industry right now, horribly horribly horribly underpay our entertainment - and I can’t afford to give them that horrible, horrible payment,” he said. 

'You’ve just got to accept it’s not the same world it was last year'

Paul Coccimiglio of Coch’s Corner has accepted that new reality as well. After turning on the lights and opening the doors at his Queen Street East bar after being closed for four months, the open mic and karaoke nights have yet to return to the fold. 

“Things are different now. You’ve just got to accept it’s not the same world it was last year,” Coccimiglio told SooToday. “If the world goes back to normal, I’d love to start doing it again.”

But doing that now, he says, is just not feasible financially. 

“Before, I wouldn’t need a security person on - but because the cap’s a lot lower, you’d need to put security on, and by the time you pay the karaoke guy, the security guy, another bartender in case it does get to the 50 people cap, it’s kind of hard,” said Coccimiglio. “You risk losing more money than you make on doing it."

"It’s more the financial aspect of it until things go back to normal.”

Two local bars - The Rockstar Bar and Reggie’s Place - have event listings posted on social media for live shows this weekend and next week.