By Martin Bonica
In mid-March, Northern Virginia’s music venues, along with most others in the world, went quiet. As part of Virginia’s efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, public gatherings of more than 10 people were banned on March 17, making concerts logistically impossible. Now, as part of Governor Northam’s “Forward Virginia” reopening plan, larger crowds are allowed as long as patrons can continue to achieve physical distancing.
While most concert spaces remain shuttered, the easing of restrictions created an opening for some of this region’s most prolific venues: breweries and restaurants. These businesses, often with lots of space and deep links to their local music communities, have been able to work with musicians to stage concerts compliant with safety guidelines. Crooked Run Brewing in Sterling was among the first to ramp back up, with a concert by Haymarket duo Mercury Avenue on June 20.
During the shutdown, Crooked Run closed both of its tasting rooms—both its larger Sterling space and its smaller, original location in Leesburg. The company was able to sustain itself with curbside pickup and delivery, but its activity extended beyond just beer.
“We make really great beer, but we don’t do as much distribution,” said general manager Zach Cannon. “We’re known for being a great place to gather.”
Crooked Run’s Leesburg location became a hot spot for painters and musicians soon after it opened in 2013, and the larger Sterling location embraced that same ethos.
“One of the things we started doing in 2017 was featuring local artists every month,” Cannon explains. “We started bringing in musicians, because what’s really cool about a musician is that they’re going to bring their own group of friends, their own aesthetic, and their own kind of vibe to a place, and it’s this great injection of energy that happens at a place.”
Crooked Run searched for new ways to engage its customers during the shutdown, with its stage in Sterling and patio in Leesburg closed. Area musicians including Nathaniel Davis, Pool Boys, Torrey B, and Kevin Knight played shows broadcast from their homes, and were signal-boosted by Crooked Run’s social media presence.
“It made me feel really good, when I couldn’t get outside and we couldn’t do all this stuff, to see familiar faces, and to see in the chats of the livestream the people who would have been in our tasting room, enjoying that show,” Cannon said.
As Northern Virginia entered the second phase of reopening, Crooked Run decided it could safely host musicians once again.
“We want to do as much as we could while being as safe as possible. I am pretty confident because of how well we’ve done keeping up with the tasting room so far,” Cannon said. In the tasting room, “we have been very successful keeping up with sanitation practices and enforcing a mask policy. We’ve required a mask to enter the property since phase one, even though it was only outdoor seating.”
Cannon also explained how the brewery uses signs on each table to indicate when it has been used, allowing staff to sanitize tables between guests. With socially distanced seating, Crooked Run can host roughly 80 people outside, and 68 inside the building, which holds the tasting room, the Nectar juice bar, Daybreak biscuit shop, and its dedicated stage. “We are going to monitor the capacity of that room,” Cannon said. “Once the seating areas fill up, people will be able to come order drinks from Nectar, but they won’t be able to sit on that side of the building anymore.”
Crooked Run Sterling books and promotes its shows months in advance; and when the brewery reopened its stage, it was able to host a band that it had booked before the pandemic began. Mercury Avenue had been scheduled to play on June 20 since earlier in the year, and their show was among the first not to be canceled. “I felt that we had the best practices in place to do it safely, and I wanted to honor my commitment to someone I already had a booking with,” Cannon said. “We worked it out, and Mercury Avenue is going to be the first band that gets on our stage.”
Mercury Avenue is a duo composed of guitarist and vocalist Sophia Patchan and drummer Jackson Ledbetter, hailing from Haymarket. The band has been a fixture on the area restaurant, winery, and brewery scene since its lineup solidified in early 2019, and expected a busy itinerary for the summer of 2020.
“We were booked throughout the whole spring and summer, but a lot of them got canceled,” Patchan said of their shows this year. The duo was well-positioned to weather the shutdown and was among the first live acts to start playing again. Most of their go-to venues (dining and beverage establishments) are reopening, and the band has a deep repertoire of covers, appealing to those spaces.
“We’re not really in the business to be creating music,” Ledbetter said. “We’re more drawn to the live venue space, and they mostly want covers.”
In addition, they have been less impacted economically than other musicians. “It’s a source of income, but we’re still young enough that we’re not dependent on it,” Ledbetter said of the freeze. “All the other adult musicians, a lot of them, it’s their full-time job playing out in the circuit and booking for venues. Their whole source of income, or at least a good chunk of it, has been stopped because of this.”
Mercury Avenue’s first show of the summer had been the previous week, at Johnny Monarch’s, in Marshall. Like Crooked Run, they had already been on the schedule, and as the state continued to reopen, the venue reached out to see if they could play. The band accepted.
“We’re all so far away from everybody, and we’re really only around each other,” Ledbetter said of the duo’s social distancing measures. Patchan and Ledbetter released a single online earlier this year; their first original song, written by Patchan, called “How It’s Gotta Be.”
Patchan describes the song’s genesis: “I was inspired by a lot of old blues songs, a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix songs,” she said. “I came to Jackson one day and said, ‘we should try this song and see if it works.’” The song showcases the band’s minimalist bluesy sound, with Patchan’s low growl atop her guitar and Ledbetter’s kit as the sole rhythm section. While the band’s focus remains on covers, Ledbetter aspires to go get into Berklee, Belmont, or USC and start a career in music production, and hopes to one day be able to record more material.
Zach Cannon also aspires to expand Crooked Run’s reach as a concert space.
“The last couple of months have been a lot of learning on the fly and adapting to changes. I suddenly am a video editor now,” he said. “It has been a learning process, but it has also really given us some tools to add to our toolbox that we can use in the future. Absolutely, if there is a second wave, or a second quarantine, we would continue to do livestreams individually of artists from their houses.”
Beyond using Crooked Run’s new online presence to weather a possible second shutdown, Cannon hopes to use it to bring the venue to more people.
“One thing that we’d really like to do is livestream the show that’s happening in our tasting room for the people who are not at our tasting room. For the people who don’t feel safe going out, they can still turn on our Facebook and see what’s going on on the Nectar stage.”
The first songs performed to a live audience on that stage since the shutdown were Mercury Avenue’s renditions of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Credence Clearwater Revival, followed by “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.
Crooked Run’s concert schedule in Sterling is beginning to fill up again, with shows by Darien Saiidifar, Nathaniel Davis, and Troll Tribe lined up for July.