Concert venues in NYC were allowed to reopen for the first time since the pandemic on April 2 and among the shows that happened that night was cellist and singer Kelsey Lu, who kicked off The Shed's "An Audience with…" series.  The month-long program is being presented in The McCourt, the main space of The Shed, which ordinarily has a seated capacity of 1,280, but which now has been reduced to 150 seats for these events to comply with state-mandated measures for Covid safety. The series went on sale in March and sold out quickly during a member pre-sale before the general public had access to the online sale. For this specific evening, Kelsey Lu did offer spots to a few lucky fans via their Instagram.

In addition to socially-distanced seating, The Shed implemented requirements for attending patrons including evidence of a recent negative Covid test result or the completion of a Covid vaccine, an emailed health survey prior to receiving tickets, a temperature check at the door, and the wearing of face masks throughout the evening. Attendees were assigned specific time slots to enter the line, which resulted in a minimal wait outside the venue. Having received my second dose of the Covid vaccine over two weeks ago, I felt compelled to try the new Excelsior Pass as proof of my compliance. Unfortunately, the staff member who attempted to scan the QR code on my pass had trouble reading the printout with her iPad, so I showed a photo of my vaccine card instead - a slight hiccup in an otherwise highly organized, well-run evening with respect to Covid safety protocols.

For the event, which was billed as “THIS IS A TEST -- The Opera (A Sonic Recalibration in Three Acts Performed by Kelsey Lu & Friends),” Lu assembled a group of 12 musicians and vocalists: Alice Bacon (cello), Alicia Hall Moran (vocals), Brandee Younger (harp), Bryndon Cook (guitar), Christine Lyons (vocals), Lady Jess (violin), Malcolm Parson (cello), Maria Jeffers (cello), Melany Watson (vocals), Rob Schwimmer (theremin), Spencer Zahn (multi-instrumentalist), and Trace Johnson (cello). The 80-minute show began at approximately 8:15 PM, with ambient music and the sounds of birds chirping leading into the musicians entering one by one from the rear doors of the hall and going to their respective stations, which were themselves distanced on the main stage, along the sides of the hall, with two of the cellists even seated within the audience area. Lu made the last entrance, wearing an elaborate costume, clad head to toe in black ruffles and lace, and sporting a feathered headpiece giving them an appearance of a bird-like creature, or perhaps a witch about to conjure a spell over the audience. They settled in front and center, alone on a smaller, lower platform, which was covered in an earthy mixture of dirt and mulch and located at the foot of the main stage.

The performance wove together songs spanning Lu’s career, drawing upon the 2016 EP Church, the 2019 LP Blood, and a few singles, with instrumental interludes peppered throughout, leading off with the song “Time.” As the set progressed, Lu gradually removed various elements of their costume and boots, eventually standing barefoot and revealing their arms and face. Lu alternated between singing and playing their cello for the songs, some of which were reworked here. Lu’s repertoire straddles the line between lush orchestration and pop music, and the performance -- in conjunction with the expertly designed lighting -- really filled the cavernous space of The McCourt despite the reduced number of people in attendance.

Towards the latter portion of the show, Lu walked to the rear of the main stage and disappeared for a stretch, and returned wearing a new costume comprised entirely of large pink ruffles. It was at this point Lu made some of their few comments, stating that, “Spring has sprung. We’re all flowers here. And with the blossoming of Spring, there is new awakening, restart, regrowth, and love.” Up until then, the set felt like a carefully paced, moody dream, and then it seemed to burst forth with the song “Blood,” climaxing with their cover of 10cc's “I’m Not in Love,” and finishing with 2020 single “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mind seep out.”

In a recent Instagram post by The Shed, Lu said, “I love listening to the reactions of whatever is going on in the audience. That energy is flying throughout the room, and it’s buzzing and it’s vibrating. My favorite are, like, queer audiences. And, like, young queer audiences ‘cause they’re just, like, having a blast. Just really excited and happy to be hearing live music again.”

I was fortunate to catch Lu on two different occasions in 2019, including at Afropunk, and loved the energy they displayed then, vibing off the crowd, and showing an exuberance one often observes during live music. This event, commissioned by The Shed, was quite different from a standard concert performance. The rearranged songs flowed seamlessly into interludes and solos and vice versa with no breaks, and the audience exhibited restraint and held its applause until the very end. While there normally might be a crowd of dancing young people clamoring to be up front on the rail with their faces showing their excitement, and their cell phones raised in the air to capture moments, Friday night’s audience members were masked, spaced apart and seated, with the artist requesting that no photos or videos be taken. My first indoor concert in over a year was a stress-free event as far as Covid safety goes, and it was nice not having any tall people or illuminated screens obscuring my view, but I have to wonder if this will be the tone of in-person concerts for the foreseeable future in the age of Covid.

Next up at The Shed, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic on April 14 and 15; Renée Fleming, Bill Frisell, Christian McBride, and Dan Tepfer on April 21; and comedian Michelle Wolf on April 22. All are sold out.

Check out pictures from Kelsey Lu's performance below

Setlist (more or less)
1. Time
2. Atlantic
3. [unknown]
4. Liar
5. Shades of Blue
6. Pushin Against the Wind
7. Blood
8. I’m Not in Love (10cc cover)
9. Let all the poisons that lurk in the mind seep out

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