Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, N.H., hosted a public concert last Saturday that was safe enough for a sizable audience to be there live during the pandemic. How was that possible? Musician Tim Theriault played to an audience of automobiles and asphalt. And Kevin Rice, executive artistic director of Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, was there, taking notes. He hopes that Payomet will offer drive-in concerts of its own this summer.
“It was a very joyful event,” Rice tells the Independent. “It was a sunny afternoon, and people were dancing beside their cars. There’s a certain communality to sharing live music that everyone seemed to be craving.”
The drive-in concert at Tupelo Music Hall was not without precedent. Denmark gained worldwide attention after a highly publicized concert by Mads Langer on April 24. Keith Urban did a private drive-in concert for medical workers in Tennessee on May 14.
The phased guidelines unveiled by Gov. Charlie Baker on May 18 leave the future of drive-in concerts on Cape Cod somewhat uncertain. Traditional indoor concerts and performances, part of phase three of Baker’s plan, are far in the future. Drive-in movie theaters will be allowed to reopen starting May 25. The catch? They may open, the guidelines say, only “for the purpose of showing movies.”
At the Tupelo concert, cars were parked in every other space, and listeners could sit or move about outside their vehicles. The music could be enjoyed live or on the car radio. Concessions, ordered online, were delivered via golf cart.
“People were very respectful of social distancing,” Rice says.
In New Hampshire, drive-in theaters were allowed to reopen on May 11. Patrons must maintain a six-foot distance from one another, employees must wear masks, and surfaces must be frequently disinfected. Massachusetts guidelines additionally require that drive-in customers remain in their vehicles except for getting concessions or using the restroom. Concessions may not be delivered to vehicles.
Despite the roadblocks, Rice is serious about drive-in concerts. “We are more than considering it,” he says. “We are studying it hard.” He hopes that these concerts might take place at the Highlands Center in Truro, where the Payomet tent is situated, with its three ample, mostly unused parking lots and 110 acres of space.
Rice is also toying with other creative ideas: drive-through circus shows that he compares to “reverse parades,” trucks filled with circus performers, and traveling musicians visiting Outer Cape beaches. He believes that music, in particular, lends itself to more “mobile” concerts rather than traditionally static ones, because performances are so full of vivacity and motion.
“This new normal could allow artists to express themselves in new ways and in different media,” Rice says. His bottom line: “Social responsibility and safety are paramount.”
Rice acknowledges that the ground is constantly shifting under his feet. It’s certainly possible that the rule against drive-in concerts may be changed.
John Vincent, owner of the Wellfleet Drive-In and president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, tells the Independent that concerts at his facility are unlikely. Though Vincent says he is “not opposed to one-off events, the main focus is the movies.”