Anthony Martinez-Briggs, the front man for the Philadelphia hip-hop band Ill Doots, was on stage in the parking lot at the People’s Light theater in Chester County last weekend, looking out at an audience of automobiles.
“Shout out to the Hondas, shout out to the Infinitis,” said Martinez-Briggs, who performs using the stage name Us, rhyming in a burst of improvisation: “You know me, I come with the metaphors and similes.”
Welcome to the pandemic-era world of socially distanced drive-in concerts. People’s Light started hosting local songwriters like John Byrne and Jeffrey Gaines in June. Southside Johnny sold out the Monmouth Park racetrack lot in Central Jersey in July.
And now drive-in shows that are the region’s biggest music events since the coronavirus pandemic began are coming to South Philadelphia. On Sunday, concert promoter Live Nation will kick off its Live-In Drive-In series, with acts playing on a stage set up in the Citizens Bank Park parking lot, configured for a capacity of 850 cars, with a maximum of 4 people per vehicle.
The series begins with comedian Bert Kreischer, whose sold-out show starts at 7:30 p.m., presumably well after the Phillies are done playing a 1:05 p.m. game against the Mets in front of no fans.
Then the music gets going with a busy week. It begins Tuesday with British glam-rock quartet the Struts. Then on Wednesday and Thursday the indie pop band AJR (bothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan Metzger) play sold-out shows.
Baltimore funk band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong perform Friday, Asbury Park folk-pop duo the Front Bottoms play Aug. 23 in support of their new In Sickness & In Flames, and Philadelphia-raised pop band Mt. Joy takes the stage Aug. 25.
Concertgoers at the drive-in shows will be required to stay in their cars, with music transmitted from the stage to a frequency on their FM radio dial. Merchandise, food and nonalcoholic beverages — but no booze — will be available through a contactless online ordering system.
Fans will be witnessing performances by excitable bands who, for the most part, will be playing in front of people for the first time in months.
“I’ve got a spring in my step,” say Luke Spiller, the lead singer of the Struts, who first played Philadelphia at the Made in America festival in 2015 and sold out two shows at the Fillmore in December.
“I know that the lockdown and COVID-19 has been incredibly difficult for a lot of people, us included in that,” said Spiller, calling from his home in Los Angeles.
“But I promise you that during lockdown we have created something that we are about to reveal that will blow everyone’s mind.”
Singer-guitarist Brian Sella of the Front Bottoms says he and bandmate Mat Uychich are similarly stoked to be playing the CBP parking lot.
“I feel so ... lucky. Nobody else in the world except for us and Southside Johnny is getting to do this,” Sella says, slightly exaggerating. “It’s such a gift. I feel really fortunate, and I definitely want to give the fans some kind of escape, for sure.”
The shows will continue through Labor Day weekend with Philly producer Subtronics on Aug. 26, electronic jammers Lotus on Sept. 4, and Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra Sept. 5 and 6. The series concludes with comedian Michael Blackson and guests (including DJ Jazzy Jeff) on Sept. 7.
‘Doing something for the sake of doing it'
The Live-In Drive-In shows are part of a national drive-in revival as promoters, bands, and fans seek a safe way to get out of the house and connect in a world that’s been radically remade by COVID-19.
Stars like Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton have played individual shows beamed to drive-in movie theaters. (Metallica is doing one Aug. 29.) Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Nelly did a drive-in tour of venues in the mid-South and Midwest last month.
Live Nation venues like the Fillmore in Fishtown and Met Philadelphia on North Broad have been dark since March. The CBP series is a way to get back in business. “We’re excited to once again enable music fans to enjoy live music,” said Geoff Gordon, the regional president of Live Nation Philadelphia.
Dave Brooks, senior director of live music and touring for Billboard, says that while the drive-in concept is gaining ground, “it’s still a niche thing.” All the drive-in shows in the United States add up to less than 1% of the concertgoing activity of a normal summer, he says.
“They’re not financially rewarding,” Brooks says. “They’re not making any money, really. It’s more about doing something for the sake of doing it. Artists want to connect with their fans. Promoters want to put on a show, any kind of show. That’s what they do.”
And everyone — or at least every responsible human in a time of a global pandemic — wants to do it as safely as possible.
That has led inventive acts like Pat Finnerty to stage pop-up events on rooftops in West Philly and atop Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown. (Check his Instagram to see where he’ll turn up next.)
Artists are experimenting, with shows like Sam Fender’s in Newcastle, England, that went viral with photos of socially distanced pods of fans spread out across a giant field.
Drive-in shows fit into that thinking. At the People’s Light shows, which will continue into October, there’s a 50-car capacity. Fans are allowed to sit or stand in a parking space next to their vehicle. Food and drink can be preordered and delivered, and last Saturday a theater staffer towed a wagon around with a sign touting, “Water, Beer, Treats, Tees.”
The Live-In Drive-In shows, by contrast, are dry. The sponsor is Budweiser Zero. Guests are permitted to bring their own precooked food and beverages, excluding alcohol. The organizers stress that alcohol is strictly prohibited.
Ticketing is contactless: Tickets printed out at home will be scanned through your closed car window. Fans can leave their cars to go to the bathroom, while wearing a mask. Port-a-johns will be stocked with hand sanitizer, with a wash station outside.
So these drive-in shows will be different from concerts that attendees and performers have experienced before.
“I remember a person coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh man, I just got your new album and me and my friends sat in the car and listened to it from start to finish,‘ ” said Sella of the Front Bottoms. “I’m thinking about it that way. It’s an opportunity for people to sit in their car and really listen.”
“Instead of hands waving back and forth, it’s going to be windscreen wipers,” says the Struts’ Spiller. “When I do a call and response with the crowd, it’s going to be with car horns.”