DERRY, N.H. — Sue Martin rolled up to the Tupelo Music Hall in her gray Dodge two hours early for the first show, which started at noon. The 56-year-old bus driver had never heard of the headliner, a local bar-band singer named Tim Theriault.
“I don’t care who’s playing,” Martin said. “I just want to get out and go to a concert.”
She did that on Saturday in a breezy, sun-drenched parking lot in southern New Hampshire. Elsewhere in America, recent days had seen armed protesters storming statehouses, a nasty argument outside a breakfast restaurant and, in Arkansas, officials blocking a Travis McCready gig booked for Friday inside a former Masonic temple. There was no noticeable tension in Derry, where town leaders blessed what was thought to be the first post-coronavirus sanctioned concert in the country. And the Tupelo Music Hall was not just reopening. It was reinventing itself.
The inside of the 700-seat hall was dark. Instead, the venue built an outdoor stage, installed a sound system and divided up the parking lot to accommodate 75 cars. It temporarily rebranded itself as the Tupelo Drive-In Experience.
“You guys are part of history,” Theriault said into the microphone after taking the stage.
Tupelo owner Scott Hayward came up with the outdoor concept in early May after Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, announced that some businesses, including drive-in movie theaters, could reopen May 11. Why not do a drive-in for music? he wondered.
Not wanting his staffers or patrons to get sick, he created a plan to follow social distancing guidelines. For $75, you got two parking spaces: one for your car, a second so you could bring a chair and sit outside. Hayward spent $6,000 on a golf cart to transport burgers, fries and soft drinks (the venue is not licensed for outdoor liquor sales) ordered by phone, eliminating food lines. He coordinated with local radio station 95.1 FM to broadcast the sets for those who wanted to sit inside their cars.
“We have to figure out how to slowly open things back up,” said Beverly Donovan, Derry’s economic development director. “This way, you’re giving the people something that they need, which is a cultural experience, a shared experience, but you’re doing it in a way that’s very limited.”
In largely liberal New England, New Hampshire is known for its conservative leanings and “Live free or die” motto. But Hayward said he was not interested in the polarizing politics of reopening. He wore a mask all day Saturday, as did his workers.
“Forget about constitutional rights and all that stuff,” he said. “If you go to a restaurant, you have to wear a shirt. If the state said I could open my indoor venue, I wouldn’t do that. You have to marry what you know about this and what’s safe and what the government’s allowing.”
Typically, Tupelo Music Hall brings in $300,000 a month in ticket sales with a slate of performers that has included blues legend Buddy Guy, English songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, and Heart’s Ann Wilson. Hayward isn’t expecting to approach that level of income this summer; he only hopes to earn enough to pay his staffers and offset some of the losses brought on by a season of cancellations.
For Saturday’s inaugural drive-in event, he recruited Theriault, 48, whose pre-coronavirus schedule would have found him playing at the Red Parka Pub in Glen, New Hampshire. With his in-person gigs canceled, Theriault has had to rely on donations from the livestream concerts he’s been doing in his buddy Bryan’s basement.
On Saturday, dressed all in black, Theriault played two 90-minute shows — which started at noon and 3 p.m. — packed with covers of Stevie Wonder, the Allman Brothers, Chicago and Aerosmith. Some people sat in their cars. Some sat in chairs. Elle Walsh, a home care nurse from Eliot, Maine, stood in her space the entire first show, bopping to the music.
“Tim’s amazing,” she said. “He belongs on much bigger stages.”
There were no signs or shouts about politics and the ongoing battle to beat down a global pandemic. There was a group from another New England concert venue, the Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, Massachusetts, scouting Hayward’s setup. That Cape Cod venue has had to postpone its summer slate of shows until at least August.
“We want to see if this works,” said Seth Rolbein, Payomet’s board president. “Maybe we can do it on the Cape.”
Marketing director Jacqueline Tkachuk created the logo for the Tupelo Drive-In Experience, which led to a new T-shirt line. Jack Grube, a retired shop teacher and club volunteer, built a rack of pine and plywood to convert the golf cart for food delivery. Hayward marked off the parking spaces himself with white spray paint.
Patrons were given two sheets when they arrived: one with the menu and a second detailing the state’s strict social distancing guidelines. New Hampshire has more than 3,500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 171 reported deaths.
There is no way to know whether Hayward’s precautions prevented any spread of germs, but Christopher Gill, an infectious-disease specialist and professor at the Boston University school of public health, was impressed after reviewing guidelines for the Tupelo shows.
“As a society, we need to move away from this polarization, viewing this as an all-or-nothing affair,” Gill commented a few days before the concert. “It seems very responsible and it actually could work. And if nothing bad happens, we’ve learned something very useful. Not just for social events but it seems like the same model applies to work and reopening society.”
In the parking lot, patrons said they would have stayed home if Hayward had not taken such care to keep them safe. They also said they will likely come to his other outdoor shows.
Sandra LaPointe, a nurse who lives about 10 minutes away in Londonderry, had talked to her husband, James, about going Saturday but never bought tickets. That day, as they gardened, James put on the livestream. Their son, Cameron, 8, heard Theriault playing a Tom Petty song he loved. They went online and bought tickets for the 3 p.m. show and drove to Derry.
“We loved it,” she said afterward. “We’re trying to decrease our exposure like everyone else. We don’t even do grocery shopping.”
But they see no reason they won’t be back for future shows at the Tupelo drive-in. Kasim Sulton, the longtime Utopia bassist and singer, is playing two shows May 23.
“If the setup is the same, we’d love to do it again.”