More than eight months have passed since self-isolation was first imposed by public health regulations, in necessary response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It’s been a hard time for music-makers, but a handful have applied their creativity to the challenge of presenting actual, safe, in-person shows during the pandemic, especially in the summer gap between the first and second waves.
Toronto R&B duo DVSN were among the most successful, bringing people together for seven concerts during the pandemic, at the newly-constructed CityView Drive-In, on the shore of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto. Daniel Daley and Anthony Paul “Nineteen85” Jefferies filled the parking lot five times in August and twice in October to give about 1,500 patron-filled vehicles live relief from isolation. Online tickets for these performances were scooped up before one could exhale, as people chomped at the bit to hear selections from DVSN’s latest album, A Muse In Her Feelings.
“We’ve always been heavily recognized for what we do live,” Daley told The Toronto Star in an interview. “Live performance for me, as the singer, is a big part of the take-away and the take-home. We wanted to find a way to contribute to society. So, how can we give back? At the end of the day, our gift is music. So, if that’s the way we can make people feel good, even for a second, then let’s find a way.”
The shows were conducted with the requisite social distancing: vehicles were parked one car-width apart, and people stayed in their means of transport unless they needed concessions, or to use the washrooms at the Rebel nightclub across the street.
“The experience is a little different, because it’s not like there’s people standing next to each other with the kind of energy and synergy that that brings, said Daley. “People are more spaced out – some in their cars, some out, some sitting on the roofs of their cars. Some people are clapping, some are honking: you’re just getting a bunch of different reactions. It’s a different kind of fulfilment.“
DVSN wasn’t the first act to accomplish drive-in shows in Canada. Early on in the pandemic, July Talk were the first to announce their two-night stand in August at a Drive-In in Sharon, ON. The first to actually play one was country star Brett Kissel, who pulled off the feat at an Edmonton casino parking lot in June, with eight shows over a weekend. (Which were filmed for a recent CTV special, Brett Kissel at the Drive-In.) After getting approval from Alberta Health Services to perform the concerts, Kissel mobilized his band and a few corporate partners to assemble a makeshift concert stage. He added a charity component, raising money for food banks, and ensuring that two of the shows were dedicated exclusively to local health officials who had been tirelessly treating pandemic victims.
“I wanted to make sure that we did something really good for those frontline workers, those health-care heroes,” Kissel told The Toronto Star. Kissel performed four shows a day, from noon through midnight, as his band members exercised physical distancing by performing behind plexiglass.
“Judging by my social media, it’s a memory that so many people will never forget,” he said. “They were honking so much that I burst into tears on a number of occasions. We built community and comfort and joy like I’ve never felt in my career.”
But drive-ins aren’t the only pivot points for live performance. Micro-Concerts, where musicians can safely play to one person, or household clusters of two or four people, at a time, have been thriving. The Festif! Festival in Charlevoix, Québec, undertook a “doorway tour” series where musicians play one song in front of someone’s home, then move on to the next house. Calgary’s Matt Masters booked curbside concerts for fans, played from the top of his mini-van to people in front of their homes. In Esquimalt, BC, Jeff Stevenson stood on the bank of the Gorge Waterway, and serenaded groups of boaters. Stéphanie Bédard, in Québec, did something similar with her “Lake Tour.” Montréal’s Dear Criminals played 72 one-song live shows in three days, at the Lion d’Or club, to two people at a time.
“Seeing live music is one way to stay healthy, alive and well, and spirited” – Chantal Kreviazuk
For the majority of last summer, singer-songwriter Michael Bernard Fitzgerald had been performing his current album Love Valley, first through micro-concerts in his Calgary backyard, then touring with his own outdoor venue called The Greenbriar, and playing farms – with the shows being announced the day-of, in the rural hinterlands just outside of major cities, fostering the sense of a spontaneous and exclusive event.
“It’s an event tent,” Fitzgerald tells us. “We load it up by truck, and we’ve been taking it to cities across Canada and doing about five shows a week.” The crowds are small – five socially distanced tables underneath the tent reserved for those who purchased tickets ahead of time – and the challenges can be unpredictable. Learning that the tent really does take three hours to put up,” he admits. “Or learning the first night that we’re going to need a heater… or two heaters… or the first night we ran into snow.”
But Fitzgerald feels he’s fulfilling a need, for both himself and his audience. “It felt to great to be doing it,” he says. “The shows went two hours, and I went out there and just spent that time with people – have a laugh, have a chat and play some songs – that’s what I bring to the table.”
Similar to Fitzgerald’s Greenbriar tent, The Io Project is a newly-designed “anti-COVID” mobile stage that can safely allow live shows for up to 250 people, watching in household clusters of two or four people, isolated by plexiglass.
Some music creators are still going the regular route: Chantal Kreviazuk recently completed 35 dates in Canadian soft-seater venues to support her new album Get To You. The shows were significantly scaled down – and, depending on location and provincial restrictions – her audiences totalled 50 to 150 patrons.
“I did everything myself, and mostly drove everywhere alone,” Kreviazuk said. “This tour is for my sanity, and in service to my country. We need this kind of normalcy and diversion away from the pandemic. It’s a wonderful thing that I can offer people, because I sit at the piano alone and I don’t move about much. I just kind of show up, walk onstage with my own microphone, walk out, and we’re done.”
Kreviazuk says she plans to return to Canada (from her home in Los Angeles) in the new year “for more of a residency,” and says her tour helps venues keep their connections with patrons. “This country has supported me. These venues have raised me,” she says. “We’re all hurting with our losses in terms of what we normally do, so seeing live music is one way to stay healthy, alive and well, and spirited.
“It’s incredibly rewarding and meaningful work.”