Published Aug 15, 2020While restrictions on large gatherings remain in place and music venues remain closed, society's longing for live tunes and a deeply ingrained dependence on cars have birthed drive-in concerts, the latest method du jour for musical entertainment in our world's great push towards "normal." The format offers a safe, socially distant way to enjoy shows this summer, but it's only natural that some would have reservations about a concert experience from the confines of a parking space.
It's a change to the artist-audience relationship that weighs on the minds of those onstage, too. In the case of Toronto duo dvsn, COVID-19 swept across North America a month before the release of their third album, A Muse in Her Feelings, effectively cancelling planned tours of North America and Europe. As vocalist Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 tell Exclaim!, there was some initial apprehension to going all-in on the drive-in to make up for lost stage time.
"I think there was a lot of uncertainty because there's nothing to compare it to," Nineteen85 explains. "You're kind of performing to cars. I've got to commend Daniel for being able to be up there without the same crowd energy you would have in a normal venue. That was probably the first worry, and second was, 'How does it work? How does it sound?'"
News of a dvsn performance at Toronto's recently opened CityView Drive-In soon led to demand for two more dates. Upon selling out all three, the OVO Sound duo tacked on two more shows — and promptly sold them out as well. A day after completing their fifth and final drive-in concert (August 13), Daley reflects on the experience as a wholly unique one.
"Just being in the moment was something…it was special," the vocalist recalls. "We were a little unsure of how it would all play out, but to have it turn into what it did…five sold-out nights at home, different crowds vibing in different ways, it was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience."
Daley and Nineteen85 tell Exclaim! they had each visited a drive-in theatre at least once in their lives, and sought to adjust their stage show accordingly for their turn as the main attraction. The pair added a small ensemble of backing vocalists, a drummer and guitarist to level up their live sound, worked in some Usher covers amongst their own catalogue favourites, and you best believe they had the requisite PPE on hand for when the mood is right.
"We tried to make it more about [the audience] once we realized it wasn't going to be same type of exchange you usually get at a concert," Daley states. "I'll say this selfishly: I get a lot back as far as energy from the crowd normally. This time, we knew it wasn't going to be like that because of distancing restrictions. So we said, let's make this us, giving them the perfect soundtrack for a summer night."
In bringing his emotive vocals from the studio to the stage, Daley says that forming a connection with dvsn audiences through performance as his "favourite part of the job." He stresses that "being able to go out and perform all these songs that we've sat in studios for hours with…to finally be able to go up there and see people sing along, and see how they react, it's unlike anything else."
Realizing that crowd energy would potentially be harder to channel when performing to distanced groups of fans instead of the usual stagefront masses led him to approach his time at the drive-in differently.
"Once I learned that it wasn't about me looking out and seeing a few thousand people singing the songs, I made a point of finding each parking space," he explains. "Whether there's two people, four people, a couple, whoever it is, I'm going to perform to that specific person or group, one at a time. I would pick a space, one by one, and feed off of that."
Cruising the CityView Drive-In location tag on Instagram shows an audience more than happy to be there over the five shows, while Twitter is full of listeners around the globe, distraught that there aren't plans for a dvsn drive-in world tour. To make that a reality, Nineteen85 understands it's a matter of logistics in taking their show on the road.
"Somebody had asked me before, 'would you bring this to drive in theatres across the country or through the States?' and one of the biggest things is that most of those theatres don't have a good sound system," the producer professes. "So you'll have to figure out a way to make that translate. For actual drive-in theatres, it's using your car radio for the sound, and we did have that option, but I still do think a lot of people prefer to have the live sound coming from the stage."
With their potent, emotional R&B striking a chord with audiences over five sold-out shows, it's clear that dvsn are primed for whatever brave new world of live performance awaits audiences after COVID-19. But pandemic safety measures aside, what does the pair consider to be the strangest environment they've ever played in?
"There was one show where we walked into, almost like a warehouse, where I think there was a shower right above the staircase that led down to the stage," Daley recalls with a laugh, remembering another time the duo once played "somewhere that looked like an old church. They took this building and renovated the interior…it was cool, but it was definitely weird. You're walking into church to go sing 'I won't make you pull out' and stuff."