‘It’s the new normal’: Drive-in concertgoers embrace a new summer venue

Drive-ins are the socially distant live music venues of the summer of 2020. “I don’t ever want it to stop,” said one concertgoer at People’s Light in Malvern.

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Concertgoers at People's Light

Concertgoers at People's Light. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

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Back in February, Elise Horak and her husband Keith, of Doylestown, had a lively summer planned. Before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, they had tickets to major concerts almost every week.

“We lost seven shows this summer,” said Elise. “We’re missing a couple Dead and Company shows and the Hella Mega Tour.”

“The Black Crowes,” Keith chimed in.

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“What was the other one? The MMRBQ,” said Elise, referring to the annual hard rock show presented by Philly radio station WMMR. “That one was for our kids.”

After four months of sheltering at home, the Horaks were thrilled to be able to stand in a parking lot in Malvern on Saturday evening, along with friends Trish Sammer and Joe Catellese, sandwiched between their two parked cars to see a stripped-down acoustic set by Jeffrey Gaines.

Finally, live music again.

“One of the main benefits is the mental lift,” said Sammer. “All day long I was excited knowing we were going to come and see great live music and do something normal.”

People’s Light and Theatre, which closed its doors in March, has been forced along with every other live theater venue in the region to find new ways to entertain customers from radio plays to virtual shows.

Concertgoers at People's Light
People’s Light is working in partnership with East Whiteland Township and following state coronavirus restrictions in order to host its drive-in concert series. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

People’s Light decided to build a stage and set up a sound system in its rear parking lot, about one and a half acres of blacktop. And for six weekends, it’s inviting people to park in every other space, set up lawn chairs on the empty driver’s side parking space, set up picnic tables and listen to live performances.

“There are TV tables out there. It’s astounding,” said Chaz Brastow, People’s Light’s production director. “Someone brought a beach ball, and that was validation. It’s a concert: a beach ball in a parking lot.”

This summer has ushered in the return of the drive-in, with parking lot concerts and movie screenings planned across the region. In August, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia will host large concerts presented by Live Nation, streaming the audio into car stereos with an FM signal and projecting performance videos on giant screens.

This week, the nationally touring show “Parking Lot Social” has come to Philadelphia’s Navy Yard, featuring movies, live DJs, games and “silent disco” dancing between parked cars. Music is transmitted by radio frequency into individual wireless headphones, which are distributed to guests as they enter and retrieved again as they depart.

People’s Light and Theatre keeps its parking lot concerts small, allowing only 50 cars per show. With two to four people in each car, the size of the audience is about that of a relatively small club. That helps keep people distanced from each other and allows for a more minimalist and authentic experience: just a stage, a microphone and speakers — no big screens, headphones or radio transmitters.

“We wanted to feel neighbors, feel community and you gotta feel the bass,” said Brastow. “Hearing it on the radio is not the same. You need to feel it a little bit.”

Jeffrey Gaines, a rock musician from Harrisburg who has been recording since the 1990s, took the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and performed covers and original music for an hour, interspersed with rambling stories about his life as a touring musician, being at home for the last four months watching reruns on MeTV, the first time he saw Beck at the now-shuttered South Street venue JC Dobbs, being 55 years old and single, and random thoughts about appearing on television with Regis Philbin, who died on Friday.

“Can you tell I haven’t talked to people in a while?” he joked from the stage.

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Jeffrey Gaines at People's Light
Jeffrey Gaines at People’s Light. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

During the pandemic, Gaines has regularly been performing online from his home, via the concert platform stageit.com, but has not been in front of an audience in months.

“This is my first outside gig. I’m gonna faint,” he said, adding that after months of doing online streaming shows, which tend to be described as “intimate,” he was happy to be singing loudly in front of people again.

The crowd responded positively to his songs and stories. Many had pre-ordered food from the People’s Light restaurant, which was hand-delivered to their cars.

“It’s not that much different from a big stadium show where you’re outside,” said Jeff McGroaty, of Paoli, whose only complaint was being in a parking lot with no shade during an oppressive heatwave. “It’s a little challenging in late July being on a blacktop in the late afternoon sun. Other than that, it’s pretty good.”

Others brought umbrellas to beat the heat.

C.J. Cona, of Wayne, backed up her minivan into her assigned spot, popped open the back to face the stage and laid down in the car with a cold drink, her two small dogs at her side.

“It’s the new normal,” she said. “I think that drive-in concerts are going to be like drive-in movies when I was a kid. I don’t want it to ever stop.”

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