On the road again: Samantha Fish, Tab Benoit, Allman Betts Band tour despite pandemic | Music

Most bands have stayed home during the coronavirus pandemic. Three managed by Rueben Williams have not.

New Orleans-based guitarist Samantha Fish, fellow guitarist Tab Benoit — who, like Williams, hails from south Louisiana — and the Allman Betts Band have each logged dozens of shows across the country since late last year.

It hasn’t been easy. At times, such as when they’ve been the only guests at a particular hotel, it’s been weird. It’s involved a lot of COVID-19 testing and developing and adhering to strict protocols.

But by booking a mix of outdoor venues and limited-capacity indoor shows, they’ve managed to keep themselves and their teams employed while demonstrating a possible way forward as restrictions are loosened and the live music industry slowly comes back to life.

“I’m working twice as hard and not making the money we’re used to making,” said Fish, who is in Florida this week to play eight shows in five days. “But we’re trying to push through in a way that’s safe. There’s a microscopic line between safety and saving this industry we’ve dedicated our lives to.”


New Orleans-based guitarist Samantha Fish, right, with drummer Terence Higgins, left, and bassist Ron Johnson, somewhere on the road during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, Williams saw that entire industry teetering on the brink of collapse.

“The whole thing was going to change,” he said. “That inspired us to not let it change on us.”

He is well aware of COVID-19’s dangers, having lost close friends to the disease.

“It’s on your mind: ‘I could get sick here,’” he said. “You think about it constantly. You’re always in harm’s way, as our bubble moves from city to city and state to state.

“I can’t tell you I like being out there. I don’t like my bands being out there, because I worry about them. But they want to be.

“And nobody was going to help us. We took it upon ourselves to create commerce.”

Had the pandemic been managed more effectively early on, Williams said, “the economy didn’t have to come to a standstill. We made sure it didn’t for us.”


The scene at a drive-in style Allman Betts Band concert in Yarmouth, Massachusetts during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The right place and time

The Allman Betts Band was the first act on the roster of Williams’ Thunderbird Management Group to return to the road. Featuring Devon Allman, Duane Betts and Berry Duane Oakley — all sons of members of the Allman Brothers Band — the Allman Betts Band has logged 40 shows since August, with another 60 or so on the books through the summer.

“We didn’t want to be the first ones back out, but we didn’t want to be sitting on our hands if other people were playing,” Allman said this week.

He and his bandmates are tested for COVID-19 at the start and end of tours. Early on, they stuck to outdoor venues, including drive-ins.


The Roxy in Atlanta, configured for a socially distanced, limited capacity performance by the Allman Betts Band on Oct. 29, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was taboo to be doing shows at all,” Allman said. “Once the (infection) numbers dipped for a minute in August, it felt better, especially since the protocols for drive-ins were tight and clean. It felt safe for fans and us.”

Indoor venues were trickier.

“Some did that better than others, but we felt like we were in a strong enough position to implement our own criteria,” Allman said. “If we got in a situation where we arrived and things didn’t feel safe, there’s always the power of ‘no’ — no show — until the safety protocols checked off all the boxes.”

To limit capacity, they often play multiple shows in a city to smaller crowds instead of one big show. “It’s double and quadruple the work, but this is what we love to do,” Allman said. “This is our passion.”

Life on the road

Because the band’s usual tour manager couldn’t travel from England, Williams served as tour manager for the first, bare-bones trips. The entire band and crew piled into two rented Cadillac Escalades. Allman drove one; Williams drove the other.

“My hat’s off to Rueben,” Allman said. “He’s normally a desk jockey manager, on the phone and the computer. This time, he went into the venues first and made sure the protocols were followed.”


Manager Rueben Williams, left, publicist Emily Ginsberg and musician Devon Allman in New York.

Knowing that every time someone in the band or crew stepped into a Walmart or a coffee shop, or took a shower at a truck stop, it increased the risk of COVID-19 exposure, they rethought every step in the touring process. Instead of everyone piling into a convenience store, maybe one person went in and shopped for the others. There would be no “meet-and-greet” sessions with fans. Interaction with the stage crew was limited.

“In our bubble, we have a way we want to do things,” Williams said. “But then you get into a weird situation (at a venue) and you’ve got to start fixing things: ‘It’s not that I don’t trust you — I don’t trust the disease. You’re talking to my client and you shouldn’t even be around them.’”

Initially, the Allman Betts Band flew to scattered shows, renting equipment at each stop. By the fall, their booking agent, Kevin Daly at Northstar Artists, was able to string together enough shows to justify the expense of traveling with a tour bus hauling the band’s gear.

