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The Return to Live Music Events

“Cautiously unrestricted” is the name of the game this fall, as organizers prepare for near-normal music and arts festivals.

No looming emergency orders have led to a willingness to approach event planning with a more relaxed mindset. This means few to no capacity restrictions, minimal social distancing, no mask requirements and few additional precautions in place. Many festivals will resume without looking that different from their pre-COVID days. At most, attendees will notice different calendar dates and a venue change or two.

Public Health Madison & Dane County lifted all public health orders, including mask requirements, and gathering and capacity limits in early June. The final decision had been left up to businesses and venues on whether or not to limit ticket sales or require face coverings, leading to many of the summer’s outdoor music and arts events dwindling in size or being pushed back.

At the start of the season, American Players Theatre limited capacity and required masks. Concerts on the Square moved to a stadium. As fall approaches, however, festivals and fairs have been more willing to place trust in their audience. Events like the Sugar Creek Music Festival make themselves clear — attend at your own risk.

Dane County has yet to achieve full herd immunity. But with 67% percent of residents vaccinated, even hesitant music-lovers are prepared to return to in-person, full capacity shows.

Let’s remember what normal looked like.

Sugar Maple Music Festival

Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6-7

W.G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park, 4330 Libby Road

Rain or shine, the two-day outdoor festival will be back this year in Madison.

Set in the expansive W.G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park, the Sugar Maple Festival celebrates traditional music and dance through performances and educational workshops. Their main stage will feature performances from the Appalachian Road Show and Ray Bonneville, with side stages offering interviews, discussions, workshops and demonstrations. Tent and RV camping will be offered on-site.

Spokesperson Stephanie Ramer noted that the festival will also be bringing back “interactive jam sessions,” where attendees are encouraged to bring their own instruments and play along with select performers.

“As an outdoor festival, there’s an opportunity for people to position themselves as they feel safe. We’ll do all we can to protect our performers and musicians, and people will take their own risks,” Ramer stated.

The family friendly festival will not have a children's activity area this year and clarified that parents are responsible for their child’s safety. Unvaccinated attendees are also encouraged to wear a mask under tents and when waiting in line, and festival organizers will provide extra hand sanitizer and handwashing stations.

The Sessions at McPike Park

Friday-Sunday, Aug. 6-8; Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 12-13; Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 11-12

McPike Park, 202 S Ingersoll St.

The Sessions are known for bringing international music to McPike Park, but this year, they’re staying closer to home.

“The world is closed down to us. We cut our teeth on getting the greatest bands of Africa, the Caribbean, South America,” Director Bob Queen said. “That’s just not available to us right now.”

Instead, the series will lean heavily on the music of New Orleans, including the Iguanas, Mama DigDown’s Brass Band and Paul Cebar. The Sessions’ “resident” musicians Herlin Riley and Victor Goines will also put on a special performance at the festival's main stage Sunday night. Performances from local Hmong dance troop Ntxhais Tsheej Haj, comedian Kevin Bozeman and international rock ‘n’ roll band Making Movies will be featured.

The first five sessions will take place at McPike Park and offer free admittance, with the final sessions being held at the Garver Patio at the Garver Feed Mill on Sept. 11 and 12. The tickets for the sessions at the mill will be $10 and include an all-day wristband so attendees can come and go.

Restrictions will be lax at the Sessions. Attendees are encouraged to wear masks if they aren’t fully vaccinated, and surfaces will be cleaned regularly. Hand washing and sanitization stations will be available.

Otherwise, the series “will look pretty normal,” Queen said. “It’s an outdoor event and our tents will be well-ventilated. We’ll be as safe as anywhere else.”

Jazz at Five

Wednesdays, Aug. 11, 18, 25, and Sept. 1 and 8

McKee Park, 2930 Chapel Valley Road, Fitchburg

Jazz at Five will be departing from the Capitol Square for this year’s performance, opting for a larger outdoor venue in Fitchburg.

Though some fans of the event were disappointed to hear about the move, relocation will allow audience members to spread out more easily. Event director Spencer Stanbery told the Cap Times that the move to McKee Farms Park is likely not permanent.

2,000 people are still expected to attend each night. Performances run from 5-6:15 p.m. and 6:45-8 p.m. Youth groups take the stage earlier in the evening from 4-4:30 p.m. With the first date only two weeks away, no performers have yet been announced.

The re-location from Capitol Square is the main precaution that organizers have taken. Picnic tables will be spread out and attendees can bring their own chairs and blankets. The 27-year-old event is free to the public, and outside food is welcome.

Africa Fest

Saturday, Aug. 21

McPike Park, 202 S. Ingersoll St.

All residents of Madison are welcome to attend this year's Africa Fest.

From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the African Association of Madison will be putting on its 22nd culture festival in collaboration with MG&E and the University of Wisconsin-Madison African Studies Program. Admission is free; the association expects to have over 3000 attendees.

Africa Fest gives African immigrants in the Madison area the opportunity to share their heritage through cultural performances and demonstrations. The event's larger goal is to "provide opportunities to improve race relations and garner inclusiveness for diversity in the greater Madison area and environs by celebrating and sharing African traditions." Local musicians including Tani Diakite and the Afro Funk-Stars, Atimevu and Sista Sensi & The Buds will also be featured.

The event will begin with a “Strides For Africa,” a 3k to 5k run or walk for all ages. 100% of registration fees go towards the construction of potable water wells in rural Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

Orton-Front Fest

Thursday-Friday, Aug. 26-27, at Orton Park, 1103 Spaight St.

Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 28-29, Yahara Place Park, 1800 Yahara Place

Two of Madison’s east side music festivals will be combined this year to create Orton-Front Fest, a four-night event with local bands, family entertainment and aerial dance performances.

This Marquette Waterfront Festival/Orton Park Festival hybrid will take place on what is traditionally the Orton Park Festival weekend. On Aug. 26-27 at Orton Park it will showcase Cycropia Aerial Dance and a Thursday ice cream social. The festival will then move to Yahara Place Park for Aug. 28-29 to accommodate two stages for bands and national touring acts.

The music line-up features local bands and crowd favorites, with Madison musicians Kari Arnett and Dan Walkner, the Civil Engineers and singer-songwriter Josh Harty all playing the main stage on Saturday.

“Large public gatherings are not going to be possible in June,” Jordy Loeb told the Cap Times in April. “But we didn't want to abandon that very special festival. And both of those festivals have their own identities. We're trying to bring elements of both of those festivals together.”

Orton-Front Fest will not be ticketed and is free to the public.

Willy Street Fair

Saturday-Sunday, Sep. 18-19

If there’s one thing the Wil-Mar Center Executive Director Gary Kallas knows for certain, it’s that this fall’s Willy Street Fair will be a return to normal.

“We are not going to limit attendance, we are not going to ticket,” he said. “And we’re certainly not going to ask if you’re vaccinated.”

AtwoodFest, also put on by the Wil-Mar Center, was relocated to a parking lot to “simplify” the event, but Willy Street will be staying at its home turf. However, the multiple access points to the fair will mean that imposing any restrictions would be nearly impossible. “We’re smart but we’re not that smart,” Kallas remarked.

Few details have been finalized for the fair, co-sponsored by Common Wealth Development. The event traditionally consists of a parade, live music and plenty of local vendors.

Kallas recalled that very few people, if any at all, took a disposable mask from AtwoodFest’s supply. Regardless, he stated that the Willy Street Fair will provide masks if needed and have sanitization stations available.



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