Fresh Tunes, Fresh Air

The pandemic decimated the live music industry. Now, at pod shows, drive-ins, and small festivals, performers are making a return to outdoor stages in the South.

Outdoor venues host spring and summer concerts. 

A backyard came with the property at One World Brewing West, in West Asheville, N.C. “Our place is kind of tucked away,” says Lisa Schutz, who owns the brewery and venue with her husband Jay. Prior to Covid-19 closures, Schutz, who books all the music for One World West, had hosted a weekly show, in collaboration with a local radio station, on an outdoor stage. “I saw how much people loved being outside at our space,” she says. So, when indoor events were stalled, Schutz decided to move all of the music outside.

While it’s no secret that music fans love open-air shows—that’s a large part of why summer festivals have been so successful—most venues focus on indoor concerts for their main offerings. The Grey Eagle, in Asheville, often hosted patio shows in the early evening. The free happenings provided entertainment to diners at the venue’s taqueria and gave lesser-known bands a chance to get a foot in the door. The last year changed much of life as we know it, though, and outdoor performance spaces grew in importance. 

“Outdoor events have become a necessity,” says Liz Tallent, owner and manager of concert hall the Orange Peel and new event space Rabbit Rabbit, both in Asheville. Tallent is also active in the National Independent Venue Association whose members all across the country are seeking open-air spaces to hold events. “You see lots of cities, lots of neighborhoods, lots of business communities changing policies … and also changing expectations in terms of encouraging and wanting to be able to host more things outdoors,” she says. “It’s a way to support venues, musicians, and the local economy.”  

The Grey Eagle’s owner, Russ Keith, had already expanded and refined his venue’s patio stage before Covid-19 hit. After two months of complete shutdown, “It became apparent we had to pivot in some regard,” says talent buyer Jeff Whitworth. “We were in the advantageous position where we had a space ready to go.” The 56-person capacity of The Grey Eagle’s patio, when following socially distanced seating protocols, is just 10 percent of the venue’s indoor standing room capacity. But, says Whitworth, “We knew there was demand for it.” 

Whitworth and Schutz have had to rethink booking tactics over the last year, too. For Whitworth, it meant focusing on bands who could sell out the small shows. For Schutz, it meant drawing from a local and regional pool or artists who didn’t have to travel far. And while both venues’ schedules are booked through early summer, the future remains unclear. “Nobody knows what will come [in terms of public health and safety], so I have to be a bit more judicious with my calendar,” says Whitworth. “Everybody seems to be eyeing late summer/early fall as a return to somewhat-normalcy.” 

But for now, with indoor capacities still limited, fine weather upon us, and festival options reduced for another season, outdoor stages are where it’s at. Salvage Station in Asheville’s River Arts District recently reopened with a fully open-air operation, including multiple outside bars, a large performance stage, and an array of pod-seating areas. Mobile venues have showcased creative initiative, such as the Bandwagon, a flatbed truck-turned-stage, by Weaverville, N.C.-based Velleca Metalworks. And drummer Jeff Sipe’s Corona Killers outfit played parking lots around Brevard, N.C., last summer, from the back of a pickup truck. 

Rabbit Rabbit was originally slated to open last June. Nationally touring bands were booked and a few shows sold out in advance, “but by early summer it was pretty evident things weren’t going to return to normal in 2020,” Tallent remembers. “We had to pivot and reimagine how we’d use the space. We intended to open it daily with a great bar and food trucks. We were intending to set up cool seating areas and fun, interactive things like slides, swings, and Cornhole.” Although the space was conceived as a fully outdoor venue, the need for a seat for each visitor — as per Covid restrictions — meant the capacity was reduced to 30 percent. And, due to cold weather, Rabbit Rabbit was closed for most of January.

But the future looks brighter: “My hope is to be open seven days a week,” Tallent says. “We’re working on partnerships [such as with] the Chamber of Commerce and nonprofits. We’re talking to the Asheville Downtown Association about how Rabbit Rabbit can be helpful to them with some smaller events.” 

The venue will also host movies and silent discos, though, “I suspect it will be July or August before it makes sense to do the big shows,” Tallent says. Rabbit Rabbit can hold 3,500-plus concert attendees when running at full capacity.

The Orange Peel is now in its sixth year of hosting outdoor events. Though that venue has no outside space of its own, it was an early adopter of booking shows at other properties, such as The Meadow at Highland Brewing. Success with those concerts led to the desire for a home base for open-air offerings, and so Rabbit Rabbit was conceived. “We’ve gotten pretty comfortable with putting on outdoor concerts,” Tallent says. One consideration: “Sound travels differently outside. Rabbit Rabbit will be a responsible neighbor. ”Being a good neighbor is also on Schutz’s mind. “Back in the day, we had people coming, but it was way late in the evening. Sound had been an issue at one point,” she says of indoor shows. The move to the venue’s back deck and yard area meant scheduling events for afternoons and early evenings. It’s been a win: “Now the neighborhood is more enjoyable. It’s way better for all of us to do early stuff.”