Irma Thomas turned 80 this week. The obligatory references to her classic single “Time Is On My Side” are still appropriate.

“What we’re dealing with is a tricky and uneven situation,” said Daly, who also books Tab Benoit. “It’s whack-a-mole booking. It’s state by state, city by city. That makes it difficult for artists to tour, but not impossible. There’s lots of trial and error on everyone’s part, with different solutions.”

But touring, Daly said, “is important for everyone’s psyche, even though it’s not going to make anyone whole.”

Setting an example

Allman calls their touring strategy “bobbing and weaving,” adjusting on the fly to fluctuating infection rates and restrictions. “It’s very modular and ever-changing,” he said. “It’s super-transient. You don’t know what’s coming down the pike.”

The final shows of 10-date Allman Betts Band tours in October and November were canceled due to COVID-19 spikes, but otherwise “it went without a hitch,” Allman said. “It was amazing to be out doing what we do, with our own gear.”

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Performing coronavirus-precautioned concerts is, admittedly, not the same.

“The drive-ins can feel distant, for sure,” Allman said. “It feels weird, like you’re playing in the next ZIP code. But even with the reduced capacity (indoors), people are hooting and hollering enough for a vibe.

“It’s been hard to see some of the protocols enforced. Someone will get up from their seat in the front row and walk to the edge of the stage to take a quick picture, and they get shuffled back to their seat. I want to say, ‘Let ‘em take the picture!’ But for now, I keep my mouth shut, because it’s all for the right reason — to keep people safe.

“The last thing we want to do is come across as insensitive or cavalier. We want people to feel safe with the experience of being around other people.”

When other artists saw that the Allman Betts Band was able to tour safely, they decided to follow that example.

A journey through Russia

At the pandemic’s outset, Samantha Fish was in the midst of a European tour. Fearing that borders might be closed and she wouldn’t be able to get home, she canceled the rest of the tour and endured a 40-hour journey through Russia back to New Orleans.

“At the start of the pandemic, it was, ‘Let’s shut it down and wait it out,’” she recalled this week. “But the longer it went on, we watched the industry crumble. “

She and her band played 16 shows in October. “The first show, I was very nervous, scared and skeptical. I felt more confident after October. We pulled it off. It felt safe. We were thinking that we can do this, tread water and put a little into this industry that’s floundering.”

Charmaine Neville isn’t sure how she caught the coronavirus, soon after New Orleans music clubs shut down last spring.

She noted the incongruity of walking through the Los Angeles airport, where every restaurant was closed, only to board a packed flight.

“Some industries are shut down, some aren’t,” Fish said. “It breaks my heart to see clubs closing. It’s not just about being able to play. It’s about survival.”

She remains “very sensitive to COVID. If you talk to Rueben, he’ll say I ask way too many questions.”

Performing under COVID protocols is odd, she said, but “everything feels a little odd. I feel odd going to the grocery store. And it feels less odd than a livestream. It’s not the usual show, but it’s a little taste of normalcy. It’s nice to get it in small doses.”

Road warriors on duty

Tab Benoit was also eager to do his part for the touring industry.

“He felt it was his duty,” Williams said. “He felt like it was his job to help push it open. These road warrior bands — that’s where they live.”

Sporting long, curly hair grown out during the pandemic, Benoit kicked off a 14-date tour on Nov. 6 at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, sharing a bill with Fish. Only 590 socially distanced fans were allowed in a venue that normally holds 2,300; another 1,500 watched a livestream.

tab benoit

An advertisement for Tab Benoit and Samantha Fish’s Nov. 6, 2020 performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. 

Benoit expressed his preference for playing for an in-person audience: “I’m just not a streaming kind of guy,” he said from the stage. “I did not get into music to play for a little camera on my computer. I got into music to play for the people, to feel their energy.”

He and Fish are slated to co-headline five concerts across the southeast in April. They both have dozens of shows booked into the summer and fall.

That the artists on Williams’ management roster have been able to tour successfully during the pandemic is in part because they “have a lifetime of touring experience,” said Daly, the booking agent. “There are no unrealistic expectations or lack of understanding. They fully understand the landscape, and we work together to make it the best we can.

“You can only sell so many tickets. But it’s clear that there is demand. People are willing to pay a little more to see a show.”

Allman understands that some fans may not be comfortable going to shows yet, even if he’s comfortable playing them.

“If going out to see live music, much like going to a restaurant, feels unsafe, then the people that feel unsafe need to skip it. People willing to keep their distance and wear a mask to enjoy music, it’s good for those folks.

“You can’t please everyone. But for every person who says, ‘You shouldn’t be out here,’ there are 99 who say, ‘Thank God you’re out here.’ Those are the people you play for.”

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