behind the music
Ken Hoffman uncovers the surprising story behind the Jason Isbell Houston concert drama
Jason Isbell’s non-concert scheduled for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last week may go down as the most important concert event in recent memory.
A change is coming to the way live entertainment is presented in the U.S. from now on.
Country-rock star Isbell was supposed to perform Wednesday August 11 at the outdoor venue in The Woodlands. However the concert was canceled the day before the show in an exchange of sharply worded accusations between the performer and venue over COVID safety measures insisted on by Isbell, but not implemented by the pavilion.
Isbell says that his agent contacted the promoter Live Nation on July 31 with explicit instructions that all concert attendees would have to present a vaccination card or proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of the concert.
Jerry MacDonald, CEO of the Pavilion, insists that he didn’t learn of Isbell’s demands until Monday, August 9, only two days before the concert – too late to coordinate necessary staff to check vax cards and test results at entry gates.
MacDonald released a statement saying the Pavilion supported Isbell’s requests, is working toward implementing them in the future, but there simply wasn’t enough time to get everything in order by Wednesday.
Isbell replied on Twitter saying “the pavilion statement is false. Live Nation, the promoter, was on board but the venue ‘owner’ (he meant CEO MacDonald) flat-out refused to even attempt to implement the policy.”
Isbell wouldn’t budge on his safety demands, pulled the plug on the concert and issued more pointed comments on social media about MacDonald’s rejecting Isbell’s demands.
The other side of this story
That’s Isbell’s side of the story. Here, in our exclusive interview with MacDonald, is the Pavilion’s recounting of what did happened and why the concert didn’t happen.
MacDonald isn’t disputing Isbell’s sincerity or timeline of events, but insists he wasn’t in opposition to Isbell’s demands, only that he didn’t have time to implement them. MacDonald said that he didn’t receive notice of Isbell’s COVID-related demands until two days before the show. MacDonald said it’s important that people need to know that it was Isbell, not the venue, that changed admission requirements.
“There was no mention of required vax cards or negative tests when contracts were signed and tickets went on sale for the show,” MacDonald said.
“I don’t know where they sent the letter, or who they sent it to. My contact at Live Nation said he didn’t hear about this until the day before. We didn’t hear anything until Monday, and we’re the ones who run the building. We had only two days to institute a major policy change.
“We had a staff meeting on Monday morning and decided it was too late, there simply wouldn’t be enough time. Everybody who runs a business knows that staffing is difficult. How were we going to hire people and train them how to check vax cards and COVID test results in two days? How do you identify if the vax cards are authentic? There are lots of fake cards out there.”
Isbell would not back down or negotiate with MacDonald on alternative safety measures.
“We offered him other dates, maybe we could reschedule toward the end of his tour, or 30, 60, 90 days out down the road. That was denied,” MacDonald said.
“This show was reserved seats only. We told them, let’s open up the lawn. If people want to spread out, they can go on the lawn and have all the space they wanted to socially distance. They said no to that.”
Behind the music: Not exactly an Isbell sell-out
MacDonald noted that only 1,700 tickets were sold for the Isbell concert. The Pavilion, including reserved seats and general admission lawn, can hold nearly 17,000 fans for concerts.
“Ask Dr. Fauci, would he rather be at an open-air facility at less than 10 percent, or a small theater where you’re jammed in there wall to wall where everybody supposedly is vaxxed?” MacDonald said.
Isbell performed three shows August 7-9 at ACL Live, a 2-750-capacity indoor venue. His vax card and negative test demands were accommodated. Following the Pavilion cancelation, Isbell next was scheduled to perform at a large outdoor amphitheater in Fort Worth.
That concert was moved to Billy Bob’s, a Fort Worth honky-tonk, where fans were instructed to show their vax cards or negative tests. The show went smoothly although anti-vax protestors outside raised a ruckus, calling the general manager a modern day “Hitler.” (Classy.)
Safety first ... ?
Isbell said all of his future concerts would require strict COVID safety measures. Isbell’s demands soon may be the concert law of the land. Both LiveNation and AEG Presents, the two biggest concert promoters in the world, have announced plans to require fans show a vax card or proof of a recent negative COVID test at U.S. concerts starting in October.
“We have already started the process of having everybody checked for vax cards or negative tests in the future. We know there are shows coming down the road that will require that,” MacDonald said.
“We never said we won’t or don’t want to do what Jason Isbell was asking. It was just so sudden. We needed more time. We have been following CDC guidelines all the way, the same guidelines as the Hollywood Bowl, Red Rocks, Wolf Trap, all the major outdoor venues. No venue up to now had a policy of demanding vax cards or negative tests.
“We are on the same side as Jason Isbell. We want the same safety measures that he wants. We are working towards that. He absolutely should have played here. There is no reason why he didn’t. Absolutely we would love to have Jason Isbell perform at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. If he had given us two weeks, we probably could have done what he wanted us to do this time.”