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Drive-In Concerts Are The Dionysian Community Experiences We Need Right Now


All things being equal, I’d rather go to a dimly lit club with smoke curling in the air and drum solos reverberating in the ears of everyone around me than enjoy live music from my car. But barring this—and it appears the good stuff will be barred for awhile—drive-in concerts don’t sound so bad. I’d have to car pool since I don’t have a vehicle, but heck, I’d even be glad to take an Uber.

Like a new retro trend, drive-in entertainment is popping up all over the place. Drive-in movies were always a thing, though many theaters have shut down, leaving the remnants of towering screens and popcorn concessions falling into disrepair. But now not only is the drive-in cinema gaining new attendance as people seek solace during social distancing, so too are drive-in concerts. 

It’s a much different scene than the normal concert craziness. People in sedans and SUVs rock out in their bucket seats. Cars shake, rattle, and roll as the audience gets into the groove. Recently, drive-in concerts have happened quite a bit around Europe, where people are always up for a bit of a communal novelty. But could something like this catch on in the U.S.?

In Dusseldorf, an events company was forced to cancel 45 concerts, amounting to 400,000 tickets. It was a bit of a disaster until D. Live’s CEO Michael Brill flipped the script. The company had a drive-in theater property on hand, so they switched to hosting shows there, featuring local rap talent. Apparently this went so well, the company is now doing drive-in weddings, boxing matches, and pole-vaulting competitions. 

Imagine this replicated in the United States for, say, a production of “Hamilton.” Although, as long as we’re going retro, that perhaps would be best to view from a horse-drawn carriage.

James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal Jr. is producing raves at drive-in theaters, with the first show in Houston in late May. His justification has more to do with the finances than the art, like it would for any good promoter. 

“It’s better to have $1 coming in than no dollars coming in,” he told Billboard. “Dealing with the drive-ins has been very complicated. They don’t answer the phone, they don’t answer their email. They’ve never been so busy. I’m not just competing against other rave promoters, I’m competing against everybody—families, schools, country promoters, rock promoters.” I guess retro kitsch has its limits.

So far there’s been a Keith Urban benefit concert for Tennessee health-care workers, a parking lot concert in Seattle, and more big events planned for the summer. There are more than 300 U.S. drive-in theaters that could be repurposed from showing films to hosting live performances. Event company Live Nation’s Tom See noted, “This is not a long play, by any stretch of the imagination. But you’ve got a pent-up fan that really wants to go out and have a good time. It’s a concert you never forget.”

He’s not wrong. Fans of actually doing stuff are getting restless. From the employed, work-at-home-wear-your-mask-or-else-you’ll-die types to the unemployed, bandana-toting dads who push their face covering aside to take long drags on their cigarettes, the people of this country are ready to go tear it up again.

There are loads of wholesome ways to let off steam, from enjoying a nice glass of lemonade after a hard day’s work to taking a 30-mile bike ride. But what lots of us are really looking for is something much more Dionysian than lemonade and bicycles. That’s what live music offers.

At its best, live music can take over your consciousness and erase everything else you were thinking—or at least pack it up and boot it to the corner for a little while. It condenses all experience and time into one moment, the moment you’re in while the music is playing. It doesn’t matter if time is passing, and it doesn’t matter if, like now, it isn’t. The most satisfying, fulfilling, cathartic concerts or music experiences are the ones where you’re not really sure what time it is after, or how long you’ve been there, but you get that feeling of having lived an unmatched experience.

It’s for that alone I would try this out. To experience, again, a big emotive expression of human imagination, with actual people around—even if we’re in our separate little boxes on wheels—would be great. Even if it wouldn’t exactly be great, it would be a start.

We’re in it together, and I don’t mean that in the way those wretched commercials that play cutesy about the virus panic do. I mean we need each other, we are codependent. 

If the world could tolerate the short-lived, goofy silent rave phenomenon—which involved a bunch of people listening to music on their headphones and dancing to what otherwise appeared to be musical silence—then surely we could get on board with the drive-in concert. It’s like taking a picnic to see a show at the Hollywood Bowl, something I’d always imagined I would do someday. Except now we’d be confined to our cars, separated by steel, glass, and terror.