From clubs and theaters to drive-in parking lot gigs: San Diego’s best concerts (pre- and post-pandemic)

Switchfoot performed a sold-out drive-in concert June 7 at downtown's Petco Park.
The Grammy Award-winning San Diego rock band Switchfoot performed a sold-out drive-in concert June 7 in a parking lot at downtown’s Petco Park.
(Photo by Eric Scire / Courtesy San Diego Padres)

Switchfoot, Charles McPherson and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra did memorable drive-in concerts, while Lyle Lovett, Michael Kiwanuka and Yolo were among top indoor performers


“I have seen the future of concerts for 2020, and it’s at the drive-in.”

Anyone making such a proclamation in 2019 would have been dismissed as delusional. Not so this year, when the nation and most of the world reeled from the coronavirus pandemic.

Live events of all kinds shut down in March and indoor and outdoor performances came to a standstill. This held true for small clubs and theaters, and arenas and stadiums. Ditto for such multi-day festivals as Indio’s Coachella and Stagecoach, and San Diego’s KAABOO and Wonderfront, all of which were rescheduled for 2021.

Very suddenly — and very ominously — options for hearing music performances that weren’t livestreamed (or streamed after the fact) became almost non-existent.

At least, that is, until drive-in concerts geared up, tentatively at first, then with more impact and a broader trajectory. San Diego was at the national forefront, hosting more drive-in concerts at more locations for more months than anywhere else in the country.

The first two were both held on June 7 in a parking lot at Petco Park. They were headlined by, respectively, San Diego’s propulsive B-Side Players and the Grammy Award-winning North County band Switchfoot. These were the first 2020 drive-in concerts in the nation to be held at a Major League Baseball stadium.

The most recent drive-in concert here was last weekend’s “Big Band Christmas” show at the Cal State San Marcos parking lot. That is where California Center for the Arts, Escondido relocated its drive-in series in mid-September, after presenting a month’s worth of such shows at Westfield North County.

Mainly Mozart paved the way for drive-in classical music concerts, presenting 19 of them (and one jazz performance by sax great Charles McPherson) at the Del Mar Fairgrounds between July and October. The culminating October concerts featured the 34-piece Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

The success of Mainly Mozart’s ambitious and smoothly executed Del Mar series in turn inspired San Diego Opera to make its drive-in debut with four performances of “La bohème.”

They were held in the Pechanga Arena parking lot, where musical accompaniment was expertly provided by Rafael Payare and a scaled-down, 24-piece edition of the San Diego Symphony. It was the first live public performance since March by the orchestra, which has pivoted to online performances after having to cancel its 2019 spring, summer, fall and winter seasons, as well as it 2021 spring concerts.

Apart from Mainly Mozart, several other promoters produced drive-in concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Ventura-based CBF Productions kicked off its “Concerts in Your Car” series in Del Mar in September, after debuting June 26 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. The lineup here ranged from Snoop Dogg and dance-music favorite Kaskade to Bush and San Diego’s Slightly Stoopid. The Beach Boys’ two Oct. 24 Del Mar shows each drew an estimated 700 carloads of fans, with tickets costing $300 per vehicle.

As the pandemic surges at a record pace, more socially distanced drive-in concerts are gearing up here for 2021 — although what would have been the first two drive-in shows of the year in San Diego have fallen through.

Electronic dance music mainstay Deadmau5 was set to perform Jan. 7 and 8 in the parking lot of the currently shuttered North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in Chula Vista. That 19,492-capacity venue is owned by concert-industry giant Live Nation, which canceled or postponed all of its 2020 concerts there and across San Diego because of the pandemic.

Both Deadmau5 shows, for which tickets were priced at $250 to $500 per vehicle, were being produced by the Los Angeles-based company Insomniac and went on sale in late November. By late December, the performances were no longer listed on the Deadmau5 or Insomniac websites.

As of this writing, the Ticketmaster website for North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre indicates the venue’s 2021 season will kick off June 6 with a rescheduled 2020 show by Steely Dan and Steve Winwood — public health guidelines permitting — in the venue itself, not the parking lot.

On Dec. 19, La Jolla Music Society announced that it will present four drive-in concerts between Feb. 20 and 22 by top jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his septet, all at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. And Mainly Mozart is poised for a big return to the drive-in concert stage that could be even more precedent-setting than its pioneering 2020 Del Mar series.

That brings us to my round-up of favorite pop, jazz and classical performances of 2020. While abbreviated by necessity, my picks include at least one drive-in concert in each category.

Were these drive-in shows aesthetically the most pleasing that I attended in this sadly truncated concert year?

No, at least not when seated in our 2000 Toyota Camry — but I suspect that would probably be the case in even the most luxurious of vehicles.

Can the music industry, which lost tens of billions of dollars this year because of canceled and postponed concerts, sustain itself with drive-in concerts alone? Again, and sadly, no.

Will honking car horns ever compare with applause, cheers and spontaneous displays of excitement and appreciation? Not by a Del Mar country mile.

But the opportunity to finally hear live music again after months of lockdown — and the cathartic performances that resulted — proved invaluable. It was a most welcome and palpable demonstration of the vital connection that exists between musicians and audiences, and the shared aural, visual and emotional experience that results.

Such shared musical experiences can only truly happen in person and in real time, even in the confines of a parking lot, not online. Ditto concerts performed, free of charge, from front porches and driveways — as was the case across a good number of neighborhoods this year in San Diego and well beyond.

Until normal concerts return — or, at least, until car-free, safe, socially distanced concerts return — drive-in shows appear to be a reasonably sound option. And with leading music industry veterans predicting a return to normal may not be possible until 2022 for live performances, expect drive-in concerts to become even more prominent for at least part of the coming year.

Five favorite 2020 pop concerts

1. Switchfoot, June 7, Petco Park parking lot

2. Lyle Lovett Acoustic Group, Feb. 19, California Center for the Arts, Escondido

3. Michael Kiwanuka, Jan. 22, Observatory North Park

4. Ranky Tanky, Jan. 28, The Jai

5. Yolo, Feb. 23, The Music Box

Honorable mention: Tool, Jan. 8, Viejas Arena

Five favorite 2020 jazz concerts

1. Charles McPherson Quartet and special guests, Oct. 18, Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot

2. Matt Wilson Honey & Salt Quartet, Feb. 23, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

3. Aaron Goldberg Trio, Feb. 18, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

4. Miguel Zenon Quartet, March 1, Bread & Salt

5. Melissa Aldana Quartet, March 11, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

Honorable mention: Jeff Denson Trio, Feb. 4, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

Five favorite 2020 classical concerts

1. Anne-Marie McDermott and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis, Oct. 22, Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot

2. Emanuel Ax and the San Diego Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart, Jan. 11, Copley Symphony Hall

3. San Diego Opera’s “La bohème,” with the San Diego Symphony, conducted by Rafael Payare, Oct. 24, Pechanga Arena San Diego parking lot

4. Bodhi Tree’s “The Long Dark Shadow,” featuring The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego, Feb. 22, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church

5. Black String, Feb. 26, Price Center Ballroom East, UC San Diego

Honorable mention: 13th annual soundON Festival of Modern Music: “Thresholds,” various artists (opening night), Jan. 9, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library