SALT LAKE CITY — I woke up Saturday morning with a specific kind of excitement I hadn’t felt since March: I was going to a concert.

The last show I saw before the coronavirus pandemic was the folk trio Lone Bellow at a midsized venue in Salt Lake City on March 6. I had to get there to beat the crowd and claim a spot at the front of the stage.

Up close, I watched the musicians lean into the music, feeding off of each other and their enthusiastic fans. At one point, I even yelled out a song request (they didn’t play it, but they did shout one of the lyrics back to me in a slight form of acknowledgement). 

The energy that night was palpable — I think about it every time I wear the shirt I bought from that concert. And it reaffirmed my love for live music, and justified the fact that my 2020 calendar was primarily used for keeping track of concert dates.

And then COVID-19 came along.  

Six days after I saw the Lone Bellow, theaters and venues across Utah shut down. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that mass gatherings be limited to 100 people or less.

And just like that, concerts were no longer feasible. And my calendar no longer had purpose. 

Until this past Saturday, when I had plans to see country superstar Garth Brooks at the Redwood Drive-in in West Valley City, for a drive-in concert — an emerging trend amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since venues began shutting down in March, Brooks has continually reached out to fans with Facebook Live concerts. But he got even more creative earlier this month, announcing that a special filmed concert would air at 300 drive-in theaters across North America, for one night only. 

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I saw Brooks five years ago at Salt Lake’s Vivint Arena. I was in the nosebleeds and gladly would have welcomed a pair of binoculars. But even from my seat way up high, there was no denying it: The man puts on a really good show. 

Would that show be just as good if it wasn’t live? How would a filmed version without an audience be?

There was only one way to find out.

Garth Brooks performs his first of four shows at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. On Saturday, June 27, 2020, Brooks performed a drive-in concert for 300 theaters across North America. | Chris Samuels, Deseret News

I bought my first ticket to a drive-in, a venue that has made a comeback of sorts during the pandemic. Tickets were $100 and covered vehicles of up to six people. When tickets went on sale a week before the concert, fans were waiting in line anywhere from two to four hours. Either people thought it was a good deal, or they were desperate to get out of the house and enjoy some form of entertainment.

I secured a ticket, and since it covered an entire vehicle, my husband, sister-in-law and her boyfriend also joined in. With Papa John’s pizza in tow, we pulled up to the drive-in in a white Toyota Tundra Saturday night at 8:30 — an hour before showtime. We parked the truck at a slight angle to optimize our view of the screen.

Deseret News reporter Lottie Johnson, center, enjoys pizza while waiting for the Garth Brooks drive-in concert to begin. | Jennifer Johnson

And then we got comfortable. We placed two lawn chairs and a large black, beanbag on the bed of the truck. I hopped onto the bean bag, grabbed a slice of extra-cheese pizza and started looking around.

Like those old pre-COVID concerts, people had showed up early. We were far from the first ones there. 

Separated by roughly 10 feet, vehicles filled in several rows of the outdoor space. And people had already begun to make themselves at home. Surrounded by sour Skittles and Airheads, one family sprawled out on the pavement to play the game “Heads Up!” A family a little farther ahead transformed the bed of a truck into a makeshift living room, complete with a baby in a crib.  Several fans dressed for the occasion, wearing cowboy hats and Garth Brooks T-shirts. 

These people — and all of my crew — were ready for a show.

A few minutes after 9:30 p.m., once the sun had faded from view, a dynamic Brooks came on the big screen and broke into his 1993 hit, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up).” It was the first of 18 hits Brooks would sing for his fans scattered across North America that night. 

Opener Randall King plays on the big screen at the Redwood Drive-in in West Valley City, Utah, before the Garth Brooks drive-in concert begins on Saturday, June 27, 2020. | Lottie Johnson

I loved every song. Lying on the bean bag, I sang along often. My bare feet dangled off the truck’s edge, rocking back and forth to the music. 

It was a good time, but one wistful thought kept creeping into my mind: Is this going to be the new normal when it comes to big entertainment? 

I hoped not. Yes, it was fun. But the event did not even come close to matching the thrill of a live concert — something I had last experienced with the Lone Bellow nearly four months ago.

For one thing, the show was prerecorded. I knew that going in, but watching it unfold just reiterated to me the importance of the interaction between artists and fans. Brooks couldn’t hear people cheering — or, in this case, honking their horns. 

He couldn’t hear fans shout out requests. He couldn’t banter with his fans, or feed off of their energy. 

And when he asked people to turn on their cellphone lights for his ballad “The River,” there was no way for him to really know if anyone was actually doing it (for the record, a lot of people did turn on their lights). 

But even that kind of concert participation didn’t feel the same. With social distancing measures in place — and over the echo of fuzzy battery-operated radios and car stereos — it was hard to tell if people were singing along, or if my group was the odd one out (near the end of the show, Brooks’ performance of “Friends in Low Places” let me know that at least for a few minutes, my group was definitely not alone). 

On the screen, I could see Brooks clearly — which is more than I can say about the arena show I attended in 2015. But if given the choice, I would pay more for a nosebleed seat in an arena than what I paid to see Brooks fairly up close from the comfort of a car. 

Brooks and his band sounded great, and it was an excellent show featuring the singer’s best hits. But there was a palpable disconnect — with the music, with the audience and with Brooks. 

A five-minute countdown begins for the Garth Brooks drive-in concert at the Redwood Drive-in in West Valley City, on Saturday, June 27, 2020. | Lottie Johnson, Deseret News

The coronavirus pandemic makes arena shows virtually impossible right now. After Brooks closed out his show with “The Dance,” a message appeared on the screen, promising fans that the band will be back on tour “soon.” 

Of course, no one really knows when “soon” is. Just on Monday, Broadway announced it will remain closed for the rest of 2020. And following Brooks, other big artists like Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker are starting to embrace drive-in concerts.

But seeing the word “soon” still gave me some hope. It reminded me that even as the pandemic continues, big artists like Brooks don’t want this to be the new normal. They long to get back on stage and play for their fans. 

The eventual return to arenas will likely look different than it did before the pandemic, but there’s one thing regarding concerts that the pandemic has only reinforced: Live music cannot be replaced. 

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But until fans can congregate in close quarters, celebrating and enjoying the music they love, musicians like Brooks are exploring ways to bring people together in as safe a way as possible. 

Maybe the show would’ve been better on a streaming service. People could’ve enjoyed it from their own homes, TVs and speaker systems. But Saturday night was about recreating the concert experience — something that is starting to feel foreign as the pandemic continues.

And Brooks certainly gets an A for trying. 

“It shows that this is what he loves. This is his passion, and he loves to bring joy to other people,” Katelyn Bosworth, an avid Garth Brooks fan, told the Deseret News from the bed of her truck just minutes before the concert. “It’s nice to feel like even though he’s not able to perform live, he still cares about his fans.”

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