Now one week old, a new endeavor dubbed the Higher Ground Drive-In Experience is striving to fill the gaping gap in live concerts and other cultural events that have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nothing we’ve done compares to launching the Higher Ground Drive-In Experience,” said Higher Ground co-owner Alex Crothers on Tuesday. “It’s an effort to keep communities engaged with music and arts. As far as we know, this has never been done in the way we’re doing it.”
Crothers and others were busy preparing for the inaugural entertainment event that night: a sold-out stream of a 1995 show by Phish, a simulcast of the renowned Vermont band’s weekly webcast series, “Dinner and Movie: A Phish Archival Video Series.”
The video was broadcast on a state-of-the-art LED video wall that’s mounted on a massive 40-foot-high tower. Video from a four-person camera crew, which will be mixed onsite, will also accompany future live action happening on a sizable nearby stage. Sound is broadcast over FM radio.
The Higher Ground Drive-In Experience kicked off last weekend with three high school graduation ceremonies at the new outdoor venue at the Midway Lawn at Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Live music will make its debut there Sunday with a concert by rising Burlington singer Kat Wright. And lauded Vermont blues-soul-rock trio Dwight & Nicole will perform there on July 4.
“The goal is to provide a community resource to help facilitate public gatherings of all types,” Crothers said in a news release. “We’ve purposefully left the schedule open so that we can accommodate a broad range of uses.”
The Midway Lawn accommodates a maximum of 250 cars spaced 6 feet apart for concerts and events, with space in front so people can see the video screen. Tickets are priced per car, not per person, with a maximum of four people per car. Bathrooms and food trucks will both be available, with social distancing restrictions and instructions.
To be sure, Vermont’s largest concert presenter isn’t the only organization embracing the resurgence of a drive-in model for arts and entertainment events, which have been debuting with increasing frequency across the country.
“There are other concepts out there … but we weren’t satisfied with the level of experience they delivered,” Crothers said. “We spent nine weeks tweaking the concept to create an experience that gets us as close to a live gathering as possible in the age of social distancing.”
“All that said,” he added, “we’re in uncharted territory so we expect to continue to tweak and refine the concept over the summer.”
Crothers said the project was born out of the need for area high schools to have a graduation ceremony. The Champlain Valley School District reached out to the Champlain Valley Expo, which reached out to Crothers.
“We set our sights on developing a solution for them and then, almost by accident, started to realize that the ‘venue’ could be used by ALL arts and community organizations — if we could find a way to underwrite the cost to leave it set up all summer. So that’s what we did,” he said.
The cost of setting up the stage and screen was covered by donations from a variety of community partners, and all profits from the summer are being donated. Proceeds from the Kat Wright and Dwight & Nicole shows are going to Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, while proceeds from the archival Phish show streaming are going to the Equal Justice Initiative.
All proceeds from the Higher Ground Drive-In Experience project, in general, will benefit the Vermont Arts Council.
“The work that the Vermont Arts Council is doing to help our legislators understand and appreciate what the arts contributes to Vermont, both economically and culturally, is critical right now,” Crothers said.
“One thing that unifies all performing arts organizations in Vermont right now is the terrifying realization that without significant support, many of us won’t be around on the other side of the pandemic. Venues don’t operate sustainably at partial capacity.”
How will Drive-In Experience concerts compare to the typical outdoor concert experience?
“I believe concertgoers will be pleasantly surprised by the drive-in experience,” said Jacob Marmor, project manager of Atomic Professional Audio, on Tuesday. The longtime Vermont company, based in the Rutland-area town of North Clarendon, built the stage and video tower and will help produce each event.
“Social distancing guidelines mean attendees have a bit more space to spread out and having your car right next to you allows for more creature comforts than you’d normally get at a concert,” Marmor said.
“I think live music fans will find that when the band takes the stage and folks start cranking their car stereos, this venue takes on a very genuine concert atmosphere.”
Marmor said Atomic is grateful to be a part of the Drive-In Experience project.
“I think the entire arts and entertainment community, fans included, can breathe a sigh of relief knowing there is a venue in Vermont prepared to safely put on events this summer.
“We’re stoked to be up here working on such a unique project that’s truly on the cutting edge of drive-in event experiences,” added Marmor.
“If you’re a fan of live music, you’d be remiss to miss out on catching a show here as it very well might be one of the most unique and fun concert experiences of your life,” he said.