Music in the garden: Driftless Music Gardens tests out drive-in concert format during COVID-19

Music in the garden: Driftless Music Gardens tests out drive-in concert format during COVID-19

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Driftless Music Gardens in rural Richland County is testing the waters of live music in the era of COVID-19.

Its Drive-In Tailgate Concert Series, which kicked off earlier this month, continues this weekend with a performance Friday by Madison-based WheelHouse and another Saturday by La Crosse’s own Gregg Hall and the Wrecking Ball.

The concert series is a boon for both the venue and the participating musicians.

Driftless Music Gardens canceled both of its summer music festivals, Bonfire in June and People Fest in August, its biggest revenue drivers. And as for musicians, Gregg Hall said, “there’s not really much income coming in right now.”

So setting up in the rolling countryside of Yuba to play for a socially distanced crowd (maximum 400) is a happy compromise for the venue, musicians and patrons, allowing for personal connection while taking public health seriously.

“I feel safer going to this gig than I would going out to the grocery store,” Hall said.

‘A rough time for everybody’

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed particular challenges for the arts community, with concerts canceled and venues closed.

“It’s just a rough time for everybody,” Hall said.

Adding to the challenges of making music during a pandemic is the fact that Hall and his bandmates have just released their third album, “True Story.”

Under normal circumstances, the band would hit the road to promote its new release. But COVID-19 has all but ruled that out. Instead, Gregg Hall and the Wrecking Ball are hitting the web, “try(ing) to promote it in every possible way besides going on tour.”

A brand-new music video for their song “Glow” is up on YouTube, and “True Story” is available on iTunes, Spotify and more.

In the course of producing the album, Hall even found a silver lining to the challenging circumstances. “I got a lot of time to really sit and listen to it,” he said. “We got to really be patient and dial it in as far as the mixing is concerned.”

The result, he said, “is the best piece of art that I’ve ever put out.” Every artist, Hall said, looks at a work and thinks, “‘Oh, I wish I’d done this, oh, I wish I’d done that’ — there’s very little of that (on ‘True Story’).

“Everybody brought their A-game and I’m excited to share it.”

Playing it safe

Saturday’s show at Driftless Music Gardens is a rare opportunity to share their new music face-to-face — albeit from a safe distance.

The inspiration for the unusual concert format came from nationwide drive-in concerts being held this summer in the United Kingdom, said Crickett Lochner of Driftless Music Gardens.

“We’re a small business; we wanted to figure out some way to get us through this year because our traditional ways were not going to happen,” Lochner said.

Driftless Music Gardens is in Richland County, which has seen 15 cases of COVID-19 and 4 deaths. The lower disease burden means the county is in Phase II of its reopening plan, which includes loosened restrictions on mass gatherings, both indoor and outdoor.

Still, COVID-19 precautions are top of mind for venue staff.

Tickets are sold online as car passes ($40 per vehicle for 1-2 occupants or $50 for 3-4 occupants). Each vehicle has an

assigned tailgating space, spread out to allow for social distancing between groups.

Through a partnership with La Crosse Distilling Co., each vehicle also gets a bottle of the distillery’s hand sanitizer upon check-in.

It’s one more way to create “an environment (where) people can feel comfortable and safe and still go out and hear the music they long for,” Lochner said.

Gates open at 4 p.m. for tailgating before each concert, and music begins at 6 p.m. and wraps up at 8. The venue closes at 9 p.m. — on-site camping is not allowed. The venue has also eliminated on-site beverage and merchandise sales.

The tailgating format is one reason the events are strictly ages 21 and up. “It’d be hard to monitor under-agers,” Lochner said. It’s also intended to help ensure guests follow social distancing guidelines, she added. “We feel that under-agers don’t typically have that understanding of (the importance of) social distancing.”

Attendees are required to wear masks in communal areas like check-in and bathrooms. The port-a-potties are cleaned before every show, and handwashing and sanitizing stations are set up right outside. Staff wear masks and gloves at all times.

Patrons who don’t follow social distancing rules will be asked to leave.

According to Lochner, ”the people who have attended so far, they’ve been really good (about wearing masks and staying in their designated tailgating areas).”

Musicians are even situated on their own personal stages, six feet from each other.

For Hall, the precautions are common sense, both from a health and an entertainment perspective. “People aren’t going to have as much fun unless they feel safe,” Hall said.

And having fun is the goal.

These events are “a chance to see friends, have live connection,” Lochner said. “It’s almost like being rebooted … like a break, an escape from reality.”

Audiences in the Coulee Region are craving live music, Hall added, and musicians are anxious to give it to them.

“We had a band practice out in my yard last night, everybody six feet apart,” Hall said. “Neighbors were hanging out and cheering. … We’re all really itching to play.”

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