Greg Billings was ready for a break.
At the start of this spring, before the coronavirus hit, the singer was thinking this summer might be his last playing shows with his popular Greg Billings Band. An unexpected nine-week break between live gigs helped change his mind.
“It kind of came at a good time for me,” he said. “I’m trying to slow down a little bit, appreciate things a bit better. Since I didn’t get a full spring and summer in with the band, I think I’m going to put that off for another year.”
Now, with the concert industry slowly reopening for business, Billings will be one of the first artists to head back on stage. On Thursday, he’ll headline an intimate acoustic performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, performing for about 20 socially distanced tables of four in the lobby.
A few Tampa Bay venues, mostly places that serve food, have booked musicians in recent weeks, but mostly for background and atmosphere. It was only when Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan that venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall could play along.
Billings’s show on Thursday — his first of five at Ruth Eckerd Hall — is the first ticketed event at a local performing arts hall since March. When Ruth Eckerd Hall announced the first three Billings shows, they sold out in eight minutes. They announced two more, which also sold out quickly.
Billings has headlined local festivals and sold out Clearwater’s Bilheimer Capitol Theatre with his band. But the demand for these shows out of the gate was particularly heartening.
“It’s only 100 people, but it felt good,” Billings said. “That’s how bad I think people want to get out. Whether it’s acoustic music, having a couple of drinks, or just seeing friends out in one spot knowing they’re going to know people there, I think that was the incentive, more than anything. They’ll enjoy it.”
Billings will play with different guests to each show, mixing up the setlist accordingly. Among his guests: George Harris and Kyle Ashley performing hits by his old band Stranger on June 18-19, and the Black Honkeys’ singer Brother Phil Esposito on June 25.
Billings is used to playing for huge crowds with his eponymous band, not to mention the nationally signed Stranger back in the day. He plays solo gigs, too, though, at clubs like the Daiquiri Shak in Madeira Beach, where he returned to the stage in mid-May. For a while, at least, he expects to play more gigs like the latter.
“Bands coming back to work? I don’t know, man. It’s going to be weird,” he said. “Our band thrives off the energy of a crowd, getting people up, getting people in front of the stage. And I don’t know if people are ready for that yet. To stand shoulder to shoulder with somebody, sweating and yelling and high-fiving? I just don’t know if people are ready for that.”
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But the people who bought tickets to his Clearwater shows “know what they’re getting,” he said. “They’re getting acoustic versions of certain songs. They’re not going to be wanting to raise hell.”
The main thing they’ll get is live music. After so long a break, he said, that’s enough.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who wouldn’t go to a movie theater, and they wouldn’t go to a restaurant,” he said. “But they’ll come out to somewhere like Ruth Eckerd to hear music. Music does get people out of the house.”
7:30 p.m. June 11, 14, 18, 19 and 25 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Sold out. Face masks encouraged. For social distancing guidelines, see rutheckerdhall.com.
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