COVID-19 has limited the opportunity for local bands to perform live. Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen is one restaurant that is continuing to offer musicians a stage.
Even after moving to Iowa in 2019, Webster alumnus Eric Knost remained involved with St. Louis band 5 Star Roscoe. He described 5 Star Roscoe as an “Americana jam band” and said the group tries to play at least one gig a month.
Knost will book an hour flight or drive over six hours to play in St. Louis. With COVID-19, however, finding places to play has become a challenge.
“There were a couple of gigs where, you know, the restaurant or club had to cancel so we just did virtual gigs and put a virtual tip jar out there,” Knost said.
Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen owner Bill Kunz has worked to continue hosting live music at his restaurant. For bands like 5 Star Roscoe, Kunz currently offers one of the few opportunities to perform live.
“[Other opportunities for events have] all gone away,” Knost said. “It really just got down to opportunities with Bill during the pandemic and online.”
The Bedlam Brothers’ vocalist/guitarist Philip Patterson can count how many times his band has played in the last year on his hands. He said some of the band’s members are older, so they have been attempting to avoid indoor performances where they could be exposed to COVID-19.
Patterson said he felt an intense desire to perform again, however, so he reached out to Kunz when he had the opportunity. He was able to book a smaller gig with band member Matthew Flory for Jan. 29.
“[It’s] just kind of like a small acoustic deal,” Patterson said. “So just still trying to be able to do that, you know, something that I love to do, even though it is not the best environment, obviously.”
Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen is located at 34 S Old Orchard Ave in Webster Groves. Kunz said the restaurant works to highlight the food and music of “The Blues Highway” – Highway 61.
The restaurant expanded its carry out and to-go options, but he felt the restaurant’s style of food is difficult to pack up and take home, Kunz said. Moreover, he added live music played a role in drawing people to the restaurant and creating a unique experience for customers.
“When somebody comes in, we want them to feel like they’re in New Orleans or Memphis,” Kunz said. “We say we’re kind of where Bourbon Street meets Beale Street. And it’s hard to put [an] experience in a Styrofoam box to take home with you.”
But COVID-19 restrictions in St. Louis County, along with the public’s health concerns, have limited Kunz’s ability to give customers that “Blues Highway” experience. Kunz thinks the majority of people will not feel comfortable dining inside until the vaccine becomes available to the general public.
Kunz has temporarily canceled Wednesday open mic nights because of the limited number of customers and health concerns among musicians. When bands play on Fridays and the weekend, Kunz said he is unable to pay most of them due to the restaurant’s decreased revenue. The majority of the bands play for tips.
“We’ve been hurt. They’ve been hurt. They got no place to play. They like to play,” Kunz said. “If they come out and play and make a few dollars, they’re happy. I give them a food and beverage comp but, you know, some of them that depend on it as extra money haven’t had that opportunity.”
Knost said he understands restaurants are struggling financially, so he keeps that in mind when scheduling gigs. He and the band’s other constant member – Rob Boyle – both can support their families with their day jobs.
However, Knost said other people they play with rely on performing as a main source of income. Keeping both restaurant owners and band members in mind, Knost said the band is okay with working for tips.
“I’ve been trying to still – when I have the opportunity – bring them a band, bring them some entertainment, take some of that on our shoulders,” Knost said. “Give our musicians that are doing this as their livelihood the opportunity to make a little bit of money.”
A few of the restaurants The Bedlam Brothers played at in the past have closed down, according to Patterson. He realizes the challenges people like Kunz face, so he said he is flexible with how much the band makes. Patterson hopes playing at restaurants will encourage customers to come in.
Patterson said he and Flory planned on staying away from others and wearing masks while they were not performing on Jan. 29. Despite the limited capacity and the added precautions, Patterson was excited to play at Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen.
“The situation is obviously what it is, but it still doesn’t dampen my spirit when I’m up there playing music,” Patterson said. “One or four or 20 or however many people are there enjoying it, that still will be the same. And so I just kind of miss that and look forward to being able to experience that feeling more frequently.”
5 Star Roscoe will also take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. While Knost looked forward to having more opportunities for gigs in the coming months, he stressed the importance of doing so safely.
“For the arts to survive, this pandemic needs to get behind us. It’s real, it’s very real. So many people have suffered,” Knost said. “The musicians I’m around – we don’t want to be part of something that prolongs the pandemic.”
Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen offers live music on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Kunz encouraged people who feel comfortable dining out to visit Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen. He also said he understands the pandemic has put an economic strain on families but encouraged visitors to help the band if possible.
“Remember these guys are working for tips and I think they understand, we understand how tough things are, but be as generous as possible,” Kunz said. “Hopefully we will make it through this.”