Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's latest book, "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk," was published in Oct. by University of North Carolina Press.

The “Great Reopening” of 2021 continues apace, with live music venues across the Raleigh area stirring back to life as pandemic restrictions continue to loosen. That includes two key outdoor venues—Joseph M. Bryan Jr. Theater in the Museum Park at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre. Both have shows popping up on their respective schedules, with more to come.

Among the major events on the NCMA schedule is a Juneteenth weekend of programming featuring a capella gospel legends Sweet Honey in the Rock on June 18; Big Thief on Sept. 22; and a Halloween-night show with longtime venue favorite Pink Martini featuring China Forbes on Oct. 31.

There will also be live jazz in the museum café, a busker series and a number of artist residencies. It’s not just music, either. Also on tap for the NCMA amphitheater’s big stage are dance programs with Carolina Ballet in Aug. and American Dance Festival in Sept. (details to be released soon).

“If people are only looking for the big concerts, we’re gonna fail them,” says Moses T. Alexander Greene, the museum’s director of performing arts and film. “But if you’re looking for the integration of performing arts into the overall experience in the galleries and the park, you’ll be very pleased with the pot pourri of music and dance and films we’ll have beyond just the big concerts. We’re gonna be a place where the performing arts live again.”

Behind the scenes, meantime, the work continues to book more amphitheater concerts for late summer into fall. It’s a complicated process, for artists and bookers as well as the venues.

“We’re slowly getting back online with concerts, trying to figure out the best way forward,” says Janette Hoffman, manager of the museum’s concerts and music programs. “A lot of artists have pushed touring back to 2022, and we’ve shifted to a later start to the season to be on the safer side. It’s been a lot of conversations for a long time, but I’m excited to have a couple of shows in store. I’m psyched to see the joy again.”

Booth Amphitheatre is facing similar issues in rolling out whatever concert season venue management can put together. So far, the biggest show on the schedule is a Sept. 30 date with California reggae band Rebelution.

While that coalesces behind the scenes, Booth’s schedule has a number of smaller jazz and bluegrass shows. The latter is part of the PineCone-sponsored Lakeside Bluegrass Series, with a schedule of primarily regional acts:

  • June 6: Jon Stickley Trio
  • June 13: Gina Furtado Project
  • June 20: Songs From the Road Band
  • June 27: Mason Via & Hot Trail Mix Band

“We wanted to get the amphitheater open as soon as restrictions allowed,” says William Lewis, cultural arts manager under Cary’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department. “Just trying to get people into the space and fill the calendar while national tours start to build up. For acts to build a viable tour, you need multiple states with similar restrictions at least near each other. Everybody’s scrambling to figure out dates and also production personnel. So please keep in mind that things are coming together later than usual. Probably late July into Aug. and the fall. That’s when the big stuff will start to come together.”

Also on tap is the 2021 return of two longtime perennial Booth Amphitheatre favorites with the North Carolina Symphony: the annual Summerfest series, and the big Fourth of July fireworks blowout. Summerfest kicks off June 5 with “Movie Music Classics,” followed by “Cirque de la Symphonie” on June 12, “Beethoven Symphony No. 5” on June 19 and “Classics Under the Stars” on June 26.

As for the Fourth of July, it took the lifting of most virus restrictions before it was feasible.

“With mass-gathering limits, we can control what’s inside the venue,” says Lewis. “But as soon as you introduce fireworks, you might have throngs of 10 to 15,000 outside the gates, and you can’t control that kind of crowd. But with the cap lifted, we do plan to hold it now.”

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