DERRY, N.H. — For a few hours Saturday afternoon, pre-pandemic life seemed within reach.
Sure, most of the people spread far apart in the parking lot of the Tupelo Music Hall were wearing masks. So were the orange-vested attendants directing concert-goers to their “seats," which in this case consisted of two parking spots each — one for the car, and one for whatever lawn chairs patrons pulled out of their trunks.
There was no concession stand or beer tent, but you could order a big juicy burger or other fare online with your phone, and a blue golf cart would zip over and deposit it at the edge of your spot, no contact needed.
There was also occasional sun, a nice breeze, other people around — at a safe distance, of course — and live music.
“This is going to be the new normal, I think, for quite a while,” Kevin Mach, who drove from Fairhaven, Mass., said from behind a black face mask. He and a friend were set up in a space right near the stage, two folding chairs and a small tray table laden with food beside their silver Prius.
“I’m just thrilled that someone, anyone is doing something to create a scenario in which people can experience things that are almost, almost normal again.”
Last weekend, Tupelo held its inaugural drive-in concert, with plans to continue to hold five to six weekly shows over the summer.
“The first show, there were people that were coming up, and they were teary-eyed,” owner Scott Hayward said. “It just fills that void, you know? . . . There’s something about going to a live show; it could be comedy or music, but there’s something that lets you just shut off your head for an hour and a half" from all the stress the pandemic has brought.
Hayward started thinking about presenting outdoor shows after it became clear it would be a long time before he could reopen the 700-seat indoor venue. Then the state announced in early May that drive-in movie theaters would be able to open May 11 and detailed the rules they would have to follow.
Hayward saw how he could make it work at Tupelo.
He and his team spent an intense two weeks pulling off the transformation. The undertaking included building an outdoor stage; figuring out all the logistics of where to put people and how to serve food, all while following new safety rules; designing a whole new brand for the “Tupelo Drive-in Experience," then making a stage backdrop, T-shirts, new webpages, with the new logo; procuring an outdoor sound system.
“It was an entirely new business model in about two weeks,” said Hayward.
When the pandemic hit, Hayward promised to keep paying his full-time employees even while Tupelo was closed. With the drive-in shows, he’s able to go back to offering hours to his 30 part-time employees similar to what they’d worked before the shutdown. His goal is to make enough money over the summer that the business can survive the winter even if indoor events remain disrupted.
Each $75 ticket gains entrance for one car, with a maximum of 75 cars allowed at each show.
During the noon show Saturday, concertgoers stuck close to their assigned territory with no mingling or group dancing in front of the stage like you might have seen before the pandemic. Some stayed in their cars, many set up chairs outside, a few stood and bopped to the music next to their cars.
In a couple of weeks, Hayward plans to add an outside dining restaurant — following the rules laid out by the state — under a tent to one side of the stage. People, especially singles who want to see the show but not pay for a full car ticket, can make a reservation and listen to the music over food and a few drinks.
As one of the first US venues to do drive-in concerts, Tupelo has earned national press including write-ups in Billboard and Rolling Stone. The attention has Hayward fielding calls from agents all over the country, he said. Tupelo has drive-in shows booked through July, including with Boston-area artists such as Livingston Taylor and Johnny A.
“I am so stoked. Going to concerts is my favorite thing,” said Lizzy Goldstein, as she sat on the hood of her cherry red Jeep Wrangler and waited for the noon show to start. She woke up early to drive four hours from Bayonne, N.J., to see the performance by singer-songwriter Kasim Sulton, a longtime member of the progressive rock band Utopia, and one of her favorite artists.
“I’ll go anywhere to see him," she said.
Christine Ulaky, one of the owners of the Canobie Lake Park amusement park in Salem, N.H., read about Tupelo’s new drive-in series in the local paper and had to check it out.
“When I saw how innovative and courageous he was in coming up with a solution, to provide entertainment — I thought it was genius," she said after watching the show from a white wicker chair she brought from her porch at home.
Her own business, which she hopes will be allowed to open soon, is closed on what would normally be a busy weekend.
“In the meantime, I’ve got to get out too,” said Ulaky.
On the stage, the artist, dressed in black, alternated between guitar and keyboard. Sulton’s on-stage banter was one reminder that not everything was normal. At one point he asked during a song if anyone had gotten nasal swabbed recently.
Turns out he had.
“It was very unpleasant but it was worth it,” Sulton said, before plunging on with the song.
At another point, he turned reflective about the pandemic.
“What it does for me is that it makes the songs that I do, they all have their own meaning, but the meaning becomes even, like, even more poignant,” said Sulton, strumming his guitar as he introduced the next song, “I Just Want to Touch You.”
“And, you know, I can’t," he said. “So I’ll play the song.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Kasim Sulton’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.