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Live Review/Photos: First big, COVID-adjusted concert at Columbia Speedway

St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center, Cayce; Nov. 20, 2020

I meant to go to more than one show during Cola Concerts’ opening slate at the Columbia Speedway.

After a quick, month-long buildout that used $1.3 million to transform the aging racetrack into a venue meant to replicate a big concert feel with a COVID-safe, socially distanced audience, the series originally intended to fill its first week and change with appearances by Shovels & Rope, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Ranky Tanky, the Allman Betts Band, and Kip Moore. I planned to attend the first three.

But inclement weather promised by a late-season hurricane slowed progress setting up the venue, forcing Shovels & Rope to punt what was to be Cola Concerts’ proper opening night from Nov. 14 to March 19, and on Nov. 20, Ranky Tanky’s Nov. 22 date was postponed to May 2 due to unspecified “unforeseen circumstances.”

So take this report with the grain of salt that it’s based on one night with one crowd and one band, factors that would inevitably impact the look and feel of any venue, even if it weren’t trying to do something incredibly difficult during the middle of a pandemic.

That said, my experience seeing St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the first big touring band to play a Cola Concert, was a good one.

The first hurdle, parking in a somewhat quixotically organized field, was the only real frustration, and I’ve had much worse times securing a spot for my car at far more established venues.

Entry went quickly, with everyone I saw respecting from that point on that masks are required when walking around the speedway, and rope lines were spaced out so no one had to walk closely by anyone. The contactless ticket-reading was flawless — indeed, I’ve never had such a seamless time with a scanner reading QR codes, a process that is often decidedly glitchy.

Finding my way to my “seating cove” — socially distanced areas designated with posts and rope where attendees are allowed to unmask and enjoy concerts in parties of up to four — was easy, guided along the way by a couple friendly and helpful staff members.

Once there, I didn’t leave until the end of the concert, following the directions trumpeted repeatedly on the huge LED screens flanking the stage that I should only venture outside my designated area to use the restroom or pick up concessions. That second circumstance wasn’t an issue, as from my spot in the first few rows, I could order drinks and food from roving staff carrying iPads. My Columbia Craft Famously Hop IPA was brought directly to my cove in a stapled brown paper bag, the height of coronavirus concert luxury.

From what I could see, people mostly followed the rules about sticking to their individual areas when not wearing a mask. One woman near me did dance her way out of her cove without a face covering during a rousing moment in the set, but she quickly realized her mistake and returned without staff needing to intervene.

As for the band, if you have to go most of a year without a big outdoor concert, as I did in 2020, St. Paul and the Broken Bones makes for a good comeback. The group was in fine form, with the seven-piece backing ensemble blasting forth with jubilant enthusiasm, and singer Paul Janeway leading the soulful festivities with high-note-nailing virtuosity, and an overflowing wealth of charming weirdness to match his signature bedazzled cape.

During the encore, Janeway crawled under the drum riser while continuing to belt out “Broken Bones & Pocket Change." And in introducing a spirited horn section interlude, he crystallized the band’s vibe — defiantly optimistic in the face of troubling times.

“I know it’s 2020, but are you having a good time?” he asked the crowd. “It’s about to get a little bit better. Because it’s trombone time.”

As I stayed close to the stage the entire concert, I can’t report on the full efficacy of Cola Concerts’ line array system, designed to deliver equally listenable sound across the large field without assaulting nearby neighborhoods with unwanted noise. But I was comfortable watching without ear plugs from the second row, which never happens with a large festival stage blaring its speakers to reach the crowd in the back.

Asked by a friend on Facebook to describe how the evening felt, I replied, “comfortable, cautious, restrained — I’m suddenly liking all my old dismissive adjectives.” While it didn’t feel as free or freeing as a large outdoor concert in normal times, it’s a testament to the Cola Concerts crew that I never felt less than safe while being treated to a band with grandiose showmanship equal to the scene.

Here’s hoping they can keep it up with COVID-19 case numbers rising — and that one day they’ll get to throw a concert without worrying about a pandemic.

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