Upcoming events include the Still Grateful After All These Beers festival on June 5. “People love being outside. Fresh air, openness,” Schutz says. Live music has long been a passion for her, and booking One World’s outside stage is “a good expansion for me from what I’ve been doing.” 

While venues are taking different approaches to scheduling concerts, appealing to a range of musical tastes, one thing that talent buyers agree on: Outdoor stages are here to stay. Even as indoor spaces reopen, fresh-air shows will continue to be an important part of the entertainment roster. 

Car Tunes: Drive-In Concerts Continue

Electronic musician Marc Rebillet was among the first artists in the U.S. to tour post-shutdown last year. He embarked on a series of drive-in concerts in June, including an early stop at Hounds Drive-In Theatre, a movie venue in Kings Mountain, N.C. Other artists, venues, and promoters followed suit, turning sites such as fairgrounds and former country clubs into drive-in concert locales.

Before Covid, “I’m not sure that I’d heard of a drive-in concert,” says Dave Champagne, owner of Pisgah AVL, an audio, video, and lighting company serving western North Carolina. “We received a call from the Asheville Music Hall. They were looking for some bids for their drive-in series. We were happy to be along for the ride.” 

Pisgah AVL had long set up outdoor events. For the drive-in concerts, “We added video screens with cameras so [audiences] could see the bands from farther away,” says Champagne. “It’s pretty similar to regular outdoor shows, it’s just that the listening area is larger and longer.”

The Asheville Music Hall series took place in Waynesville, N.C. and the Grey Eagle launched its own drive-in concert lineup in nearby Maggie Valley, also in collaboration with Pisgah AVL. “The experience was cool and unique in that it kind of created a festival experience,” says Whitworth. He likens drive-in shows to car camping: The fun of being outside without having to hike your stuff in for three miles. 

And, while initially the Grey Eagle staff wasn’t sure how the car concert experience would be received, Whitworth says it went really well. The biggest reason for doing it, he adds, “Wasn’t about profit and loss as a business. It was about keeping our head above water and staying relevant.”

Both Whitworth and Champagne acknowledge that the higher ticket sales potential of standing-room shows and festivals will ultimately spell the end of drive-in concerts (at least as a go-to option). But for now, those shows are very much part of the live music itinerary.

The plan for 2021 is “really similar to last year, just starting earlier,” says Champagne. This season will also bring the addition of non-car pod-seating shows at some venues, “to offer comfort on various levels,” says Whitworth. 

Drive-In shows are hosted at Maryland’s Frederick Fairgrounds. Photo by Jesse Faatz

Drive-In Tunes

Park your car and tune into the sounds. At these regional drive-in shows, you can get your live music fix in a nostalgic setting under the stars.

Drive-In at Maggie Valley Festival Grounds Maggie Valley, N.C.

After a successful fall season, drive-in shows will return to the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds this spring. Big Something performs with Too Many Zoos on May 28, and more shows will be announced.

Berglund Center Drive-In Shows Roanoke, Va.

The parking lot of Roanoke’s Berglund Center Coliseum is being used this spring to host a slate of drive-in concerts, which are priced per vehicle. Dynamic Alabama soul-rock outfit St. Paul & Broken Bones takes the stage on May 26. 

Showtime at the Drive-In Concert Series Frederick, Md. 

Last fall Maryland’s Frederick Fairgrounds became the site of a successful drive-in concert series that will continue throughout the spring. Parking spaces are limited to five guests, and all attendees must be masked when outside of vehicles. Upcoming shows include Goose on May 4, Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra on May 14, 15, and 16, and the Wood Brothers on June 6. 

Rural Hill Drive-In Shows Huntersville, N.C.

Rural Hill, a historic site and nature preserve near Charlotte, holds a scenic 265 acres that’s perfect for parking and hearing some live jams. Car passes are available for up to four passengers, and upcoming shows include Mt. Joy on May 11, St. Paul & Broken Bones on May 25, and the Wood Brothers on June 10. 

Socially Distanced Drive-In Shows at Atlanta Motor Speedway Hampton, Ga.

Last year the sprawling infields of speedways around the South were used to host drive-in shows. Down in Atlanta, there are two more on the schedule with Umphrey’s McGee taking the stage on May 1 and Big Gigantic playing the same Georgia speedway on May 8. Vehicles can have a maximum of six people. 

Cover photo: A concert at the Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater in Tennessee. Photo by Erika Goldring 

Places to Go, Things to See: