1:30 PM CST – “We’ve been to the drive-in here for movies so it’s pretty cool to see a different idea being brought to life,” said Local H fan Abby of Bourbonnais, IL, who saw Twister at the Harvest Moon Drive-In earlier this summer. Abby sat outside her car with Kevin from nearby Paxton, IL, first in line nearly five hours before gates opened, ready to attend a drive-in concert by Chicago alternative duo Local H. “It’s coronavirus so you’ve got to think outside the box. It’s going to be interesting to see the audience aspect of it. With everybody spread out, there’s no moshing. But it’ll be nice to hear the applause again. I think that might give the band the fuel to think, ‘OK. We did the right thing. This is cool. What a good idea.’ It’s gonna be interesting…”
Since the beginning of March, artists have been forced to come up with new ways to connect with fans and make a living as concert tours were cancelled or postponed indefinitely amidst the onset of coronavirus.
Due to the nature of their large gatherings, concert venues were amongst the first businesses to close as shelter-in-place orders went into place across the country. They’ll also be last to reopen, leaving everyone from artists to venue owners and bartenders to sound technicians out of work entirely for nearly four months (and counting).
As America begins the slow process of attempting to reopen, it’s begged the following question of musicians, managers, agents and promoters: is there a way to safely stage concerts amidst the ongoing threat of COVID-19?
Comedian Dave Chappelle successfully hosted socially distanced outdoor performances over the course of the last month.
But concerts are different.
In the last 20 years, live sets have become a veritable arms race in terms of consistently presenting a production that’s become more and more dependent upon audio and video technology, pyrotechnics and more, staged productions that are often more about visual spectacle than live music.
Artists like Keith Urban turned to the drive-in theater, a unique setting in which to stage a concert which conjures up images of a bygone era for a generation of young concertgoers unfamiliar with the drive-in experience.
But for Chicago alternative rock duo Local H, performing at a drive-in theater needed to mean more than merely showing up and playing outdoors.
2:00 PM CST – “I just love them. They’re fantastic. I’ve been a fan since the mid-90s. I can’t introduce enough people to them. Because they’re amazing. I can tell Scott is a huge fan of music himself. He loves music and it really shows,” said Hudson of Waverly, IL, not far from the state capital of Springfield, referring to Local H frontman Scott Lucas while distributing bottles of water to other fans waiting for gates to open. The drive-in concert marked Hudson’s 30th Local H concert (though he’s seen Marilyn Manson 193 times). “I’m really excited. I don’t know if we can sit on the hoods of our cars or whatever. I’m just glad to be able to go to a concert this year. It’s really cool what they’re doing for us to put this on. I hope they do more of these. I’m here for both nights. I’m just going to sleep somewhere nearby in my car. Because these might be the only two concerts I get to go to this year.”
This past April, amidst the pandemic, Local H released its latest studio album LIFERS.
It’s an apt title for a band that in the last 25 years has released nine studio albums, two live records, three concert films, five demo compilations, seven EPs, best of sets and more, emerging from the major label boom period of the 1990s to embrace a new role as elder statesmen of the do-it-yourself independent community, developing a fiercely loyal audience along the way.
For Lucas, a massive film fan who’s written about movies for publications like Chicagoist, the idea of performing live at a drive-in theater was born out of more than just necessity – it’s a dream come true.
“When I was a kid, I was getting smuggled into drive-ins all of the time. My aunt and uncle would put me in the back of the van. Seeing Phantasm at the drive-in was great. Moonraker, the James Bond movie,” said Lucas on site at the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Movie Theatre in Gibson City, IL, before the first of two sold out Local H drive-in concerts. “I went a couple of weeks ago [in McHenry, IL]. They were showing Jaws. Jaws seems to be the perfect movie right now. ‘It’s safe to go in the water! There’s nothing to be afraid of!’ It’s the perfect movie for this particular summer,” explained the singer and guitarist, referencing life amidst COVID-19 as America reopens.
“When I went to that a few weeks ago in McHenry, automatically, right away, all of those memories came flooding back. My favorite thing to do is walk from the car to the concession stand. And you can hear the echo from all of the cars and their stereos. It comes out and you can hear the sound of it all over the place. I love that. It’s like walking on the moon. It’s just this thing. And as soon as that happens, it’s like I’m 12 again. It’s crazy. So just to be at a drive-in, is like pig in slop for me. To actually play at one? It’s just one of those silver linings of all of this bulls—t that’s going on: I get to play a drive-in.”
3:00 PM CST – “I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I don’t even know how I’m going to be able to sing. I finally did fall asleep but, once I woke up, that was it. I couldn’t go back,” said Lucas. “My plan is just to go until I drop tonight and then hopefully I’ll get some sleep for tomorrow. It’s exciting. And it was really weird telling people that we’re playing a show this weekend. It’s like, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ ‘We’re playing shows…’ ‘Wait, what? Are you gonna do another stream?’ ‘No, no – we’re playing a real show.’”
