It wasn’t that long ago — well, five months — that Barrence Whitfield was in his element, onstage in Malaga, Spain, sweating and singing, rocking and rolling. The veteran Beverly-based singer was backed by Spanish band Los Mambo Jambo and a 28-piece orchestra. He was playing in front of 3,500 people at the Rockin’ Race Jamboree.
It was, he says, “fantastic.”
Whitfield has another “f” word for how he’s been feeling in the age of COVID-19: “Frustrated — I feel bad, not just for me, but all my fans.” And another word: “Bored.”
A chunk of that frustration and boredom should evaporate, at least temporarily, for Whitfield, his backing band Four Piece Suit, and his fans Sunday night, July 26, at the Manchester Athletic Club’s back parking lot, part of the MAC Drive-In Summer Concert Series.
With no clubs open — and the likelihood of clubs opening way down the road — drive-in concerts are now viable options for bands. Not nationally touring bands — there are virtually none touring right now — but stalwarts of the local scene. The musicians can play outdoors and audiences can enjoy live music while employing all-too-familiar social distancing techniques.
“What can you do?” asks Whitfield, rhetorically. “I can do the show I’ve always done for over 30 years — just rock till you can’t rock no more. Let me take you away from this planet for 90 minutes. If you wanna get on the ground and do the Curly dance, do it! Or jump on top of the car roof, do it! Just have a good time. What else have we been able to enjoy? This is the time when music needs to get into your blood and make you forget all the ills of the world, at least until we stop playing.”
The Manchester series kicks off Saturday, July 25, with Roomful of Blues and continues on weekends through Nov. 27.
Here’s how it will work, according to veteran promoter Peter Van Ness of gimmeLive, which spent $40,000 to bring in the stage, lights and sound system. The drive-in has space for 120 cars with a six-person-per-car limit. Admission is $75 for each vehicle and each will have an adjacent parking space where people can stand or sit in lawn chairs. Van Ness says there will be 16 feet of space between parties.
Van Ness, who runs the 9 Wallis club in Beverly, says he got the idea from reading a story in the trade magazine, Pollstar, about what promoters in Europe were doing. “We’re using the same [social distancing] model for concerts as Manchester-by-the-Sea has for beaches,” says Van Ness, “but we’re being a little more conservative than the town. The people here will be much more separated than at the beach or the park.
“Everyone’s grieving the loss, not just the economic loss, but the thing that makes you go, makes you breathe every day. The ephemeral transactional feeling that takes place when the music goes through the crowd and back to the stage. I don’t know how to fix that except to put on a show.”
There are other spots adapting, too. The Bull Run, in Shirley, has held numerous outdoor events — mostly small weddings and functions — over the years, but six weeks ago expanded the available area and started putting in live music Thursdays through Saturdays.
“We had all this space out there,” says co-owner Alison Tocci, “and when the pandemic happened, I went out there looking around and there’s actually a lot of space here we weren’t using. Nothing like a pandemic to force you to be creative.”
Bees Deluxe, a self-described “acid blues and modern punk jazz band’” played the Bull on July 21. “With the help of the staff, we set up some parasols above the stage so we wouldn't melt in the direct sunlight in the late afternoon as we played,” says guitarist Conrad Warre. “We hadn't been sure what to expect given the present lockdown mood — would people be too scared to come to a concert, or would people starved of entertainment and company flock to the show?
“When guests arrived, many would walk right up to us at the foot of the stage to exchange greetings, compliments and tips, which we weren't expecting. We were pleasantly surprised that we had a completely full house and even had to turn people away.” They return to The Bull Run Aug. 5.
At the Tupelo Music Hall’s parking lot in Derry, New Hampshire, owner Scott Hayward says they’ve been doing drive-in concerts since mid-May. They can take 75 cars at $75 per car and have a similar spacing set-up to what’s being done in Manchester. The musical emphasis is on tribute bands — Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin — and New England blues acts like Ronnie Earl.
“It’s a fallacy that if you open up, they’re gonna buy every ticket,” Hayward says, “but we’ve been having a lot of full shows. We’re making money, not what we would indoors, but we can pay bills and we’ve brought back all the staff that had been laid off.”
The Stoneham Chamber of Commerce is putting on a series at the Stoneham Zoo through Aug. 20. The Billy Joel tribute band Heart Attack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack played July 16. “It is a little strange,” guitarist Joshua Pickering admits, “when you’re used to having people up front dancing and singing along to look out and see people sitting in cars and in chairs next to their cars, but people are so excited to see live music.” Among the new sounds: Zoo parrots squawking approval (or not) during the gig.
Wakefield-based singer-guitarist Natalie Joly resumed a residency Thursday, July 23, on the patio at Dillon’s in the Back Bay and usually plays to an audience of Berklee students and local post-work businesspeople. “They definitely want to get out,” she says. “You can tell people feel like caged animals. And Dillon’s is on top of their game; boundaries are respected there.”
In Medford, The Porch has live music, mostly alt-country, Americana and blues, on Fridays and Saturdays on an expanded outdoor patio with about 30 tables and a 100-person capacity. Big Jon Short plays Friday, July 24, and Brad Faucher on Saturday. “People come in for dinner,” says owner Jonathan Post, “and they’re outside on a beautiful summer day. People are so happy to be not stuck inside.”
Soundcheck Studios in Pembroke has both rehearsal rooms and a 250-capacity music venue. Co-founder Eric Herman says they now are using the space outside the studio for concerts for up to 80 people. “We started with solo acts,” he says, “and we’re doing more plugged in shows.” On Friday, July 24, they have the Tom Petty tribute band the Rebels and on Saturday, July 25, the jam band the New Motif, both of which are sold out.
“Everybody’s been very respectful,” Herman says. “We’re very strict with guidelines. Social distancing at the bar, cleaning bathrooms every 30 minutes. The demand has been crazy, with one show, by the jam band Neighbor, selling out in a minute.”
The big news on Cape Cod is the rebuilding and revitalization of the Yarmouth Drive-In by Adam Epstein, the CEO of the Chicago-based promotion company Innovation Arts & Entertainment. Epstein had been on Martha’s Vineyard, planning a huge music festival for the island, when the pandemic restrictions kicked in. In mid-March, he ferried to Hyannis for a meeting and “saw this nice older abandoned field that needed some care.”
Epstein made a proposal to Yarmouth to construct a performing arts complex on the site. It was approved June 16. On June 26, they got their entertainment license and on July 11, they secured the equipment and “built it out in six days.” This includes two high-def, 40-by-25-foot video walls, which Epstein says are akin to the Jumbotron at Fenway Park. Its music series kicks off Aug. 1 with funk rockers Ripe, and continues Aug. 6 with Livingston Taylor.
The site has room for 475 cars. They’re not having any extra parking spaces for fans to hang outside their vehicles, hewing to Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidelines as of July 6 pertaining to drive-in movie theaters.
“We built this as a music festival site,” Epstein says, “and we need to figure out that transitional place that keeps us safe but allows us to have that engagement.”
So, live music carries on. Not ideally and not necessarily in the way you’d like to see it. And not with the nationally famous bands out on the road and stopping by the Boston area. One industry source I spoke with said pre-COVID-19, 2020 was shaping up to be the busiest summer yet. But promoters, musicians and fans are coping and adapting. Someone like Barrence Whitfield can play “Music Keeps Rollin’ On” and you know it will. You can even do the Curly dance.