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The Garde rocks again, with first concert since pandemic began

New London — At the Garde Arts Center on Sunday night, there was first the sound of people chatting and laughing, the happy noise of friends getting together.

Then came the concert: drums beating, guitar roaring and a singular rock-music voice rising gloriously above it all.

The response? Audience members singing along and cheering — a bit muffled, mind you, because they were wearing masks, but enthusiastic nonetheless.

The sound of an all-out rock concert hadn’t been heard inside the Garde Arts Center for a long time, because of the pandemic. Sunday, it was back — the first time the New London performing arts center had held a live concert since early 2020.

This was a Melissa Etheridge show that had been postponed three times, from April 3, 2020, to Oct. 11, 2020, to May 21, 2021, and finally to Sept. 5, 2021.

Signs of COVID-19 protocols were clearly in evidence. Etheridge was the only person unmasked (aside from theatergoers while they were sipping beverages), and even her three band members wore black masks throughout the performance. Before they entered the building, ticket holders lined up outside, waiting to show proof they were fully vaccinated or, if they weren’t vaccinated, to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in the previous 72 hours.

Patrons seemed at ease with the protocols, and the atmosphere was charged with excitement at finally being able to be at a concert again.

Lydia DelGrosso of Ledyard said afterward that Etheridge was “amazing, she’s fantastic. She is so talented, and her voice sounds exactly the same to me (as it used to).”

For both DelGrosso and friend Dana Shaughnessy from Mystic, this was their first indoor concert since the pandemic started, and both said they felt absolutely comfortable with the Garde’s protocols.

This was also the first time either of them had been to an Etheridge show. Shaughnessy said she bought tickets only a few days earlier. “I just really wanted to go see her, and I found someone else (who wanted to go),” she said.

Others at the gig, though, were die-hard fans who had seen Etheridge many times before. Laurie Mahoney traveled from her home in Bergen County, N.J., to the Garde, which she said was her 52nd time at an Etheridge concert. She said she loves the rocker’s “rawness, the pure joy she brings, the truth that she brings, the connections she makes to her audiences.”

Mahoney wasn’t nervous at all about coming out for the performance, saying, “I’m vaccinated. … We all have to live our lives and move on.”

She added, "It’s so nice to get out the house and experience music again. It’s so great.”

‘The only one’

In preparation for its first COVID-era concert (it also did some film screenings this summer), the Garde conducted a survey, asking ticket buyers various questions about going to a concert during the pandemic. The responses helped the Garde determine its protocols and decide to reduce seating by 20%.

Ultimately, more than 900 people turned out, making the Garde’s 1,400-seat venue still feel pretty full and vibrant.

Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel spoke to audience members briefly before Etheridge came on, and when he noted they were the Garde’s first audience in 18 months, they clapped and whooped. He thanked them for cooperating and wearing masks, saying he knows that wearing masks isn’t fun, and he thanked them for trusting the Garde.

He also thanked them for being the audience at the Garde’s first concert back “because Melissa Etheridge is the one — the only one,” referencing one of the singer’s signature hits.

As Etheridge strode onstage, strumming her guitar, she walked to either side of the auditorium, looking out and smiling at the crowd. She seemed to be as happy to be there as her fans were, saying it was “good to be back in the theater.”

During the pandemic, Etheridge had performed online, doing every song she ever recorded. She jokingly recalled thinking, “Someday, there will be people in front of me.”

And Sunday, there were. She told the crowd, “The word for tonight is kindness, and the whole purpose of today is to enjoy, to just be lifted up and inspired…”

Etheridge played her best-known numbers, including “Come to My Window” and “Like the Way I Do,” as well as less-often-performed tunes and a new one from an album she is scheduled to release later this month.

She made several Connecticut references during the night, noting that one of the guitars she was playing was made in Connecticut and recalling that Connecticut was the first place where, after she performed a concert, she went out the doors of the venue and was met with a cheering crowd.

Etheridge sent the Garde audience into the night with this advice: “Spread the peace and choose only love.”

Jeanne Sigel, the Garde’s marketing and developmental director, said later on, “The audience was one of the most joyful and appreciative we have ever had. A true home-coming!”

k.dorsey@theday.com

 

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