is preparing for what is probably the strangest challenge of his live-gigging career to date: performing to a sea of cars at his upcoming Live at the Drive In gigs.
Inspired by German and Danish events as a solution to maintaining social distance while feeding audiences’ summer gig withdrawals, the tour, co-produced by 360 Events and MPI artists management, will see up to 300 vehicles rev their engines into James’ gigs in Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny.
There have been drive-in cinema nights and the organisers behind novelty “bingo rave” Bingo Loco have announced plans for drive-in comedy shows, but Live at the Drive in is Ireland’s first drive-in live music, and James, with his everyman appeal, is the first act to have signed up.
Limerick folk-rockers Hermitage Green have been announced as a second act, with further acts expected to be announced in coming weeks.
“I suppose it depends on where the sun is, if I’m going to be able to see people in their cars or not,” James muses, over the phone from his Dublin home where he’s been seeing out the lockdown.
It’s obviously going to be different to having people right in front of me, so instead of getting people to sing along I’ll be getting them to beep their horns and stuff. I think the first one will be either be the best new thing ever, or a bit of a rapid learning curve.
James will perform with his keyboard player, Geoff Warner-Clayton, on a 10 metre by seven metre stage, backed by a 45-metre screen to ensure his entire audience gets a good view no matter where they are allocated parking.
“It’s a new thing and a different sort of a gig, so I’m trying to plan it out and change the show,” he says. “There’s loads of things I want to do that I wouldn’t be doing for normal gigs.”
Feeding off audience interaction is a vital ingredient for most musicians, and it’s something the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has been missing.
“One of the main things you miss is seeing everyone jumping around and singing along,” he says.
“I was really lucky that I got to play the 3Arena three weeks before lockdown, so at least I got to finish off on a high with that gig; I have a memory of how things used to be.”
For Irish performers, enormous uncertainty remains as to how the Covid-ravaged live entertainment industry will revive itself, not only within Ireland.
Aside from the summer’s cancellations of everything from Live at the Marquee to Electric Picnic, in the longer term, questions remain over how international tours can resume if acts are faced with the costs of 14 days’ quarantine when flying into each new country.
James is adapting. He’s performed charity live-streams from his home as well as signing up to the drive-in gigs and has occupied himself in lockdown with song-writing sessions and learning new digital production skills.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s good to adapt to new situations,” he says.
“Gigs will be part of our lives again, cinema, festivals: it’ll all be grand eventually. But for me right now, this seems like the only viable way for the industry to keep a foot in the door and start up slowly.”
Rigorous compliance with government health advice means Live at the Drive In gig-goers can only exit their cars to visit the toilet.
The gigs are alcohol-free, and punters can keep their windows wound up and tune in to the entire event via their car radios from an on-site FM radio transmitter if they so choose.
Not all responses to the Live at the Drive In tour have been positive, with some social media users opining that the strict conditions won’t make for much fun, and questioning the financial viability of gigs with an audience limit of 2,400 people across two shows per day.
James doesn’t mince his words about detractors of the drive-in gig idea: “I don’t think they understand that it’s about thousands of lads that can’t work at the moment, and that artists can help with that. If they don’t get that, to be honest I don’t give a f**k.”
James’ impassioned response stems from a keen awareness that he’s the visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Covid-19 restrictions have undercut the live entertainment industry, whose employees include a vast but, to the public, often invisible infrastructural network.
Pre-Covid, live entertainment in Ireland directly employed 8,700 full-time workers and was worth 1.2 billion to the Irish economy, according to the 2017 Let's Celebrate report.
It’s not clear how far into the non-music-specific infrastructure, into areas like security and equipment hire, these calculations extend.
“This is to look after our own, the people I’ve worked with for the past ten years in this industry, and make sure they can pay their rent,” James says.
“Even down to the guys doing security and the guys directing people where to park their cars.”
James hopes the family-friendly tour, which sees him play a matinee and an evening show on each date, will provide an outing for families who have been struggling to remain motivated under lockdown.
“The way I see it, it’s lovely that people will be able to get out of the house and there’s going to be loads of families in the cars.”
There are clearly many who agree: dates in Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Kilkenny sold out their evening slots within half an hour of them going on sale, with matinee shows selling slightly slower.
Mark Dunne, owner of 360 Events, is events controller for the Live at the Drive In tours, in charge of all the logistical elements while MPI artist management is in charge of booking acts.
Dunne says each day of the tour will see between 40 and 50 staff back at work.
Keeping the gigs alcohol-free is a “logical and reasonable” step, he says.
“The shows are family- oriented. Our toilets are on site as an emergency facility, but if you’re going to be swigging cans you’re going to be over and back to the toilets.
"Alcohol lowers inhibitions, so people are more likely to decide they want to get out of the car for a dance. Then there’s the responsibility of mechanical vehicles leaving the arena. Cars and drink just don’t mix.”
Like James, Dunne sees the drive-in gigs as a stop-gap, a temporary solution for unprecedented times.
“This is by no means a replacement for the live music industry,” he says.
“I’ve worked in that industry for ten years and even talking to you now, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I think about some of those moments down on the stage with the crowd in front of you and watching the band rocking out.
“We work in a creative industry and that’s what we’re doing here: being as creative as we’re allowed to be, trying to use our imaginations and innovate. But we can’t wait to get back to proper live gigs.”
- Gavin James Live at the Drive In comes to Cork Showgrounds on July the 31st, Matinee tickets still available.
- Hermitage Green are at Cork Showgrounds on Aug 1.
- Greenpark, Limerick, July 24; Tramore Promenade, Co Waterford, Aug 7; Gowran Racecourse, Kilkenny, Aug 10. www.liveatthedrivein.ie
How does it work?
Vehicles such as vans and campers are banned because those vehicles would obscure the view of others. Larger family cars will be directed to designated spaces for the same reason.
Motorcycles, convertibles with their tops down, and bicycles are also not permitted: any vehicle where the occupants aren’t deemed to be inside during the performance.
An FM bandwidth is provided for fans who wish to keep their windows up during the performance, but the gigs come with a concert level PA system for those who want to wind their car windows down.
One ticket is bought per car, and the maximum is four adults, but families of two adults and three children are allowed.
Regular spaces are first come, first served, but there are designated sections for blue badge holders, who will be asked to pre-register their licence plate details before the gig.
Climate change concerns might have taken a backseat during the Covid-19 crisis, but many have noticed improvements to air quality brought about by the reduction in cars on our roads and planes in our skies.
Gavin James has offset the carbon emissions of his drive-in gigs by buying a CO2 Removal Certificate.