The pair of sold out drive-in theater concerts that Local H performed on Thursday, June 25 and Friday, June 26, about two hours outside of Chicago, were the culmination of a plan put into place as the final three dates of the group’s tour alongside fellow 90s stalwarts Soul Asylum were cancelled in March, as the harsh reality of life during pandemic began to sink in across the country.
The group recognized early on that the key to adjusting to life as touring musicians during a pandemic was in immediately assessing the severity of the situation and pivoting quickly to figure out what would come next and why. Maintaining the unique bond they’ve developed with fans, strengthening it if possible, would be crucial.
“So, for the drive-in shows, these were not isolated ideas but rather, I think, the final dots in a three month long picture that the band was painting,” said Local H manager Eddie Applebaum. “It began with really meaningful social media content. Like live streams that Scott was doing, making really deep connections with his audience – giving them a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, that he’s kept up for the better part of two decades. And then we did full live stream concerts from the band’s rehearsal space, which thousands of fans watched simultaneously. If you were in the comments sections on those, you almost felt like you were at a live show with your friends, which was really cool,” he continued.
“And then the band released a record during this pandemic on April 10 – LIFERS. So we had the benefit as well of a lot of new music. And then we created an incredible amount of content to go along with that music. Videos and all kinds of other things. So, I’d say we started blowing on the embers back in March, when this all went down, and here we are in July. And it’s like a full-on bonfire right now with the drive-in shows behind us.”
Applebaum began working with the group in 1999 as an intern, moving on to assistant manager and later manager. Despite a break in the early to mid-2000s, he’s worked with Local H ever since.
“The philosophy is that artists across the board right now are faced with really daunting tasks. How do you make a living during these times when the usual income streams have been taken away or severely diminished? For artists, the simplest answer is create. That’s kind of been what I’ve been preaching from the beginning. And for a band like Local H, it’s a perfect match. Because all they want to do, and all they’ve ever done really for 25 years, is create,” Applebaum said. “Creating is what artists do. That creation can be as simple as writing a song or making visual content. Or it can be creating unique and exciting ways to connect with your audience over social media and in person. And that’s what we did with these drive-in shows,” said the manager.
3:45 PM CST – Local H began soundcheck at 2 PM, a process which will continue for a whopping four hours right up until gates open on night one at 6 PM. Drummer Ryan Harding bangs continually on his drum kit, one piece at a time, as audio crews work to eliminate echo, the result of a second drive-in screen opposite the stage across the field. “There’s people over there!” he says, acknowledging a small group of fans who’ve snuck up to watch the rehearsal from a vantage point about 150 feet away near the venue gate. “Hey, guys!” yells a fan in response. “How’s it sound?” asks Lucas, following a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” “Woooo!” comes the response in unison.
Local H experienced significant success in the mid to late-90s, the height of the major label system, at a time when MTV could still drive record sales via placement of rock videos in heavy rotation.
The duo released three albums via Island records. “Bound for the Floor” hit #5 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The song’s video found success at MTV and the single drove the As Good as Dead album to gold record status. Two consecutive releases cracked the Billboard 200 albums chart but Local H split from Island following 1998’s Pack up the Cats, eventually establishing an identity as an independent act with a strong do-it-yourself work ethic despite a period of ups and downs.
Here Comes the Zoo followed in 2002 just as the rise of online file sharing services like Napster were in the process of upending the music industry, a 20 year period which has made it continually more difficult for artists to monetize recorded music.
“It’s really interesting. Because they took away any way for you to make money off of music. And it was like, ‘OK… we’ll tour.’ And then it was like, ‘You’ll make all of your money on tour. You’ll make it in merch and in person record sales. That’s how you’ll make your money.’ OK. You wanted to punch them but it’s like ‘Alright, fine. We can do this…’ Then this happens. And now that’s taken away,’ explained Lucas, highlighting the importance of touring for bands during the internet era that’s currently off the table amidst pandemic.
“Once we stopped working with big labels and stuff, it just became this thing where we stopped hiding backstage and we stopped hiring other people to set up our equipment for us. We just come out and do it ourselves. I don’t know if people thought it was weird at first but we sell our own merch too. Now I can’t think of any other way I’d prefer to do it. But, at that point, it was just a way to survive. Now it just seems stupid to do it any other way,” he continued, noting a DIY method that not only saves money but further builds a bond with fans.
“I don’t know how it is for other bands. But, for us, we’re pretty lucky. The people that are into our band are super supportive. We also got lucky to put out a new record. And I know a lot of artists decided to postpone their records – and I understand that. But I think not postponing LIFERS was a good move. And people seem to appreciate it. They bought them. People are buying our record. Which is, I think, more of a testament to people stepping for us than whether or not it’s any good, you know what I mean?” said the frontman.
