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A night at the drive-in: The new normal for the live music scene

By Katrina Turchin

It was a late September evening in downtown Edmonton. The sky turned shades of pink and purple as the sun began to set behind the Edmonton Inn & Conference Centre, and the parking lot was filling as truck beds became seats and headlights became spotlights. The stage was the main attraction with plexiglass booths separating the mic stands from the drum set from the guitar stand. Where a traditional general admission area would be, plastic tables and chairs were lined up six feet apart.

The crowd was getting antsy as time ticked closer to the start of one of the summer’s last drive-in concerts.

Country singer Jade Eagleson took to the stage on September 20 for a drive-in concert presented by the Airmiles Drive-In Concert Series. Drive-in concerts were a favourite for both artists and fans this summer, as it was a fun way to enjoy live music while being socially distanced. But once the cold weather hits, these unique types of shows will be non-existent.

Three months ago, Edmonton was home to Canada’s first country music drive-in concert. Alberta singer, Brett Kissel, partnered up with Safeway Canada to present ‘Live at the Drive-In,’ a socially-distanced concert at the River Cree Resort and Casino. Kissel’s first show for 185 cars sold out within minutes, so he decided to add five more shows. The summer concert season in Edmonton had begun.

“The atmosphere was surprising to me. I had no idea what to expect,” says Chelsea Dion-Koulierakis, who found out about the concert from a friend. “It seemed like it would be pretty tame, but the audience got into it and would flash their flights, honk their horns, and cheer. You still felt the excitement from everyone around you despite them being a bit further away.”

Edmonton’s music scene was quick to adapt to COVID , and concerts and live music events popped up in parks – and parking lots – all the summer.

Edmonton is home to a robust live music scene. The downtown core is home to Rogers Place, which hosts multiple big-name artists yearly, and smaller music venues like The Starlite Room and Station on Jasper.

When COVID-19 hit Alberta hard in March, the province made the call to shut down all non-essential businesses, including live performance venues, to prevent the spread. Even though Alberta launched into phase one of re-opening on May 14, it wasn’t until June 12 that the province lifted the restrictions on outdoor concerts.  Since then, the drive-in concert has become a more popular option for live music performances.

The first drive-in concert in Canada was in British Columbia in May when Studio 720, a rock band based in Prince George, performed a free rooftop concert for hundreds of vehicles. Drive-in shows have been popping up all over Canada ever since.

“I think people have been starved for something to do where they can feel safe and yet get out of the house with their family to do something fun,” says Tina Tobin, general manager of the Edmonton Inn & Conference Centre.

The Government of Alberta has provided COVID-19 safety instructions for drive-in style concert events to ensure that all attendees are safe.  Concertgoers are encouraged to attend the concert in their cohort groups and stay in their vehicles to limit exposure, and masks are required if guests have to leave their cars for any reason. Venues are allowed spectator seating with a capacity of 200 guests, as long as a two-metre distance is maintained.

The rules differ significantly from a pre-COVID concert, but this is society’s new reality. It may be years before we can experience shows without social distancing precautions. Drive-in concerts are a compromise, and they let people get outside and attend events that they enjoy – an impossibility when Alberta was under lockdown.

While there are no drive-in concerts scheduled for the rest of the year in Edmonton, their success is one step forward to creating a new normal.

“Attending a concert after months in isolation feels like hope,” says Dion-Koulierakis. “It feels like things have a chance to get back to what they used to be, and even if it’s not right away, it was a comforting feeling knowing that we are adjusting to what’s going on and making the best of it.”


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