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Revenge of the drive-in theater concert 

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It was 25 years ago this month, at the height of the ’90s lounge revival, that the 74-year-old musician Korla Pandit, dressed in a white turban and Nehru jacket, slowly made his way across the treacherously uneven surface of a drive-in theater parking lot. Backlit by a three-story projection of David Carradine mowing down pedestrians in Death Race 2000, the ’50s TV star who’d once made housewives swoon by playing unaccompanied Hammond organ while gazing soulfully into the camera, was now being hailed as “The Godfather of Exotica” by 20-something hipsters who flocked to hear him perform at Southern California skating rinks, theaters and, yes, drive-ins.

While Korla wasn’t the first musician to perform at a drive-in theater — the Stanley Brothers used to play on concession stand rooftops in the early ’60s — he might well have been one of the last, were it not for the current pandemic.

Today, nearly three months after health officials pulled the plug on live music, most traditional venues remain shuttered. At this point music fans are more likely to find higher-profile acts popping up at outdoor drive-ins, the same kind of venue where movies like Jailhouse Rock and Plan 9 From Outer Space once made their debuts.

Which brings us to Marc “Loop Daddy” Rebillet, an exceedingly quirky and often hilarious electronic artist who’s about to embark on America’s first-ever drive-in concert tour. Rebillet’s original summer schedule would have included an April 25 performance with Lotus at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Instead, his current nine-city tour will be making its only Colorado stop at Fort Collins’ Holiday Twin Drive-In on June 22 and 23.

As you might guess, the Holiday Twin is less scenic than Red Rocks. But it does have enough room to accommodate 380 socially distanced vehicles, each of which will be afforded two parking spaces. And since a conventional concert sound-system would likely tempt people to climb out of their cars so they can hear better, fans’ only option at this show will be to use their FM radios to tune into real-time performances of Rebillet favorites like “Summertime,” “Reach Out” and “I’m a Baby and I Want a Little Toy Goddamn It.” They’ll also be able to give back the love by honking horns and flashing headlights.

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In fact, the Holiday Twin is all-in this month when it comes to hosting live music. The Fort Collins Musicians Association’s “FoCoMX Drive & Jive” series will feature hip-hop acts Write Minded and Boss Eagle on June 24, followed by a June 30 performance featuring Del Shamen, a Colorado supergroup that includes Hot Rize’s Nick Forster, Firefall’s Jock Bartley and The Subdudes’ John Magnie and Steve Amedee.

Also this month, the Colorado jam-band Magic Beans will be holding its eighth annual Beanstalk Music & Mountains Festival at the drive-in on June 26 and 27. Normally ensconced in the secluded serenity of the Colorado mountains, this year’s event has nevertheless managed to sell out in advance, with a lineup that includes Kitchen Dwellers, Cycles, Envy Alo and The Great Salmon Famine.

Meanwhile, out in the rest of America, the drive-in phenomenon also continues, in large part due to the enthusiasm of country music fans. Last month, Keith Urban performed on a flatbed truck for an audience of 125 car- and truck-loads of fans at Watertown, Tennessee’s Stardust Drive-In Theatre. Afterward, the country superstar expressed delight at the opportunity to finally perform again in front a live audience. The only downside, he said, was that he was not able to play off “the energy from a mosh pit.”

While it’s difficult to imagine any circumstances that would inspire a Keith Urban fan to dive into a mosh pit, the drive-in movie idea has since been embraced by Alan Jackson, The Eli Young Band and the Davisson Brothers Band, all of whom will be headlining their own drive-in concerts. Christian acts have also climbed onto the drive-in bandwagon, including Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, TobyMac and Newsboys.
While vintage drive-in theaters do add a patina of novelty and nostalgia to pandemic entertainment, it’s not entirely surprising that major concert promoters are beginning to look for ways to super-size the experience. In a recent Variety interview, Live Nation’s Thomas See said the mega-concert promoter is planning to move the drive-in concert experience into amphitheatre parking lots. When that will actually happen remains unclear.

“It’s not a speed game,” he said, “but when we do it, Live Nation will do it right, that’s for damn sure. I oversee over 40 large outdoor amphitheaters, where we would traditionally do 30-40 shows a year, that have parking lots and restrooms all set up. And if we can find a way within each jurisdiction to get the artists and the fans to connect together, that’s the ultimate goal.”

Still, it’s not hard to figure out why Live Nation and other large promoters are dragging their feet. Anyone who attended 2014’s Riot Fest, when it was moved to Denver’s Mile High parking lot, will recall how much magic the tarmac drained out of the event. Riot Fest lasted one more year before calling it quits.

So now try to imagine that same parking lot, packed with cars full of music fans, all of them putting back their seats, watching performers on a big screen, and thinking “This is as good as gets.”

Hopefully, it will never come to that.

Editor's note: This article was edited to remove reference to an event that has since been canceled.

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