After a year of COVID, a summer of song

By on June 4, 2021

Jonny Waters playing at Jack Brown’s in KDH. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb)

Local live music rebounds on OBX

Tuesday, June 1, may have been the day that marked the official full-on return of live music to the Outer Banks as local band Zack Mexico took the stage at the Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills.

“It was the first indoor show we’ve had since March 14 of 2020. Wow,” Brewing Station co-owner Aubrey Davis said. “I had so many people come up and say, ‘it’s great to have music back indoors again.’ The band was feeding off of it, and Zach hadn’t played together in almost 15 months. They put on the best show I’ve ever seen them put on.”

Live Music is back, maybe more than ever on the Outer Banks. After 15 months of COVID shutdowns and restrictions, venues are improving and expanding. Outdoor dining areas created to address indoor limits on crowd size are welcoming musicians and are trying music for the first time. And it looks as though the summer music season may keep going into fall.

The Outer Banks has always had a number of venues that featured outdoor music. But over the past year, a number of locations have upgraded. Places that had picnic tables scattered around a raised area as a stage are upgrading, turning that space into small outdoor theaters.

“This year, we built a new stage roof, kind of a theater style in a way,” said Brent Hill, owner of Jack Brown’s in Kill Devil Hills. “And we are going to do live music every night this summer in the backyard.”

The same thing happened at the Brewing Station, and in Duck, the Tap Shack behind Cravings created a bigger covered area, enabling a larger audience to enjoy music outdoors.

With outdoor venues within walking distance of one another at the Tap Shack, Roadside and Aqua, Duck has been a hub for outdoor music for some time. That grouping of outdoor venues has grown as Wes Stepp’s Red Sky Cafe and NC Coast has joined the mix.

As COVID restrictions took hold, Stepp realized he had to offer his guests an outdoor area for dining.

“We started up more aggressive with the live music now because we’ve got a really nice outdoor [area] here at Red Sky and NC Coast,” Stepp said. “It really came into its own during COVID. Everybody wanted to eat outside, so we made that an outside area. And the live music. I put a stage in.”

As good as the local venues have become, Outer Banks musicians are at the heart of the music scene. It goes without saying that 2020 was a difficult year. Amanda Williams, one half of Gypsea Soul with Brad Privott, came close to giving up.

“Last year I thought we were done going to hang it up. Forget it,” Williams recalled. “Now, I’ve got a whole mess of new songs and we’ve got a weekly at the Tap Shack, and then a weekly down at Pirates Cove. And then a few more here and there.”

For Outer Banks musician Jonny Waters, 2021 is “shaping up to be busiest season for me since maybe 2015 or 2016.”

Guitarist and singer Graham Outten said his bookings last year were way down from 2019 levels, but are now beginning to pick up again.

“Last summer I was fortunate enough that I had three nights a week. I did have about seven nights a week [in 2019], so I wasn’t completely out like some people. This year I’m at four nights a week which is more than last year.”

“I’m good with that,” he added. “I have a day job.”

Outten, however, has experienced something that a number of local musicians have encountered. Given the shortage of workers now impacting many Outer Banks businesses, restaurants that are unable to fill kitchen and wait positions have had to cancel shows.

“The big problem…I’ve had happen to me and a couple of other artists, is we would book our weekly and, then a big issue on the Outer Banks is staffing,” he said. “If they draw a bunch of people, the kitchen can’t keep up. I lost one regular gig for the year.”

Phil Watson, who has been a performing artist on the Outer Banks for at least 25 years, has had the same experience. In May, he had two shows cancelled because of a concern that there would be too many customers for the staff to handle.

“First time I’ve ever been cancelled because of too many customers,” he observed.

Even with that challenge, the musicians interviewed by the Voice are almost fully booked for the summer — and maybe longer. Williams and Gypsea Soul are scheduled until Halloween at the Tap Shack, and at Pirate’s Cove, there is the possibility that the season will be extended too.

“We were talking to the manager, and he’s prepping us for continuing into September and possibly October, whereas before it was strictly Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Williams said.

Watson’s experience so far, has not been the same.

“One major difference I’m seeing this year is how far out places are booking,” he said. “In ’19, I had around 230 shows booked for the year by the end of January. This year after August my schedule is very open.”

Waters, though, looking at how his shoulder season is scheduled and how popular the Outer Banks has become as a shoulder season destination, is optimistic.

“All my weekends are booked, pretty through the first of November. And then weekdays are going to be probably half booked up through September, and I might get some weekday stuff in October. The weather is always going to be a limiting factor here for outdoor stuff, but it may come to a point where, when the weather’s good, the winter might even be half busy,” he said.




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