At some point in your life, presumably before this calendar year, you might have attended a true blue, real deal rock-and-roll concert.
You were probably packed tightly into a club or a stadium. When the band really started cooking, maybe you responded in kind by getting a little rowdy, perhaps throwing your hands in the air, proving once and for all that you really didn't care.
It’s kind of a weird thought now, huh? This is a year of caution and awareness, two things that almost never entered my mind in a short lifetime of going to concerts. I've been closely packed in at rap shows, on the outskirts of circle pits at punk shows, and I once helped propel Wayne Coyne in his infamous plastic bubble at an outdoor Flaming Lips concert.
The best thing about live music is that for that one night, or even just one set, you're a part of a temporary community united in enjoying the same thing, viscerally. In 2020, concerts, if they exist at all, have had to be flexible just to continue. In Lancaster County, venues such as Phantom Power and Tellus360 have adjusted to having musicians perform outside, with sparse crowds stationed a safe distance away in ad-hoc pods.
It's simply not a "rock-and-roll" vibe. Bands and venues continue to find a way, because they have to.
To get a "real" Lancaster live music experience, I traveled an hour outside of the county to Haar's Drive-in in Dillsburg, York County, where members of The Sharks -- Lancaster music legends -- were to play their only show of 2020. The concert served as both a showcase of the band and a fundraiser for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which received half of the proceeds.
If you're unfamiliar with the band, here's a quick primer: Formed in 1979, the Sharks had a brush with national fame after winning MTV's "Basement Tape Competition" in 1985, earning them a contract with Elektra Records. After initially calling it quits in 1992, the band has reunited on a yearly basis for over a decade. In 2019, the band was part of the inaugural class of the Central Pennsylvania Music Hall of Fame.
The scene at the drive-in
Pulling into Haar's Drive-in and surveying the scene, it didn't immediately strike me as the grounds that would later hold The Big Rock Show. Deteriorated posts that once held the audio tech that allowed visitors to hear the films they were watching still dot the large parking lot, like slender tombstones for a bygone era.
Sharks fans, mostly decked in coats and blankets for the 55-degree night, set up their spots with camping chairs and or in the backs of pickup trucks. Underneath the movie screen was essentially a 1:1 recreation of the type of nightclub stage the members of the Sharks know intimately, complete with lights and big amps.
At the start of the performance, hosts Glenn Hamilton and Amy Warner of The River 97.3 warmed up the crowd, noting that fans should wear masks and stay by their cars and not walk up to the area around the stage. The band's area was surrounded by caution tape a good 12 to 18 feet in front of the stage.
A warning is, of course, just a warning, free for people to interpret however they want to. Once the Sharks began playing, folks started walking closer to the stage to catch a view, perhaps one that wasn't already enhanced on the big screen.
The sound, though professionally mixed, was hampered by nature itself. The band played, plugged in and amped as it usually would, which meant that, obviously the sound they emitted was going out live. Now, if you were outside of your car with a handheld radio, you heard the initial sound going out, as well as the sound from the radio a millisecond later.
Moving into my car fixed one problem and created another. With the windows up and the radio cranked, the sound was not only pristine, but surprisingly good for live radio. The problem then was one more inherent to the larger identity crisis created by "distanced concerts" - that is, how does one rock out seated in the car?
The Sharks played two 45-minute sets of high-energy rock music, the kind that many a teenager and young adult - including my mom - spent countless nights dancing to in the '80s. You want to move and dance and shout, because that's how a healthy brain reacts to music.
Sitting in a car, I couldn't really do much of anything outside of nodding to the beat and releasing the occasional shimmy.
Sharks singer and bassist Shea Quinn felt the inherent weirdness of the concert. Every once in a while, his stage banter would reflect the proceedings:
"We can't see you, but clap along!"
"Turn on your headlights, flip your windshield wipers, do something!"
Both of the Sharks' sets were filled entirely with original music, partially due to The River's status as a part of the monolithic iHeartRadio corporation -- covers might create the potential for litigation. But that allowed the band to pull out hits, rarities and other songs that gave a complete overview of their musical history.
By the last half hour or so of the concert, fans essentially became stage technicians unto themselves, flashing their high beams sequentially and honking their horns rhythmically.
I left feeling a mixture of hope and weirdness: hope that live music can continue in a pandemic, but suitably weirded out that this is probably the best way for it to occur.
Two days after the show, I rang up Shea Quinn to get his thoughts on the show from the band’s perspective. The band was skeptical going in, he said, but felt like the experiment went off without a hitch.
"Every once in a while, you'd see a face out there, but the lights were bright," said Quinn, his voice still hoarse from Saturday's show. "Normally, people are jammed up against the stage, and you can look at people and feed off of them. We could feel that they were out there, but it was definitely different."
Quinn will perform a solo livestream concert on the Central Pa. Music Hall of Fame Facebook page on Oct. 4. For Quinn, who went from playing four or five nights a week to not knowing when the next gig is coming, it's a relief, albeit a strange one.
"It was a very odd feeling, and it has been since I started doing these live streams," Quinn said. "You're playing songs that people want to hear, but there's nobody there and you just have to rely on their response over the internet to know if they're happy or not. In this crisis, you sort of have to take what you can get."