SALT LAKE CITY — The cancellations and postponements keep rolling in. Big shows across the country — like Def Leppard/ZZ Top, Michael Buble and Cher — continue to be axed, pushed back to 2021 or postponed indefinitely.
But there are 100 Utah rockers who are currently gearing up for a two-day music festival amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With 25 bands in the lineup, the 15th annual Geezerfest is moving full steam ahead. What started as a backyard get-together has evolved into an outdoor rock ’n’ roll festival that more than 1,700 people attended last year.
Most of the Geezerfest musicians are older than 50. Their love for classic rock began in the 1960s and ‘70s. Most of them now have other professions or have retired — among the passionate musicians are doctors, accountants, engineers and therapists.
But John Pilmer, a business owner and member of the Utah band Geneva Road, wants to get one thing straight: “This isn’t just a bunch of garage bands.”
“This is a bunch of talented, talented people,” he told the Deseret News. “Many who have worked for decades to hone their skills.”
And this year, the festival may be more important than ever, Pilmer said.
Power of music
In Utah, COVID-19 cases seem to be on the decline — the current rolling seven-day average for new cases is 389 per day, the Deseret News reported on Wednesday. But people older than 60 are considered at higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
Due to this elevated risk, many older adults have been isolated — physically and socially. That isolation can have a long-term effect on overall health and well-being, a recent article in the Global Health Research and Policy journal reported. According to the article, published in June, social isolation and loneliness are “major risk factors” of poor physical and mental health among older adults.
Research also shows that music can have positive effects on mental health, help treat symptoms of dementia, and that areas in the brain connected to musical memory are relatively undamaged by Alzheimer’s disease.
“If you think about … the age group of many of the performers, this is a big deal for them socially to be able to get out and do something and stretch their legs and feel human again,” Pilmer said. “There’s plenty of folks that are retired and trying to stay active and fend off dementia, and playing music can help you do that.
“And this year with coronavirus, I would say that mental health and social health is one of the greatest benefits of this year’s event,” he continued. “A lot of people have been a bit isolated.”
Pilmer added that a high number of musicians wanted to play this year — showing there’s a growing desire right now for people to be involved in community and social events. The lineup features more bands than last year’s event, and there’s even a band waitlist, should musicians fall ill or become unable to play for various reasons.
But is it safe to hold a music festival right now?
Pilmer said feedback on social media indicates that hundreds of people are interested in attending this year’s event, which runs Aug. 14-15 at the Orem City Center Park (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outdoor events pose a lesser risk for COVID-19 spread than indoor settings). There are some, though, who have expressed hesitation over attending, either stating they’re part of a high-risk population or aren’t yet comfortable attending a public event.
But Pilmer believes it can be done. That’s why he has been working closely with the city of Orem and the Utah County Health Department to make it happen.
When members of a volunteer committee first got together in February to talk about the festival, they didn’t even know the “coronavirus was going to rock our world,” Pilmer said.
But everything changed in March. From there, the organizers began to explore alternatives. Worst-case scenario, it could be canceled. Maybe, like so many other events this year, they could do it virtually.
The uncertainty of it all made it harder to obtain sponsors — the goal has always been to grow the event while also keeping Geezerfest free, Pilmer said. But working in close collaboration with local health officials to determine safety protocol, an in-person event started to become more of a reality. And the festival was able to secure sponsors, including Best in Music, Smith’s, Macey’s and Vasa Fitness.
“We’re so happy that we weren’t canceled,” Pilmer said.
Safety is a high priority for this year’s Geezerfest. In fact, more than 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer — donated by local manufacturer Dynamic Blending — will be available to attendees for free. While not required, masks are strongly encouraged at the festival (Cascade Healthcare will be providing 600 masks). People are also encouraged to bring their own chairs and blankets, and to spread out at safe distances.
Workers, meanwhile, are required to wear masks and gloves, and musicians will wear masks up until their performance, Pilmer said. The musicians have also been asked to self-monitor their temperature and symptoms. On stage, a crew will disinfect microphones and equipment in-between sets.
“This is not just a request,” Pilmer said. “This is something we’re expected to do so that the city and the county health department as well as the fans feel safe.”
With these safety measures and more in place, Geezerfest can move forward with free performances, food trucks and a fireworks show to top it all off. During a time when big events continue to get cut, Pilmer anticipates a greater attendance than years past.
“This is something that people are craving right now. They’ve been shut up all summer, so this may be the only T-shirt concert that they can get to,” he said. “I have a feeling we may be quite a bit bigger than we were last year, but we’ll see.”