“The reality is that so many artists were doing the Facebook Live, Instagram Live thing in March and April. But there’s only so many times you can do that. Whereas, bands like Local H, you make records for the love of it, and you put out great music, but, ultimately, the goal is that it helps sell tickets to your shows. The way you make a living is on ticket sales,” added Applebaum. “I think so many artists these days, their business has stopped. And it’s very difficult. But I think, for us, we never stopped. It was like, ‘OK… We can’t tour now. How do we adapt our business? How do we adapt Local H to the time of COVID-19?’”
4:30 PM CST – Harding moves from drums to acoustic guitar as the duo soundchecks a rare acoustic set for inclusion in both drive-in theater concerts, running through “Eddie Vedder.” With capacity set at 260 vehicles, a dozen are already lined up outside Harvest Moon Drive-In, 90 minutes out from gates opening for the dusk concert.
Most artists have attempted to engage their fan base during the pandemic via living room concerts or live stream events via platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram Live.
But living room performances generally lack the edge and unpredictability that has allowed the live concert experience to resonate for decades.
Some artists have charged fans a nominal fee to watch the performance of online live streams. Others, like Garth Brooks and, most recently, Blake Shelton, have charged fans upwards of $100 per carload for the opportunity to view a concert film at a drive-in theater, performances where Brooks and Shelton aren’t even appearing in person.
Amidst a surreal pandemic and record unemployment that has left Americans shell shocked from coast to coast, the goal for Local H in putting on their own drive-in theater concerts was to appear live on stage at the venue, curating a unique experience at a reasonable price for fans willing to make the trip.
“I’ve seen people doing it and it feels like they’re overcharging people. That seems ridiculous,” said Lucas. “So we did it at $15 per person. It’s really tough to charge a ticket that you don’t feel awful about charging while still making money. I don’t really know how to do that yet. And we were scared. It was two hours from Chicago. We didn’t know if anybody would want to come. So there was a lot of back and forth on what weekend it should be and it just became this thing where it turned out to be this and everything’s been great. It sold out and we added a second one.”
“I think a lot of people are just trying to find ways to buy time. But there’s a lot more that needs to be done than buying time to help artists get through this period,” added Applebaum. “When I started talking about the drive-in concerts with Scott and Ryan, what really brought us together on the idea was that we believed that the experience itself would be very powerful and, if done right, could serve as a blueprint for other artists and their managers or agents who have either been reluctant to pursue these things because they thought it wasn’t possible financially or because it was just simply easier to say, ‘Let’s wait and see how things play out with coronavirus,’” said the manager.
“The impact socially and musically and spiritually and economically was huge – for the band, for the fans, for the people there. We put people to work who hadn’t been to work in months: the sound companies, lighting companies and staging companies that were sitting there with all of their gear dormant for months, we got them going. We put them to work. Promoters, bartenders, security guards, tour personnel, t-shirt printing companies – it’s that butterfly effect a little bit,” said Applebaum. “We gave people a reason to get out of their house and have a great time – or go to work – and every ounce of effort that went into this was absolutely worth it.”
5:50 PM CST – “It’s gonna be one of those nights where nothing works…” said Lucas, still soundchecking 40 minutes before gates would open, trailing off while staring down at his board of effects pedals.
Local H soundchecked for nearly four hours on site, working with audio crews to eliminate echo and sound lag and with video personnel to ensure that a video package would run on the outdoor screens as planned.
The group utilized both screens at the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Movie Theatre, performing on a stage built beneath one screen, across the drive-in from a second.
In the run up to showtime, iconic songs from famous soundtracks to movies like Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, The Wizard of Oz and 8 Mile boomed across the vast expanse.
Once the show began, scenes from films like Vanishing Point, Eat My Dust! and Jaws ran on the screen above the band as a shot of the live concert performance itself ran on the second screen across the field.
Parked cars were adequately socially distanced and fans sat in small groups outside their vehicle taking in the show, or inside as it played out on FM radio.
Those who ponied up for a VIP package were parked nearest the stage but even concertgoers across the field, without an actual view of the stage, could watch the performance in real time on the massive second outdoor screen.
Echo was minimal and the sound was loud, filling the first time, makeshift venue. While video above the band occasionally took a moment to load, and a new socially distanced video featuring alt colleague Juliana Hatfield, who appears on the LIFERS track “Hold That Thought,” was not able to be played Thursday night, the show was nevertheless wildly entertaining with only minimal hiccups as Local H tore through a 30 song set.
Despite storms in the forecast, Friday’s show went off as scheduled too.
