Keith Urban At The Drive-In: Lessons Learned And Silver Linings

Keith Urban
AP Photo / Andy Snyder / Guitar Monkey Entertainment
– Keith Urban
performs at the Stardust Drive In Theatre in Watertown, Tenn., May 14, a private show set up exclusively for more than 200 doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and staff.

The biggest obstacle for Keith Urban’s surprise May 14 drive-in concert for frontline medical workers just outside of Nashville was keeping it secret. Getting tickets, more specifically credentials, to Vanderbilt Health System workers, building a stage and production, and bringing in a scaled-down crew without anyone outside of the operation finding out wasn’t easy.

But the result was oh, so worth it. In addition to entertaining hundreds of frontline heroes, Urban and his team including Brian O’Connell, Live Nation’s president of country touring; Tom See, president of U.S. venues, and Urban’s tour manager Chuck Hull, all told Pollstar the drive-in show not only connected them with fans but with their own work – which they’ve been missing for going on two months since the onset of the coronavirus crisis in mid-March.
“We all felt alive again, all of us,” O’Connell told Pollstar. “The load-in, the sound check, the security meeting, popping doors … muscle memory. When Keith went on, the reality set in. We did it. We did our jobs. It was awesome.”

“Keeping it quiet was the hard part,” explains Hull. “Everyone was sworn to secrecy.”

The audience, from throughout Vanderbilt’s system of some 150 different medical centers throughout Tennessee, worked in all areas from small urgent care facilities to University Medical Center in Nashville. There was room for some 120 cars and an audience of about 200.

“It had to be kept quiet because Watertown is maybe a 45-minute drive from Nashville, which is not much if you think you can get a chance to see the concert, even without a ticket,” Hull says. “We were worried about a little, single-lane road and a small entryway that could get clogged up with people we didn’t have space for. Stuart Dills, our liaison at Vanderbilt, and his team did an awesome job getting the word out, getting the folks chosen and keeping a lid on it.”

From Urban’s crew, to production staff from vendors including Premier Global Production, Sound Image, and Hemphill Transport, the transportation company that had to guide Urban’s bus out of a lot overflowing with idled busses and, finally, the Vanderbilt staff, the show was likely Nashville’s best-kept secret in years. 

The unannounced concert was Urban’s brainchild and, from conception to execution, came together in about two weeks. The country superstar reached out to O’Connell and Hull, as well as manager Gary Borman who in turn contacted other members of Team Urban – not all of whom live in Nashville – and quickly secured the Stardust Drive-In.

Watertown is in rural Wilson County, which had many “safer in place” restrictions lifted just five days before the show. Social distancing guidelines still in place meant that cars were parked in every other slot, and one person per car at a time could leave to access concessions and restrooms.

