Review: Gary Clark Jr. was terrific at Waterloo Park show. The mask mandate was a bust.
There was a lot to celebrate on Friday night at Waterloo Park. The 11-acre downtown public space reopened last week after 10 years of renovations. The new Moody Amphitheater was christened with its first concert. And hometown hero Gary Clark Jr. played his first full show here since the 2019 Austin City Limits Music Festival, after supporting several of his fellow local musicians at last month's Blues on the Green concert in Zilker Park.
Musically speaking, it was a memorable night. Clark and his four-piece backing band were on fire from the moment they hit the stage at 8:45 p.m., delivering a two-hour show that displayed the range of the native Austinite's considerable talents and his commanding presence as a live performer. He'll return Saturday for a second show.
Yet it was impossible to overlook one glaring problem, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With Austin hitting Stage 5 guidelines earlier this month, organizers had added a mask requirement for the concert. That requirement was ignored by the vast majority of attendees, and no one on site enforced it.
The policy, announced Wednesday, stated: "In accordance with current Austin Public Health guidelines, masks are required at all times for attendees, regardless of vaccination status, except while actively eating or drinking at Gary Clark Jr. at Moody Amphitheater on Friday, August 20th and Saturday, August 21st."
At the gate, security staff and ticket-takers admitted maskless concertgoers without asking them to mask up. A small box of complimentary masks was visible on a table at the entrance, but no one offered or distributed those masks. Inside, most attendees went maskless. There was no signage informing attendees of Wednesday's policy change; in fact, a small Moody Amphitheater sandwich board near the entrance seemed to contradict Wednesday's announcement, listing "health & safety encouragements" including masks but making no mention of the requirement.
The lack of enforcement rendered the policy an empty shell. The venue chose not to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, measures announced this week for events such as October's ACL Fest in Zilker Park and Sunday's Outlaw Music Festival with Willie Nelson at Germania Insurance Amphitheater.
(Those venues that do require proof of vaccination risk violating a state law that went into effect in June and forbids businesses from making that a condition for entry.)
Masks and live music:ACL Fest to require negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for all attendees
And with social distancing near impossible at the 5,000-capacity venue, the end result was an event almost entirely void of COVID safety protocols. Austin Public Health's Stage 5 criteria, which offers guidelines but not regulations, recommends masks for crowded outdoor events, even for those who are vaccinated and don't have high-risk health conditions.
It begs the question: Why announce a policy only not to enforce it? The artist could choose to take a stand for additional regulations, as Jason Isbell did when requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test at his recent ACL Live shows. Waterloo Park is public land, but if the city attempted to push for adherence to its own guidelines, that attempt failed.
Ultimately, responsibility for taking precautions fell upon the concertgoers. Enforcement of a mask requirement would be difficult to impossible with that large of a crowd. If most of those in attendance won't comply, it's not hard to imagine a ripple effect; fans taking COVID-19 more seriously may increasingly stay home. Saturday's second show is not sold out, while some resale tickets on StubHub are going for below face value.
Beyond those concerns, the night was a success in other ways. The Moody Amphitheater is an inviting and attractive space, with a variety of areas from which to take in the show: reserved seating, a general-admission hillside lawn, standing room along sidewalks, and a premium seating area. The venue's trademark likely will become its spectacular view of the Capitol dome rising above the stage from two blocks away.
And Clark put on a terrific show. At Blues on the Green last month, he largely gave the spotlight to friends such as the Peterson Brothers and Eve Monsees, but this show was all about his own music. The focus was on his Grammy-winning 2019 album, "This Land," as Clark swung from the richly melodic R&B of "When I'm Gone" to the reggae-tinged rhythms of "Feel Like a Million" to the punk-fueled blitzkrieg of "Gotta Get Into Something" to his passionate vocal-falsetto reaches on "Feed the Babies" and "Pearl Cadillac."
More about the artist:Our 2019 interview with Gary Clark Jr.
He sprinkled in old favorites and covers, as well, hitting "Bright Lights" from his 2012 breakthrough album "Blak and Blu" early in the set and paying tribute to B.B. King with a scorching blues number during an extended encore. He prefaced the latter with a humorous aside to the appreciative crowd: "Somebody's been saying 'PLAY BLUES!' from the moment we got up here. You think I forgot where I came from?"
Throughout, Clark's band was a bedrock of musical support and versatility. Keyboardist Jon Deas, guitarist King Zapata, bassist Elijah Ford and recent addition J.J. Johnson — a highly respected Austin drummer who's toured with the Tedeschi Trucks Band for years — consistently pumped up Clark's music without ever overshadowing his talents.
Clark's friends Blackillac, led by longtime Austin rappers Phranchyze and Zeale, opened the show with a high-energy 40-minute set that emphasized their freestyle approach. They got directly political at times, dropping a couple of F-bombs directed at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, specifically calling out the latter for "trying to blame black people for COVID" (in reference to Patrick's false claim on Fox News Thursday that "the biggest group in most states are African Americans who have not been vaccinated").
Aside from the mask issues, the amphitheater's first concert revealed a few more problems that need to be worked out. Blackillac went on 40 minutes past the scheduled start-time of 7 p.m., perhaps partly because the line to get in was far too long. I arrived just before showtime and waited 20 minutes in a two-block line that continued to build behind me.
More problematic than the line — which did move reasonably quickly — was that it wound from the venue's lone entry point at 14th and Red River streets up the block to 15th Street, and then down 15th along a very narrow sidewalk. Those walking to the back of the line were forced to walk in the street on 15th Street, against oncoming traffic. It seemed clear that a much safer route for the line would be down Red River Street, which is closed to traffic but has an open sidewalk. (A second entry point might also help; there's a VIP entrance on Trinity Street, but no others for general concertgoers.)
Beverage and food vending, concentrated in two stations on either side of the stage, worked well given the large crowd. A minor snag: the cashless payment system was not able to provide either printed or digital receipts, at least at some stations.
Those seated on the general-admission hillside on the venue's south end might have benefited from video screens. Two large concrete walls flank the lattice grid-covered stage; it's not hard to envision Jumbotrons placed on those walls, which might improve the concert experience for those farther back.
If you did prioritize social distancing, there were at least a few options, provided you didn't mind forgoing a better seat. Concrete paths wind around the east end of the park, and some concertgoers watched from those spots, providing more of a buffer from the throngs. That said, those spaces can accommodate just a few dozen people.
For the most part, if you're attending on Saturday, expect to be in close quarters with a lot of maskless attendees — unless either the venue or the concertgoers take the mask requirement more seriously for the second show.
Update: Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, which oversees operations at the park, issued the following statement via email on Friday night during the performance:
"We believe we’ve taken all the necessary steps we can to further our guests’ health and safety. All guests were provided information about masking requirements prior to tonight’s concert. City of Austin mask requirement signage is posted throughout Waterloo Park and guidelines are reiterated to guests upon entry. Additionally, Guest Services Staff are trained to share information about concert mask requirements during their interactions with guests; and free masks are available throughout the venue."