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At Ruth Eckerd Hall, Greg Billings opens Tampa Bay’s post-COVID-19 concert era

It was the first show at a major venue since March, and a sold-out crowd was happy to get it. | Concert review
Greg Billings, left, and McLean Mannix performed at the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Greg Billings, left, and McLean Mannix performed at the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jun. 12, 2020|Updated Jun. 12, 2020

CLEARWATER — Greg Billings tuned his guitar, thanked the staff, saluted his guests, and dove in.

“It’s going to be a fun night," he told a crowd gathered in the lobby of Ruth Eckerd Hall Thursday night. "There’s going to be some great moments, there’s going to be some mediocre moments. I guarantee you, though, we won’t stop a song. We’ll keep going no matter what happens.”

And just like that, the music was back on in Tampa Bay.

Billings’ show was the first concert at a major Tampa Bay venue since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the live music industry to a standstill. Some smaller stages, like St. Petersburg’s intimate Hideaway Cafe, have hosted socially distanced performances for a few weeks now. But this was the first ticketed event at this scale, with nearly 100 fans scattered at tables throughout the hall’s gleaming new lobby.

Fans were offered face masks at the gate, temperature-checked upon entry, and delivered drinks and snacks by servers in gloves and black masks. They sat in groups of four or fewer, and for the most part, only got up to hit the head.

Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

None of it was remotely as weird as it sounds. It was a low-key concert in a cafe-style setting, loose and chatty and not at all dystopian or depressing. People kept mostly to their tables, noshing and laughing and occasionally standing up to dance. You’ve probably been to a show just like it.

“Isn’t it wonderful to feel just a little bit normal and hear some live music?” Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard asked the crowd, most of whom — like Hibbard himself — were not wearing face masks.

That sense of normalcy may have been the strangest part.

Thursday saw the state report record single-day tallies of new COVID-19 cases, not only in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but Florida as a whole. Hours later, the Republican National Convention announced it’s moving to Jacksonville, a decision bound to hasten the return of mass gatherings.

Related: On a record-setting day, Tampa sees more young people contracting COVID-19
Servers in face masks served drinks and food as Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Servers in face masks served drinks and food as Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

So which is it? Are we ready to resume life as normal, concerts and all? Or are we moving just a little too fast?

Billings still isn’t sure. Before the show, he walked the room maskless, greeting friends with a hug or a bump or a slap on the shoulder. He appreciated the venue’s efforts to distance and keep patrons safe, but still wavered on how best to interact with everyone.

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“The hardest thing for me right now is seeing somebody I know, and I don’t know whether I should hug them, or shake their hand, or give them an elbow bump, or just stay back,” he told the crowd. “It’s one of those things where, you get about four or five people together, and you go, ‘What are you going to do out there?'"

Related: With five sold-out shows, Greg Billings is bringing live music back to Tampa Bay

Joining Billings were two more local vocalists, Jeriko Turnpike’s McLean Mannix and singer-songwriter Robin Taylor Zander — the son of Cheap Trick singer and Safety Harbor resident Robin Zander, who watched from the back in a black bandana face mask.

Robin Taylor Zander performs during a socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Robin Taylor Zander performs during a socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander watches his son Robin Taylor Zander perform during a socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander watches his son Robin Taylor Zander perform during a socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Between Billings’ muscular rasp, Zander’s crystalline tenor and Mannix’s mean picking, the trio found a sweet spot or two on an array of covers by Tom Petty, John Prine, the Beatles, the Traveling Wilburys and more. They told stories and mixed in songs suited to this very strange moment in time (i.e., Billings’ originals Broken World and We’re All In This Together), and by the end had people in the back on their feet.

“It was a little better, I think, than I imagined,” Billings said afterward. “I was a little nervous at first. But once we got 10 or 15 minutes into it, it was fun.”

Related: Live concerts returning this month at Tampa's Ritz Ybor, Crowbar, Dallas Bull

Fun. Yet totally normal. And still, at times, just a little bit surreal. As the sun set through rain behind the lobby’s glass-walled stage, it cast a golden glow throughout the room, and hung a huge rainbow across the eastern sky.

“Do you believe in omens?” said Susan Crockett, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s president and CEO, as she admired a photo of the rainbow on her phone.

They’d better. Thursday’s show was the first of five Billings will play in Ruth Eckerd Hall’s lobby this month; all sold out quickly. Before long, the venue will go even further, hosting 38 Special on its main stage on July 24.

Ready or not, the new normal is here. They’ll keep going no matter what happens.

Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020.
Greg Billings played the first socially distanced concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 11, 2020. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

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