Going to a Live-In Drive-In concert in South Philadelphia means spending the show in or possibly on top of your car, as one of more than 800 vehicles socially distanced from the stage and each other in a vast Citizen Bank Park parking lot.
And since the Phillies parking lot is flat, and many SUVs and pickup trucks — maximum four people per vehicle — are large, there’s an excellent chance that your view of the stage flanked by giant LED video screens will be obstructed. But, hey, at least you don’t have to pay extra for parking.
More importantly, you are actually out of the house and in a public space, watching in-the-flesh human beings play live music outside on a summer night. Just not quite in the way you would ever have imagined six months ago.
Sunday night’s sold-out show featured the New Jersey indie-rock band the Front Bottoms, part of a Live Nation series that continues through Labor Day with mostly regional comedians, bands, and electronic acts. These and other drive-in concerts are emerging as a new, let’s-hope-it’s-only-temporary way for bands and audiences to connect — partly to serve as a reminder of how essential real-life performance can be.
And despite the compromises — the sound comes not from an on-stage public address system, but via transmission to your FM car radio — Sunday’s concert reached that threshold.
That’s a credit to the Front Bottoms — a charming band that consists of singer-guitarist Brian Sella and drummer Mat Uychich, augmented on stage by Erik Romero on guitar and Natalie Newbold on bass and vocals — who are promoting their top-notch seventh album, In Sickness & In Flames.
The band’s tour consists of two dates: Sunday at CBP, and Thursday at Monmouth Park in Central Jersey. The South Philly Live-In Drive-In series continues on Tuesday with the pop band Mt. Joy, out of Montgomery County. A Saturday night show with comedian Jim Gaffigan is a recent addition to the CBP calendar.
The drive-in experience starts out odd and stays weird. Upon arrival, car trunks are searched, and smelled by bomb-sniffing dogs. Printed-at-home tickets are scanned through a closed car window.
Event staff direct to your space, with the option to face the stage — positioned along Broad Street pointed east — or to back in. Spaces on either side of you remain empty. Concertgoers were not permitted to mill around but could stand in front of their cars, or more commonly sit in the back of their SUV or stand in the bed of a pickup truck.
Few people wore masks while socially distanced at their vehicles. Masks were required, though, when concertgoers headed to the seven Porta Potties (with hand sanitizer stations outside) located near my spot near sculptor Joe Brown’s football kicker statue. Everyone I saw complied going to and fro.
Live In Drive In is officially a dry event. Only non-alcoholic beer by sponsor Budweiser Zero was sold, and bringing your own was against the rules. But while it wasn’t a drunken crowd, plenty of the band’s fans sneaked in beers, and the bike police on hand didn’t stop them.
Food concessions were contactless, ordered by phone. It worked: For $15 I got chicken tenders, water, and chips, delivered in less then five minutes by a masked and gloved man in a golf cart.
By that time, the show had started and I had climbed through my sunroof to sit on top of my car to see over the Chevy pickup blocking my view from the cabin.
Does this seem like a ridiculous amount of effort to approximate an experience music lovers so recently took for granted?
For sure. But it’s not like there are a lot of other options. And I’m not going to go so far as to use the word magical to describe what happened once the band opened with “Skeleton” and night fell and a gentle breeze blew and nearly everyone sang along with the squeaky-voiced Sella on “End Of Summer (now I know)” before honking their horns in unison in approval.
Despite the imperfect logistics, the show captured a measure of communal catharsis no amount of live-stream concert watching can duplicate.
Jade Lewis and Cora Utegg, both 23, came from Buffalo, N.Y. to see the show. “Though they also came to see me,” said their friend Makalah Jones, 25, of Levittown, with whom they were singing along in the back of a pickup truck.
“We came to see the Front Bottoms, but really just to see a live concert,” said Lewis. Their verdict? “It’s a little weird. I didn’t think the sound was going to come from the car radio. But it’s still really cool. It’s definitely worth it.”