Features, Print June 30, 2020

Highway To Heaven: Drive-Ins Revive The Live Music Experience

by Valerie Vampola

The last time Adam Aijala played with Yonder Mountain String Band was March 12, 2020. Then coronavirus hit. With band members scattered across different time zones in the lower 48, throwing together a livestream was not an option with travel restrictions. So they made video collaborations which Aijala would later mix in Pro Tools, syncing their videos. However, he wanted to give their fans at least one real livestream, so the band scheduled to meet in Cheyenne, WY for a weekend in June. Then the band’s agent called. They had a gig. A live one.

“I had heard people talking about drive-in concerts and thought – that’s a good idea!” said Aijala.

Hamilton “Jake” Byrd, concert promoter for Blue Pig Presents in Cheyenne, was ready to give live music back to the people too. After a couple months of kicking around the idea of a drive-in concert, he took a chance and installed a drive-in theater set up at Terry Bison Ranch, hoping that work-from-home patrons were desperate to get out of the house and enjoy entertainment in a socially distant kind of way. Before inviting any bands to perform on a stage, the Bison Ranch celebrated its grand re-opening with a classic film.

Before and After: The new Drive-In Movie Screen at Terry Bison Ranch in Cheyenne, the setting for Yonder Mountain String Band’s first live concert since March 12.

“We had eight days to promote our first screening and it blew up,” said Byrd. “The first film we showed was The Princess Bride.”

After successful movie showings and smoothened kinks, Byrd was excited to have Yonder Mountain String Band on the bill, and the band were thrilled to have a live audience.

The idea of drive-in concerts spread almost as fast as the virus itself. Josh Cisar at the Holiday Twin Drive In Theater in Fort Collins was already approached during lock-down about hosting events like Easter Sunday service or one-off concerts, but many institutions didn’t realize they were asking a drive-in theater to basically transform into the Pepsi Center. Cisar wasn’t even familiar with most of the audio terminology that was thrown around in those conversations. But with FoCoMX postponing their April festival, they wanted to fill the concert void somehow – and in a way that was still safe. FoCoMX had the sound and stage gear to make Drive & Jive, the outdoor concert series at the Holiday Twin, possible.

“Within a week, we sold-out our car tickets for the first show,” said Cisar.

People no longer had to sit on their couches at home to watch movies or their favorite bands play. And bands could step in front of a giant screen and remember what it’s like to have an audience… sort of.

HoldFast. performing live at Drive & Jive, the live concert/drive-in movie mash-up at The Holiday Twin in Fort Collins. Photo by Backstage Flash

Synth-rock trio HoldFast played on June 16 at the Drive & Jive stage, their first live concert since a pre-virus show in early March. They were used to the tight and intimate spaces of the Fort Collins venues, like the Aggie Theater, and now found themselves in front of a parking lot full of cars, hazard lights flashing, while their faces were projected on a huge movie screen.

“The drive in was a big production and felt more like a festival,” said HoldFast vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist Charlie Maddocks.

While visually the drive-in gave the audience and bands a festival feel, logistical changes had to be made. Live music being broadcast over FM waves to individual car radios meant delays in the audio from the stage to the audience. Drummer Tommy Maddocks was slapping rubber pads of an electronic drum kit to prevent a cacophony of echo between live drums in real-time and the final broadcast heard by the audience seconds later. For the same reason, the rest of the band relied on in-ear monitors instead of on-stage speaker monitors to play in sync with each other.

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Terry Bison Ranch and Yonder Mountain String Band had to get creative with logistics too. They decided on a specialized set-up that eliminated cross contamination between their opener and the headlining band. Rather than sharing a stage, two different stages were set up, with each band accommodating for their own tech arrangements. Aijala and the rest of Yonder Mountain String Band were used to having “a guy” to perform the many technical roles on tour and behind the scenes, but with no tours to financially justify an entire crew, he and the other bandmates are taking the DIY approach.

“I’ve reset my expectations with everything we do in the music business,” said Aijala. “The best attitude is to just roll with it.”

Like many things in the music industry, this was not what anyone pictured for their summer concert series. And though it’s different in so many ways, the drive-in theaters have given both audiences and musicians an opportunity to reconnect with a live experience.