“I feel good. I feel like it was a good thing to do,” said Lucas, looking back over the phone three days after the drive-in concerts. “There was a lot of learning on that first day. And the second day went much, much quicker. But between trying to get the sound correct, and making it sync up with the FM signal and the video thing that we had, trying to figure out how exactly to do that was a big issue on that first day,” he continued. “The idea was trying to figure out a way to play live shows that people feel safe about – and not only feel safe but actually be safe. So that was a big idea to show that it could be done.”
9:00 PM CST – Local H kicks off night one of a sold out pair of drive-in theater concerts appropriately with “Last Picture Show in Zion.” “They shut the show down in my town / That old theater, they tore it down,” sang Lucas, referencing his hometown of Zion, IL, about 90 minutes north of Chicago.
9:30 PM CST – “Let’s be safe… but make a lot of noise!” said Lucas, admonishing a small group who began assembling near the stage, sending them back to their vehicles to socially distance. “Everyone Alive” followed and, thirty minutes into the three hour performance, it was the only moment such an announcement needed to be made on night one at the drive-in.
Fans in masks lined up in a socially distanced line at the merchandise table where sales of albums, LIFERS t-shirts and special posters created specifically to mark the unique occasion were brisk.
In a nod to their Harvest Moon Drive-In setting, Lucas worked in a snippet of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” alongside covers by artists like Prince and Mudhoney. Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” came roaring in during “Bound For the Floor” as Local H headed for the finish line Thursday night in Gibson City.
As agents, promoters and artists alike figure out how to stage concerts safely within a drive-in theater during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday night’s Local H show feels like a performance that can be replicated by others looking to survive despite few live performance options.
“I like the idea a lot. It felt really good to be working. And I love drive-ins. I really do. So I’m totally into this idea. If we could do more, great. We’ve already reached out to a few people so we’ll see what happens,” said Lucas of the potential of future drive-in concerts.
“I will tell you that in speaking to so many drive-in owners, I was speaking a different language to them. The music world is not their world. They’re very used to playing The Little Mermaid or Jaws. So telling them that I’d like to bring a band in, I could just see a big question mark over their heads on the other side of the line,” said Applebaum. “Now that the shows are done, I’m able to actually show financials on the concerts and how to make them successful. It’s now not just guesswork. I can actually go to a drive-in owner and say, ‘Here is the breakdown. Here is how we just did this show. And I can do this for you if you have an open night. We will come in.’ And we’re looking at some markets in the midwest but we’re really looking at everything right now,” said the manager.
“I think some artists are thinking, ‘OK… Building a stage and all of the production and everything else is going to cost an arm and a leg…’ It can. If you put on a Metallica-sized show. But you don’t have to do that,” said Applebaum of a pair of shows that were constructed independently by the band at every level without partnering with a large promoter. “I think there’s something special too about the DIY nature of it all. Going to a place like Harvest Moon that’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s Americana. And it’s that blue collar, working class, let’s get the job done kind of thing – which is really what Local H has embodied for all of these years and why their fans respond and are so connected to them,” he said.
“The ultimate message we wanted to send to everybody was that you can play. You can perform. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be at a drive-in. But you can do this. And the car itself creates a natural enclosure. So there is safety there.”
11 PM CST – “Let’s hear it for the Harvest Moon Drive-In, everybody!” said Lucas, nearing the end of Thursday night’s drive-in concert. “They did it, you did it, we did it! If this thing has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate what you’ve got right now.”
With two shows now safely and successfully under their belt, Local H has announced another set of unique, socially distanced outdoor concerts set to take place on August 8.
Entitled “Live From the Lot,” the group will perform two shows outside Boomers Stadium in northwest suburban Schaumburg, IL, home of the independent minor league baseball team the Schaumburg Boomers and training site during the pandemic for Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox.
Despite the success of the Harvest Moon Drive-In concerts, there remains a critical need to remain forward thinking, as a full return to live music appears anything but imminent.
“I didn’t realize how close we would get to the end of the world. So, the world exceeded my expectations in that regard,” said Lucas, laughingly referencing LIFERS, an album written as a concept record about the end of the world long before the onset of COVID-19 – but released directly in the middle of it. “I think a lot of people’s music has taken on new meaning.”
“I’m really passionate about what we just did here. Genuinely. This was not about making money. We did make a little. But this was certainly not about that. It was about creating an experience. And hopefully showing other artists – who are probably being told that they don’t have any options right now – that there are options. But you might have to do it yourself,” said Applebaum.
“We created great new merch, great t-shirts and great everything. And it’s worked. But I want to be clear: I don’t think we can sustain ourselves for another 20 years just selling t-shirts. I don’t want to be a t-shirt company,” said the manager. “You and I both know COVID-19 is not going away tomorrow. I hope it goes away soon. But this is extended. We need to figure out ways to bridge that gap. And you’re not going to do it just from going live on Facebook. This is a business. And it is a way to enable a band like Local H and others to not only stay afloat but to continue to do the things that they’ve done for all of the years for the fans that they have.”