Drive-in concerts gear up during coronavirus pandemic

DJ Carnage leads a drive-in "Road Rave" concert in Arizona.
Dj Carnage is shown headlining last weekend’s “Road Rave” EDM drive-in concert in Arizona.
(Photo by Bryan Perez)

With theaters and amphitheaters shuttered for the summer, Switchfoot, Alan Jackson and other artists steer forward


Parking as close as possible to concert venues has been a way of life for music fans for decades. Now, with clubs, concert halls and amphitheaters shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, parking in venues is fast becoming a viable interim option as drive-in concerts pop up across the U.S.

Recent four-on-the-floor shows have been performed by artists as varied as country-music superstar Keith Urban in Nashville, EDM mainstay DJ Carnage in Arizona, and Todd Rundgren/Meat Loaf band veteran Kasim Sulton in New Hampshire.

Their appearances came after a mid-March drive-in concert in Los Angeles and several abroad, where singer-songwriter Mads Langer performed April 24 in Denmark and a drive-in “auto-disco” rave was held May 1 in Germany. From May 22-24, a Hyundai-sponsored “drive-in” festival in Seoul presented K-Pop acts, an orchestra and the South Korean cast of the Broadway musical “42nd Street.” Also in May, concert industry giant Live Nation — which has postponed or canceled tens of thousands of concerts worldwide because of the pandemic — announced its “Drive-In Live” tour of four Danish cities and plans for more to follow in the U.S.

“Drive-in concerts are a true and honest effort to keep live music going and vital,” Sulton said Tuesday from New York, “rather than to throw our hands up in the air and say, ‘We don’t know what we’ll do now’.”

On Sunday, San Diego will get in the act with a pair of “Feed the Need” drive-in concerts at Petco Park, each limited to 250 vehicles.

The noon show at Petco Park, for which a handful of tickets are still on sale, will feature the area bands B-Side Players, SM Familia and Los Sleepwalkers. The sold-out 7 p.m. concert will feature the Grammy Award-wining North County group Switchfoot, with an opening solo set by Hirie singer Trish Jetton and members of her band.

Both Petco Park concerts will benefit the nonprofit Feeding San Diego. The performances are being hosted by the San Diego Padres and produced by Local Media San Diego, the parent company of radio stations 91X and Z90. Both concerts will be a first here, for performers and attendees alike.

"If we can communicate joy and purpose at any concert, we'll have succeeded," says Switchfoot's Jon Foreman.
(Courtesy photo)

“We have played at festivals and in stadiums, at concert halls, clubs and even on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. But we have never done anything like this,” Switchfoot leader Jon Foreman said.

“So I wonder: What will the rapport be like with the audience? Will there be any form of chemistry with everyone safely spread out in the parking lot? What will it look like? I have no idea!”

Not so, comedian and bluegrass banjo crusader Steve Martin.

“I played, in the daytime, at a drive-in movie theater north of San Francisco (in 1967),” Martin recalled in a 2014 Union-Tribune interview. “It was near a resort. So people were camping and they drove their cars in and watched the show, from their cars. And they put the speakers inside their cars. And if they thought something was funny, they would honk. I’m not making this up.”

Speakers inside cars won’t be an issue at Sunday’s Petco Park concerts. Attendees will be able to listen on an FM frequency on their car radio or can roll down their windows to hear the music directly from the sound system on the stage.

“We are going to make sure the sound quality is very good,” said Jaclyn Lash, the San Diego Padres’ vice president of special events.

“We will have also three full LED video screens, one on the stage raised above the heads of the performers behind the stage, and two ancillary screens on the left and right.”

Singer-songwriter Mads Langer is shown performing a drive-in concert in Aarhus, Denmark, on April 24, 2020.
(Courtesy of Camilla Lundby)

State of play

What drive-in concerts look like varies from state to state, at least for now, based on what social-distancing regulations are in effect.

For Sulton’s two May 23 drive-in concerts in the parking lot of the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, N.H., attendees could sit in their cars or next to them. Food and drink service was available via golf carts, but had to be ordered prior to the day of the concert. Face masks were recommended, but not mandatory.

The ambiance was equally lax for DJ Carnage’s May 28 and 29 performances at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Chandler, Ariz., where he headlined both days of Road Rave, a dance-music festival billed as “the ultimate middle finger to COVID-19.”

Concessions were available for ordering online and were delivered to each vehicle. Road Rave attendees were encouraged to wear face masks, but it was not mandatory, as the photos of some completely mask-free fans at the festival attest.

“Some people had little inflatable pools set up next to their cars and it was like a tailgate drive-in festival. It was incredible!” Carnage, whose real name is Diamanté Anthony Blackmon, said Tuesday.

He spoke by phone from his tour bus in New Mexico, en route to Saturday’s third — and for now, final — Road Rage tour stop at the Central Florida Fairgrounds in Orlando. He hopes to extend the tour with new dates.

At Sunday’s Petco Park concert, the main goal will be to strike a balance between providing an entertaining event and adhering to public health protocols.

