CityWatch: Rocking back from COVID’s ashes: Live music, silenced by the pandemic, is finally a New York thing again 


Bruce is coming back to Broadway.

The Foo Fighters are playing Madison Square Garden next Sunday for fans who can show they’ve been vaccinated. And Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked legendary producer Clive Davis to recruit music stars for a mega-concert in August on Central Park’s Great Lawn.

You might have heard that rock ’n’ roll will never die. Did you really expect a pandemic to kill it?

Well, no one has had a better backstage pass to the near-death and long-awaited resurrection of live music in New York City than John Varvatos. With his producing partners Greg Williamson and Nicole Rechter, the music-loving menswear designer was behind the city’s last live major concert before the COVID shutdown and also the first major live show of the city’s reopening.

“The magic of music is undeniable,” Varvatos said.

Both multi-artist concerts, live-streamed in front of reduced in-person audiences, were seven-figure fundraisers for the charity God’s Love We Deliver, which started feeding homebound AIDS patients in 1985 and spent the past 15 months preparing and bringing food to people held hostage in their apartments by COVID-19.

“Since I was a young kid growing up in Detroit, I always saw music as something deeply important,” said Varvatos, who is known for bringing a rocker’s sensibility to his leather jackets, snug jeans and also his charitable endeavors. “During COVID, Greg, Nicole and I decided to charge harder than ever in our mission to help those in need through the healing power of music.”

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On March 12 of last year, the same night Broadway shut down, there was great doubt that the group’s fourth-annual Love Rocks NYC fundraiser could be held at the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s West Side. But the artists, who included Dave Matthews, Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges, Warren Haynes and Joss Stone, all said they were game. And the event, which raised more than $2 million, felt like one last blowout before the sidewalks were rolled up. 

The show returned to the Beacon on June 3, this time with Sara Bareilles, Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Ivan Neville, Tina Fey and a long list of others. The small audience included a couple of hundred emergency medical personnel and other front-line responders. Since everyone was vaccinated, face masks were not required. But the show was the first many of the acts had played in front of anyone since COVID arrived. Together they raised more than $3 million, and the checks and text donations are still coming in.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performs at the benefit concert June 3, 2021 in New York City.

Getty Images for Love Rocks NYC/God’s Love We Deliver

“A couple of months ago, people were saying live music wasn’t gonna happen till the first quarter of 2022,” Williamson said. “But clearly there’s an enormous pent-up demand. Now that we have the vaccines, it’s really happening.”

What a difference a pandemic can make.

“The week we put on Love Rocks 2020, things were just starting to shut down,” the event producer said. “Earlier that week, the Allman Brothers were reuniting at Madison Square Garden. Then, everything just started to feel surreal. People were scared. They didn’t know exactly what they were scared of, but they were scared. But we all decided — John, Nicole and I — we just don’t have the luxury of not doing this.”

They were shooting for a return of Love Rocks this March. When that became unthinkable, they chose June 3, still not knowing how realistic the second date was. “Everybody was ready to be back,” Williamson said. “And by the time the day got here, people had gotten vaccinated. Nobody was feeling nervous anymore. Everybody was chomping at the bit to be part of live music again.”

The producers made some accommodations for continued presence of the virus, even beyond the smaller audience. There was plexiglass on the stage separating some of the musicians. But somehow, the 16-piece backup band and the marquee artists made it all work.

Be sure to read: New U.S. COVID-19 cases and deaths tick higher, while CDC’s ‘real world’ study shows Pfizer, Moderna vaccines reduce infection risk by 91%

Just before Jon Bon Jovi launched his band’s 1980s classic “You Give Love a Bad Name,” the Jersey-bred rocker said from the stage: “Isn’t it great to be live and in person again?”

Nobody disagreed.

Certainly not John Varvatos.

“Going to concerts can be spiritual and healing,” the designer and charity-minded producer said. “Through the concerts, we’ve been able to raise a significant amount of money and also bring a large number of people together, both in person and virtually. At the same time, we’ve recruited supporters and volunteers and spread the word about the amazing work this group does every day to help people in need.”

Now, with the pandemic finally lifting, that work rocks on.

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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