Those were only the most obvious onsite concerns. Getting the team together to check out the Stardust site, including access, and getting production on site was a challenge, as were travel concerns and the need to have as little physical contact as possible.
“Brian and I got on the phone and we decided the next step was to do a walkthrough,” Hull says. “Our house engineer, our sound engineer, our production engineer and myself all live outside of Nashville. Luckily, our stage manager, Randy Gardner, lives in Nashville so we set up an opportunity for him and Brian to go out to the Stardust. They took along an audio engineer from Sound Image, our sound company; and a representative from Premier Global, because they do primarily staging but they do lighting as well.
“From the beginning, Keith envisioned this as being just a flatbed trailer. Something easy to get in and out because, at the forefront of all of this was not only keeping the audience safe, but keeping the crew safe. For everybody involved, it was probably going to be less social distancing than anybody had experienced in the last two months, even at the grocery store,” Hull says.
The reps from Premier Global came up with the idea to pre-stack the PA system on the flatbed and strap it down so it can travel instead of assembled onsite. The lighting components were put in a box truck and shipped over to be pre-assembled so all that needed to be done day of show was plug in the amps and stand up the lighting towers, according to Hull.
Even the question of who would perform was fungible up until just before showtime. Urban originally planned to bring along just Jeff Linsenmaier, who pushes tracks and had also done some Instagram shows with Urban during the shutdown. Once the flatbed stage and PAs were assembled, the team realized there was room to add Nathan Barlowe, Urban’s utility player who handles guitar and keyboards, and still maintain appropriate distance.
Randy “Baja” Fletcher, Urban’s production manager, helped Hull with a game plan to keep staffing as narrow as possible – no more than two dozen – and did a walkthrough in the final 48 hours to ensure as much control as possible. 
“Everybody was excited just to be able to contribute and be working again. That was the neatest part of it for everyone, to actually be doing a show. Even the vendors were stoked,” Hull said. “Everybody was pitching in, doing what was needed. It was pretty cool to have somebody of Brian’s stature out there doing literally whatever it took.”
Hull admits that on top of pulling a concert production together on such short notice, and doing so while implementing distance and sanitation guidance, was “fascinating and kind of frustrating.” But the team came away with knowledge that can be applied to “alternative” live production during the time waiting for “normal” to return. 
They erected a 20- by 20-foot tent backstage for shelter, scheduled crew to be onsite as little as possible, set up tables that sat no more than three at a time, supplied disposable latex gloves and disinfectant pumps and came in pre-packed, Hull said. Keeping local crews and those who traveled separate was a consideration, too. There were takeaways for those considering drive-in tours, and Hull admits it’s not for everybody. 
Though potential amphitheater and stadium parking lot outings are reported to be under consideration by Live Nation, and smaller organizations have already announced similar efforts, feasibility may be a matter of scale. But it’s one concept being looked at very seriously by the company.
 “We’re all craving connectivity right now, and drive-ins present a great opportunity to reconnect artists and fans. We can get them going rather quickly once we get the green light from health experts and the local community, and we’re experimenting with this concept around the world,” Live Nation’s See says. 

At The Drive-IN
– At The Drive-In
Fans get ready at the Stardust Drive In, where the hardest part of pulling off the show was keeping it secret.
“Shutting down the industry was a pretty complicated process and getting started up is going to be the same when we finally get to that point,” Hull adds. “For somebody like Keith, we can’t really replay a 100-car event; it needs to be something larger to take care of whatever the demand would be. There are stadium parking lots all across the country that could accommodate thousands of cars. We can’t do that on a flatbed trailer. We’ve done a lot of spit-balling and talked to a lot of friends and peers. One of the things that came out is that we need to be more compartmentalized. You would get it so all the local work could be done beforehand, like a traveling steel crew on a stadium show, when you’re leapfrogging between locales.”
Getting people from one place to the next is another logistical concern because, as Hull puts it, “a tour bus is the definition of a rolling petri dish. Anything will blow through a tour bus pretty quickly, as anyone who has ever traveled on one knows.” But the Stardust show at least provided a live test for Hemphill Transport’s sanitation protocol. 
“The logistics of remaining safe and being able to put on a large-attendance show remain a challenge,” Hull admits. “Certainly one that is consuming a bit of time for all of us is how we keep our crews and our bands safe, and move them from point A to point B and ensure the same for the local crews.”
But Hull also comes away with silver linings to all the challenges.
“I have never in my life wanted so much to be wrong, thinking, ‘It will be gone by June 1!’ and it’s just not happening,” he says. “It’s very disheartening. I’ve been doing this for 47 years and been through a lot of crazy stuff in that period of time, and a lot of changes, but this is just unprecedented. There’s really nothing quite like it.” The key takeaway for Hull isn’t necessarily that Keith Urban got to play, or even that he played for a deserving and appreciative audience. 
“It’s that it can be done. It can be done. And whether or not it’s the Thursday night band from your favorite bar and grill, or Keith, or Beyoncé. It doesn’t matter because that’s what is so special about live entertainment. It’s people sharing a common passion together and  what’s been taken away from us by this crisis. Everybody getting to do it is the glue.  
“It was wild, because I had to experience, and various members of our team – Keith and Randy, Elizabeth from our management office – they’re all Face-Timing at different points of the day during setup and sound check. And I got really teary eyed, thinking, ‘Wow, we really pulled this off.’ 
“Hopefully we’ll be able to figure out what the next step is for us and move on from there. I’m lucky enough that I work around artists who are always trying to find a better connection. To be able to help facilitate that drive and desire is really great.”