“We are following the county health ordinances,” the Padres’ Lash said. “And we are expanding on them to make sure we provide a very safe environment for our guests, but also an enjoyable one.”

Accordingly, while the Lexus Premier parking lot at Petco Park can accommodate nearly 550 cars, capacity for Sunday’s two concerts is just 250 each. As a result, there will be an empty parking space between and behind each vehicle.

To provide good sight lines, the spaces closest to the stage will be for smaller cars, with medium-sized vehicles in the middle and large vehicles at the rear. There will be no on-site food or beverage service. Attendees can bring food and beverages from home, but no alcohol is allowed. Attendees must remain in their car for the entire concert and are encouraged to use the bathroom before arriving at the parking lot.

"On a certain level, drive-in concerts should be embraced," says Kasim Sulton, shown above in New Hampshire.
(Photo courtesy Chipster P.R.)

A West Coast first

So far as can be determined, Sunday’s Petco Park performances are the first drive-in concerts to be held during the coronavirus pandemic at a Major League Baseball park on the West Coast.

Thursday saw the Texas Rangers launch “Concert in Your Car,” a multi-show series at Globe Life Field outside Dallas. The series was scheduled to open with the Eli Young Band. They are set to be followed by Whiskey Myers (tonight), Pat Green (Saturday) and the Josh Abbott Band and Kevin Fowler (Sunday).

All four concerts quickly sold out. Additional appearances by the same four acts were added and also sold out, illustrating just how eager people are to hear live music — even if it’s while seated in their cars.

However, all those Texas shows are acoustic performances, which suggests low-key musical events. Conversely, Switchfoot’s Sunday concert at Petco will be a full-on electric set. It should sound and look like a conventional rock concert in nearly every sense, apart from the size and location of the audience.

Meanwhile, Texas-based norteño band Grupo Intocable will perform a drive-in concert Saturday in the Lone Star town of Poteet, country-music superstar Alan Jackson is set to perform two drive-in concerts on July 12 and 13 in Alabama, and longtime Bruce Springsteen associates Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes will perform July 11 in New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. The New York Yankees are planning to launch a drive-in concert and move series in July, to be held in the Yankee Stadium parking lot.

Should Sunday’s concerts at Petco Park prove successful, more could follow.

“We’ve had a lot of interest since we announced these shows,” said the Padres’ Lash, who noted that the stadium hosts an average of 300 public and private events annually.

“We sold out the Switchfoot show right away,” she continued. “I think people find Petco Park is an easy location to get to and from, and drive-in concerts are a fun and safe activity to do.”

No matter the location, drive-in concerts can only cater to smaller audiences. While they provide a rare live-music option for those fans who attend — and welcome employment, at least for a day, for musicians, stage crews, audio engineers and lighting designers. But their reduced attendance size, and limited earnings potential, makes it impossible for such events to compensate for the enormous, multi-billion-dollar losses being incurred by the worldwide concert industry.

Even so, the question remains: Are drive-in concerts the new normal, at least for this summer, if not beyond?

“I don’t want them to be ‘normal,’ ” DJ Carnage said.

“I don’t want it to be something we have to do for the next year. I think it’s a great medium during the pandemic and it’s good enough for now. But I want things to go back to the real normal and be able to go to a festival or a concert, without having to be so cautious. In the meanwhile, it’s good if we can party and celebrate safely.”

Sultan agreed, while pointing out that the weather will not be conducive to holding such events beyond the summer in most parts of the nation.

“On a certain level, drive-in concerts should be embraced,” he said. “It’s not so much about monetizing them, and it’s not a situation where the executives at Live Nation are rubbing their hands together and saying, ‘This is how we can make up our billion-dollar shortfall from all our canceled concerts.’ What is important is that some people are trying to do something to provide live entertainment right now.”

For those who can attend, a drive-in concert may take on more meaning than a pre-pandemic performance, despite — and because of — the unusual settings in which they take place. What results could underscore the unifying power of music in new ways.

“A lot of people are going through tough times,” said DJ Carnage, who is donating some of the proceeds from his Road Rave to the ANF COVID-19 Relief Fund, which provides aid to vulnerable communities in Nicaragua during the pandemic. “People are losing family members, friends, jobs. So I don’t want to just put out party music and bangers. I want to help people heal.”

That is also what Switchfoot’s Foreman and his band mates will seek to do at their Petco Park drive-in concert.

“If we can communicate joy and purpose at any concert, we’ll have succeeded,” Foreman said.

“Even though the circumstances are different (at a drive-in concert), our goal remains intact. Beyond that, it’s just to enjoy whatever happens in the moment and take it for whatever it is.

“The hardest part for me is that I like to get out into the crowd and give everyone a high-five during our concerts. I don’t know how many years it will take before I can do that again.”

“Feed the Need” drive-in concerts

Featuring: Switchfoot, with Trish Jetton & Hirie at 7 p.m. Sunday (sold out); B-Side Players, SM Familia and Los Sleepwalkers at noon Sunday

Where: Petco Park, downtown

Tickets: $50 per vehicle for the noon concert