By Hunter Levy
for Inland 360
Passing through the rolling hills of the Palouse along the road from Pullman into Moscow, visitors are welcomed to town with a sign announcing, “Welcome to Moscow, Idaho — The Heart of the Arts.”
From the world-renowned Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, to the local favorite, Rendezvous in the Park, Moscow is known for its vibrant, thriving art and music scene. But this summer, normally the busiest time of the year for area musicians, is gearing up to be a quiet one.
During a normal, pre-COVID 19 week, one could expect to find a live show nearly every night in downtown Moscow. One venue that usually has a packed schedule is One World Cafe, a coffee shop and local hangout for youth and artists alike. The cafe is decorated with sculptures and full-size doors hanging from the ceiling, while the walls are covered in local artists’ work, all of which is sold without a commission fee.
“When we opened, the creative minds did an excellent job of crafting a space that’s conducive to this kind of free expression feel that artists are drawn to, and we definitely want to have a culture of free expression — to be who you are, to be proud of who you are and whoever you are, we are happy you are here. I think that draws members of the creative community in,” said Jack Sullivan, co-owner of One World.
Restricting service to curbside-only pickups March through June wasn’t only hard on business, it was hard on local musicians. Sullivan is trying to figure out how to create a space for live music again while doing things ethically.
“We’re struggling now to figure out what is the safest way for us to try and resume live music. We have to figure it’s safe for us to feel like we can host, ethically. Obviously, patrons have to feel that it is safe for them to come out and listen, and performers need to feel that it is ethically safe for them. The people who end up playing here, we can’t afford to pay very much at all, so they aren’t really doing it for their profession. Occasionally we get professional musicians, but most of the musicians that play here are doing it because they love it,” Sullivan said.
Bucer’s, another downtown Moscow coffee shop, is taking a different approach. On May 16, Bucer’s held its first show since the March shutdown, and last weekend its usual Thursday through Saturday night schedule was up and running again. Historically, musicians at Bucer’s played inside, but after getting the green light from the city, they held last weekend’s shows in an outdoor seating area.
“I did not think that two weekend nights in a row I would have a concert outside but that just happened. I’m thinking that could be a trend,” said Pat Greenfield, Bucer’s owner.
Like other businesses following the city’s March shutdown order, Bucer’s transitioned to curbside pickups in place of dine-in. When the opportunity to reopen became available, Greenfield decided to go for it.
“When the ban was lifted and we moved into Stage Three, we really missed live music. Our customers really missed it too. There was something relieving (about bringing live music back) — it felt happy, it felt normal. It was just a really good thing. When we first had live music open up, I didn’t advertise. I didn’t put it on Facebook. I didn’t send out an email. The musician was just a solo musician and he shared it with his friends. They were all six feet apart so there weren’t many people in here. I’ve tried to be really careful,” Greenfield said.
Moscow’s summer music schedule is typically headlined by Rendezvous in the Park, a 38 year-old music festival held at East City Park that hasn’t missed a year since its inception in 1983. After much deliberation, the board decided to call it off this summer.
“We decided that it is best for us to maintain our plan to cancel Rendezvous 2020. We’ll cross our fingers that things feel ready for 2021 when our planning stage starts up again in the fall,” said Cyndi Faircloth, co-president of the nonprofit.
For many in Moscow, Rendezvous in the Park is a special event where families come together to enjoy a weekend full of live music with their children in tow. In addition to the music, Rendezvous in the Park has a children’s arts festival, Rendezvous For Kids, that has blossomed over the years.
“It is the family-oriented aspect of Rendezvous in the Park that makes it so special. The arts festival piece for kids adds a different tone than some music festivals. We try to present it to everybody as family friendly, and many of the artists that come and walk through the park during their sound checks see the kids doing the art in the park in the morning and think it is so cool. I just think it has a different feel,” said Faircloth.
Bigger name artists headline the show, but each night of music is opened with local artists. A showcase each spring brings out local musicians who compete for the highly sought after Rendezvous opening spots. As a result of the shutdown, however, this spring’s showcase was canceled.
“In Moscow we’ve been blessed to have nurtured a lot of young musician artists, whether they do it full time, like Josh Ritter, or on a smaller scale. We’ve nurtured this talented group of musicians in town by giving them these experiences and we want to keep fostering that,” said Faircloth.
One new kid on the block in Moscow’s music scene is Humble Burger, a hamburger joint that started out as a stall at the Moscow Farmers Market in 2014 before exploding in popularity and becoming a full-service restaurant.
In addition to grilling up burgers, the restaurant began hosting live music and, after a couple of years, the idea for something bigger took shape. In the fall of 2017, the first annual Modest Music Festival descended on downtown Moscow along with the returning students. At last year’s festival, a bevvy of local musical acts performed at restaurants, a clothing store, a tattoo parlor, and the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre.
Nate Wolff, owner and manager of Humble Burger, has put the full-scale Modest Music Festival on hold, for now, but is hopeful that a smaller, outdoor event could happen instead. Wolff described the situation this summer in an email.
“There is a possibility of trying to do something outdoors over one day at the end of August where attendees could spread out and we wouldn’t be forcing anyone to crowd together. We’ll just have to wait and see what the state guidelines are as Idaho fully reopens. If we can make something happen, and we can do it thoughtfully and carefully, then I would love to have a ModFest 2020. I know there are a lot of folks who miss live music and events, so it would be great if we could do something to responsibly bring the community together,” he wrote.
While things have been exceptionally difficult this spring and summer, Wolff is confident that musicians will bounce back.
“I’m a firm believer that what makes a music scene special is its ability to adapt and evolve and I truly believe it’s only a short matter of time before we figure out how to enjoy art together again and support the work our local bands and musicians are doing, and will continue to do, no matter what obstacles are placed in front of us. I’m excited for Moscow’s musical future and I hope everyone else is as well.”