Curtains Up!

At Long Last, Live Music Returns to the Masonic.

By Adrian Spinelli

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People tend to remember seeing a show at the Masonic. Immediately upon walking through the doors of the California Masonic Memorial Temple in San Francisco, you’re greeted by Emile Norman’s massive 38-by-48-foot endomosaic mural, with its 180 stained-glass window panes. Colored light pours from the piece into the Grand Lobby, leaving a lasting impression on first-timers. For a year and a half, though, that experience was unavailable, with the 3,300-seat Masonic Auditorium shut down by COVID-19. As a result, the venue went completely dark. In a typical year, the Masonic hosts 200,000 people between the Masons of California’s Annual Communication and a concert lineup that has included Kacey Musgraves, Beck, and Elvis Costello, plus comedy acts like Dave Chapelle and Ali Wong.

So when the Chicago hardcore group Rise Against took the stage for the Masonic’s first show in a year and a half, there was understandably some pent-up energy in the audience. With the mosh pit churning, the feeling was of musical catharsis—albeit with one very visible difference. “I looked out at the crowd to take a picture of the moment, and all the people had their masks on,” says Jason Bray, the general manager of the Masonic. 

In the scheme of things, that seems like a minor concession to bring the Masonic back to life. A few days after Rise Against knocked the dust from the rafters, Washington rockers Modest Mouse arrived for the venue’s second show back. This time it felt like a welcome dose of normalcy, even with safety measures in place. Door staff checked for proof of vaccination, and inside revelers were reminded to keep their masks on except when eating or drinking—a rule that by and large was complied with. Despite it all, fans did what they’ve always done at the Masonic: gawk at the mural, snap blurry photos from the crowd, and lose themselves in the  euphoria of an audience singing together as one. 

Above:
On Sept. 16, Modest Mouse performed just the second concert at the Masonic in San Francisco in more than 17 months.

For Bray, who works for the national concert promoter Live Nation, which has leased the Masonic auditorium since 2009, reopening the hall has been an enormous task. The biggest change, he says, has been to the way crowds enter the building. Today, almost everyone is guided through the California Street lobby. For each show, Live Nation places a half-dozen staffers at the doors (as well as at the VIP entrance) to check the vaccine cards and IDs of everyone entering the building—a protocol that was repeated for the fraternity’s Annual Communication. Once inside, nearly 50 socially distanced standing tables are arranged throughout the upper and lower concourses for attendees to gather in groups of two to four before heading into the show. When a table is vacated, a staffer quickly sanitizes the area.

Then there are the other points to manage, like having strong-enough flashlights for staff to be able to read patrons’ vaccine cards. The entire staff of the Masonic is now certified by the Global Biorisk Advisory Council to follow proper disinfection protocols; even the supply orders have shifted somewhat. “There’s a lot more Clorox in the mix,” Bray offers. “This is what everyone is doing industry-wise.”

Yet getting a concert venue reopened isn’t only a matter of loading up on disinfectant.

Where many businesses were able to open their doors almost immediately after the county gave the go-ahead, booking concerts with touring acts happens months and sometimes years in advance. Because of the pandemic, Live Nation had to reschedule more than 100 shows at the Masonic. Often that means figuring out entirely new tour calendars for dozens of artists and juggling the dates to fit availability at multiple venues. (Adding to the headache, big venues like the Masonic rely on corporate events throughout the year, which can complicate the process of booking national tours.) But according to Bray, most of the canceled shows have been rescheduled for 2022 and beyond. “Everything is starting to bounce back,” he says. “Artists want to play, and fans are buying tickets. As long as we follow the rules, keep our masks on, and are vaccinated, we’re good.”

Bray says that through all the behind-the-scenes challenges, the goal is to make the experience of seeing a performance at the Masonic as familiar as ever. The Modest Mouse show seemed to manage exactly that as the band launched into “Trailer Trash” from their 1997 classic The Lonesome Crowded West. Frontman Isaac Brock’s epic guitar solo felt nothing short of life-affirming, and as dozens of balloons floated through the room and bodies swayed in unison, it was possible to forget the strangeness of the experience and the circumstances. If only for an evening.

Music at the Masonics

SAN FRANCISCO’S ISN’T THE ONLY MASONIC HALL HOSTING BIG-TIME PERFORMANCES.

LODGE ROOM, LOS ANGELES 

The former home of Highland Park Lodge No. 382 in Northeast L.A., this circa-1922 Mediterranean Renaissance Revival lodge building was renovated and reopened in 2017 as a 500-seat indie music venue and restaurant. lodgeroomhlp.com 

SWEETWATER MUSIC HALL, MILL VALLEY 

The circa-1902 Masonic Hall on Corte Madera Avenue sits on the second floor, directly above the new Sweetwater Music Hall, one of Marin County’s most revered musical venues and nightclubs, which relocated there in 2012. sweetwatermusichall.com 

THE MASONIC, DETROIT 

The largest Masonic temple in the world, the 16-floor complex on Cass Park includes an astonishing 1,037 rooms, including three theaters. The largest, the Masonic Theater, seats 4,650. A relatively smaller space (capacity 1,586) is now named after White Stripes frontman Jack White, who in 2013 donated $142,000 to the Detroit Masonic Temple Association to help them pay off back taxes and avoid foreclosure. themasonic.com 

CLEVELAND MASONIC TEMPLE 

In 2018, this circa-1921 Romanesque Revival temple (capacity 2,500) began being managed by Live Nation and TempleLive, which also operates a music venue out of the the Fort Smith Masonic Temple in Arkansas. masoniccleveland.com 

REVEL 32°, POUGHKEEPSIE 

A study in adaptive reuse, this circa-1845 church was first repurposed in 1895 as a Masonic temple, and again in late 2019 as an event venue in New York’s Hudson River Valley. revel32.com

Above:
Emile Norman’s massive endomosaic mural greets visitors to the California Masonic Memorial Temple.

PHOTOGRAPHY CREDIT:
Greg Chow

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