Live music in the age of coronavirus? Drive-in concert in Kenner gave fans a taste
On Saturday night in Kenner, the band Supercharger opened the first “Concert In Your Car” in the Pontchartrain Center parking lot with a cover of Foreigner’s 1977 hit “Feels Like the First Time.”
Which it did.
For Supercharger, it was the first gig in the nearly three months since the coronavirus shutdown began. For most in attendance, it was the first live music they’d heard in that same span.
And it was the first time a Kenner concert “crowd” consisted largely of hubcaps, hoods and headlights.
Saturday’s “Concert In Your Car” was a social distancing-inspired hybrid of a music festival and a drive-in movie.
Attendees (mostly) stayed in their vehicles. Staffers came around to take and deliver food and drink orders.
And the conclusion of each song was met not with applause, but honking horns.
Welcome to rock ‘n’ roll in the age of coronavirus, in which musicians and those who rely on live entertainment must think outside the box — or inside the car.
Saturday’s show was a collaboration between the city of Kenner and Pelican Events. In a normal spring, the staging that Pelican rents to festivals, fairs and other outdoor events would be booked solid from Mardi Gras through July 4.
Pelican also leases trailers, generators, hand-sanitizing stations and other gear to the local film industry. In early March, the company was servicing eight film shoots in the area.
The coronavirus pandemic pulled the plug on all that. The company’s gross sales for 2020 are down $2.5 million over the same period last year, Pelican Events founder/owner Dolph Federico said.
Eager to drum up business, Federico cast around for a concept. What about a drive-in movie in St. Rose? How about a drive-thru Mass at the Shrine on Airline?
Neither idea got traction. Then he started talking with Kenner mayor Ben Zahn and Chad Pitfield, director of Kenner’s parks and recreation department. They scouted the parking lot behind the Pontchartrain Center as a possible site for a drive-in movie.
They quickly realized a movie would be swallowed up by the vast space bounded by a retaining wall and grassy levee.
But what about a concert?
Pitfield and Zahn already had a history of collaborating on live entertainment, having worked together on the Uncle Sam Jam, the free Fourth of July concert staged in Kenner’s Lafreniere Park.
Federico was all in. This first “Concert in Your Car” would be a trial run, a “proof of concept” that he could pitch to other clients.
“If it rains, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You sit in your car and listen.”
Pelican donated the modest stage, lights, sound system and video screens. Instead of charging a fee, Supercharger would solicit online tips.
Despite having only two days to advertise, organizers hoped to fill the Pontchartrain Center parking lot with hundreds of cars. The 100 or so vehicles that turned out Saturday night — each directed to park one space apart from the next — was a respectable total for a first-time, last-minute experiment.
Admission was by $10 donation to the Kenner Community Food Bank. Drivers received a baggie containing two face masks, a “Kenner Proud” business card with Zahn’s contact info, and a yellow piece of paper with the night’s menu and rules, including:
“Social distancing between households is REQUIRED AT ALL TIMES.”
“No chairs or ‘spreading out.’”
“If you must leave your vehicle, please wear a face mask and/or other PPE.”
In essence, this would be the tamest tailgate ever.
Williams Plum Street Snowballs operated the carhop concessions; sorry, no booze. A low-wattage FM transmitter broadcast the show to car radios, even though the small P.A. system was loud enough to cover the occupied portion of the parking lot. If you were in a pickup or convertible, even better.
At 8 p.m., Supercharger plugged in. “We’re Supercharger!” vocalist Ross Stephens enthused. “We’re super glad to be here rockin’ out a bit tonight.”
He and his bandmates – guitarist Steve Landon, bassist Steve Pizzolato and drummer Mike Schoultz – did seem happy to be playing their first show in 10 weeks.
They banged out FM rock radio favorites heavy on the ‘80s: Loverboy’s “Workin’ For the Weekend.” The Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty.” Styx’s “Blue Collar Man.” Journey’s “Send Her My Love.” The Babys’ “Back On My Feet Again.” Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which earned an extended round of horn-honking.
“It was interesting,” Landon said of playing to cars. “It was a baby step back toward normal.”
Some lyrics spoke to the unusual circumstances. The first set concluded with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”: “Mother told me, yes she told me I’d meet girls like you/She also told me, ‘Stay away, you’ll never know what you’ll catch.’”
A glitch with a cable meant the signal from three of the production’s four video cameras didn’t reach the LED screens. So instead of close-ups of the musicians, the screens showed a static, wide-angle view no bigger than life-size.
But overall, the “Concert in Your Car” drove smoothly. While it had little of the physical interaction or crowd energy that fuels a typical concert, it was, for fans craving live music, something.
To Pitfield, it demonstrated that “we can adapt and figure out a way to maintain the safety angle and still let your hair down.”
With typical concerts not returning any time soon, more such drive-in concerts may be in the offing. Federico and Kenner officials are considering an encore. There’s talk of doing shows at the Shrine on Airline. At least one mid-size touring rock band, Federico said, is interested in staging drive-in concerts in Walmart parking lots.
Supercharger concluded its “Concert In Your Car” with one final Journey favorite, a potential theme song for such socially distanced shows: “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).”
And unlike the conclusion of a typical concert, when this one was over, no one had to worry about finding their car.