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‘A guy can only take so many walks with his dog’: Minnesota musicians get back onstage, at a distance

Joyann Parker performs at the Relief Sessions. (courtesy Lydia Moran)
Joyann Parker performs at the Relief Sessions. (courtesy Lydia Moran)

by Lydia Moran

July 09, 2020

Last Friday, a stream of vehicles rolled into the parking lot outside Burnsville City Hall, parked in spaces marked with chalk, and lowered their windows. Some patrons opened chairs and umbrellas to protect against the heavy afternoon heat, placed dinner trays on laps, and sat alone or in familial clusters waiting for the show to begin.   

Such was the second installment in “The Relief Sessions Summer Concert Series,” one of the socially-distanced live music series that have been cropping up throughout the metro after Governor Tim Walz’s third phase of loosening the restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 went into effect on June 10.

“I don’t know any of the music, but I don’t care — it’s live music,” explained Moira Webster-Larranaga of Burnsville from a lawn chair propped in the shade of her car. “We usually go to the Zoo concerts so we’re really missing it and really wanting to get out.” 

Under the executive order, bars, restaurants, and some music venues are opened with restrictions, though many of the Twin Cities’ most well-known haunts are keeping closed for now, due in part to what dismal revenue can be produced at 25 percent capacity. Similar to the Burnsville events, Crooners Supper Club is offering “two ways to enjoy live music this summer,” with their annual Lakeside Drive-In series in full swing. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres have also scheduled a series of tribute bands through August. 

At the Relief Sessions (which are produced by promoter/performer Mick Sterling), concertgoers were spaced every other parking spot. Someone circled in a golf cart informing those inside cars of where to tune their radios for stage audio. Food truck staff came round with soul food selections after attendees placed orders via text message. People generally stayed within their pods, grooving in the shade of cars. A maskless crew sat behind the stage in folding chairs. There were around 30 vehicles in total.

Roots musician Joyann Parker kicked off the evening. “I thrive on the energy of the audience and seeing people’s faces,” Parker said, remembering her first drive-in performance at Crooners. “It was definitely weird to not be able to feel the energy of the crowd. But people were very responsive, honking their horns, sticking their hands out of windows.” 

Before taking to the stage again, Parker performed thrice weekly on live streams, playing covers and taking requests. Going from “being so busy to absolutely nothing is definitely a shock to the system. It was a rollercoaster emotionally,” Parker said. “That’s why we did the online things, to give me something to look forward to. I couldn’t concentrate on my own music because it’s so emotional for me; to do it online is very strange.”

Parker was scheduled to release an album at the end of June, but that has been delayed. “I went through a serious depression about that, too,” she said. “We had all this stuff planned for the record, it was supposed to be out.” Playing outdoor series has helped Parker reconnect with her band, and she’s since been able to make progress on the album.

“It’s hard when your identity is wrapped up. Musicians — that’s us as people too, it’s not just a job.”

Drive In Concert Minnesota

“We’re at our wits’ end and at our souls’ end,” concurred the Suburbs' Chan Poling. “What we do is play music.” 

Between the Suburbs, the New Standards, and writing for musical theater Poling has seen too many postponements and cancellations to count. Unlike Parker, he hasn’t been keen on playing to a virtual audience. “A guy can only take so many walks with his dog. I want to get out and play,” he said. 

Inspired by European drive-in concerts, Poling called around to various drive-in movie venues and inquired about playing a show. He eventually landed on the parking lot outside Le Musique Room in St. Michael. “It’s right off the highway so you can pop in, see a rock show, drive on home.” 

Plans for the July 18 show (with special guest Kiss the Tiger) seem akin to what’s going on in Burnsville — attendees can sit in vehicles or on lawn chairs spaced appropriately from fellow patrons. Poling says his band typically plays more than six feet away from an audience, anyways, and from one another. The New Standards have played a couple of private backyard shows since quarantine began.

“It should be pretty safe if people are grown ups about it and protect themselves,” Poling said. “I’ve played a lot of weird shows in weird circumstances. I’m not going to cry about it, but I know we’re going to miss the energy of the group. It’s just such a sucky situation we’re in for many reasons — the fact that people can’t congregate and celebrate and dance.” 

The St. Michael performance has already sold a couple hundred tickets, and the band has received excited feedback from fans online, as well as some concern. 

“If people can find ways for us to get out and play again, I would definitely be there,” Poling said. “A rock show where you have to wear a mask or tell people what to do seems antithetical. But we all got to survive.” 

As for the indoor experience, some smaller bars, such as the Driftwood Char Bar in south Minneapolis, have opened at half capacity. Bunkers Bar and Grill hosted a Rock Camp Experience performance in June.

“I’ve never been a professional musician, and like most other people working the nine to five job, never really had time,” said Christy Spillman, lead singer of the Siouxsie and the Banshees tribute band Xristie and the Black Seeds. “Rock Camp is a great place to start — it costs you money but you are connected to [...] people that have the same goal as you do.” 

To rehearse the show, participants spread themselves between corners of a practice space. Since much on-stage communication is nonverbal, Spillman developed a language of hand signs that she used to lead jam sessions while unable to read masked faces. 

Bunkers, with a usual capacity of 300, has cut that to 85, including staff and musicians. The event was closed to the public, and exclusively advertised through Rock Camp networks. Bunkers will contact-traced in case of an outbreak. Patrons stood clustered around tables, wearing masks at all times. Instrument cases blocked the dance floor, and the stage was disinfected after each performance. Bands provided their own mics and wore masks when not singing. 

“I was really pleasantly impressed with how well it was handled,” Spillman said. “I think the staff was more than ready for it.”

Being at a Siouxsie and the Banshees tribute, some attendees were even decked out in gas masks. “We made a lot of dark jokes,” Spillman laughed. “I said, ‘Hey how does everyone like the pandemic? You know, it could be worse: this song is about Pompeii.’ I got a couple laughs.” 

A smaller attendance — the show drew around 30 people — allowed Spillman to connect on a deeper level. “I could see every single person that was watching,” she said. “When it’s fuller, you always get people who aren’t paying attention to you — that didn’t happen at all. The people that were there were there because they really wanted to be. I had full attention and the whole band felt that.”

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.