By Michael Rietmulder
The Seattle Times
CARNATION — The camp chair brigade turned out in force.
Deep in the Snoqualmie Valley, roughly 130 cars drove down a winding dirt road last Saturday, past the “DANGER FARM OPERATIONS” sign and into a grassy clearing for one of Washington’s first drive-in concerts. The more industrious fans loaded up coolers and set up in truck beds or perched atop vans to get a better view of the rusty stage over the rows of cars in front of them. One RV-driving crew kept warm by a portable fire pit as the sun went down.
Light projections danced across a weathered barn beside the stage as local jam-funk rippers Cytrus blazed through a set of disco-kissed party-starters under the stars, fans listening through their car radios like a drive-in movie. It felt like someone plopped a stage into a festival parking lot, with a BYOEverything policy supplanting overpriced concessions. A crew of a dozen or so volunteers and hired security sanitized portable toilets between every use and ensured that fans, for the most part, kept to the immediate area around their vehicles.
Welcome to the state of the concert industry in the age of COVID-19. As the novelty of the livestream concert has faded, a number of bands and promoters have begun exploring drive-in concerts as a socially distanced answer to the statewide moratorium on club shows.
For opener Brett Benton, the drive-in concert was the first time he’d played with his band since February. After logging nearly 190 shows last year, the Southern-fried bluesman has turned to work in the cannabis industry since the pandemic cleared his spring and summer calendar. Standing out in the crowd as Cytrus took the stage, Benton said being at the show put him in “one of the best moods I’ve been in a long time.”
“Music is made for all of us to feed off the energy of each other,” Benton said. “I knew the energy was there to an extent because everybody’s honking their horns and flashing their lights and everything, or you hear people screaming. But it’s not the same as having a big crowd of people in front of you.”
Count Ashley Haight as a fan. Car stocked with chips and Gatorade, the 26-year-old and her husband drove an hour and a half to attend the so-called “Field of Dreams” concert on a private farm in Carnation. “You still get live music and the experience of the concert, but even in these weird times, you feel good about it,” said Haight, a friend of the band. “Everybody wants to leave their friggin’ house.”
Cytrus and co-promoter Morgan Henley started talking about doing a drive-in show after a similar event in Denmark made international headlines. Henley began scouting locations after seeing video from a silent disco-style drive-in that local rapper Raz Simone held this spring, landing upon the Carnation farm where he’d thrown a handful of small festivals in the past.
A roughly 20-yard buffer was fenced off between the stage and the first row of cars, ensuring people wouldn’t crowd the stage when the bands fired up. Broadcasting the music through FM radio instead of speakers facing the crowd was also designed to keep fans tethered to their cars, organizers said. “My hope is that moving forward with drive-ins, fans understand how crucial their role is in these continuing to be a thing,” Cytrus guitarist Jared Squires said days before the show.
Even if every fan plays by the rules, the extent to which drive-in concerts will proliferate remains to be seen. Seattle musicians Los Felipe and Marina Christopher are hosting a July 19 performance in a Ballard parking lot and a drive-in concert series at the Skagit County Fairgrounds is set for three weekends in August. But on Monday, the Washington State Fair canceled what would have been the state’s most prominent drive-in series, citing challenges of complying with state guidelines in Pierce County’s current reopening phase, among other reasons.
Drive-in movies and concerts are allowed under Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, his spokesperson Mike Faulk confirmed, provided performers are socially distanced and “wear appropriate PPE.” Fans are required to remain in their vehicles unless going to the restroom or concession areas. Previously, fair organizers hoped to allow fans to sit in lawn chairs or the beds of their trucks during the series led by rising country artist Jimmie Allen.
“We were getting a lot of feedback from people saying it could be too hot and the mandate also requires cars to be shut off, therefore no air conditioning,” Van Horne wrote in an email.
But the week before the cancellation, the fair’s country music series downsized, scrapping a Thursday night concert and a Sunday matinee. Some of the acts were added to other shows, others were not. Van Horne framed the move as creating “more value for our guests,” but Thursday night headliner Aaron Crawford said he was told ticket sales were low across the board.
It was yet another lost gig for the Enumclaw country singer, who estimates he’s missed out on around $40,000 worth of canceled dates since the coronavirus hit. Crawford’s now set to play his first real drive-in shows at the Skagit County Fairgrounds with The Lowdown Drifters on Aug. 14-15. Unlike the Cytrus concert, the music will be amplified, he said. He’s also looking at throwing his own drive-in show in September to make up for a May album release party that was axed.
“I just think people have been wanting to go to a show for a long time with a rocking band,” he said. “People love tailgating anyway — think about tailgating for [Washington] Huskies games. I think it’s going to be a similar vibe.”
Haight, the Cytrus fan, and others we spoke with at the Carnation show said they would
readily attend future drive-in concerts and that they felt comfortable with the precautions in place. Seattle’s Tina Lugo hailed it as a creative way to bring people together and support artists during these unprecedented circumstances.
“It’s definitely different, but I still feel that there’s a community aspect to it,” said Lugo, who came with her quarantine group. “I feel like everyone’s showing up for each other and acknowledging each other and being kind. I’m pretty stoked to be around other people and I’m feeling that from others as well.”
While a return to live music, in some form, is a welcome taste of life before lockdown, the event — which charged $50 per vehicle — wasn’t without its quirks. Though the radio frequency was clear, the sound quality was only as good as your car stereo (or your neighbors’) and sightlines could be tricky depending on your spot. From our vantage point in the back, it was tough to see the stage when seated inside our SUV, and outside, the sound delay coming off the stage clashed with the radio broadcast.
Still, it’s something. Before the show, Henley, the promoter, said the industry needs to keep thinking creatively about ways to connect fans with live music. If all went well, he said he’d look at putting on more drive-ins this summer.
“I mean, we gotta do something, you know?” Henley said. “The way that society’s going right now, live music could definitely give us a little bit of positivity, remind us of the good things in life that we strive to be a part of.”