When For King & Country’s “A Drummer Boy Drive-In: The Christmas Tour” reached El Paso on Nov. 20, 2020, the Texas city was enduring its most brutal COVID surge.
“We were playing a parking lot outside an arena right across the road from the Salvation Army offices,” the Christian rock group’s Joel Smallbone tells Pollstar. “This was the point in the pandemic where the National Guard was bringing in mobile morgues because there was so much loss.”
The El Paso gig, which came a week into For King & Country’s Christmas drive-in tour and took place on the second day of Pollstar’s Q1 period, also held personal significance for Smallbone: His grandparents-in-law live in the city and, up to that point, hadn’t left their house since March.
“I remember crying on stage, because there was this moment where my grandmother-in-law had been out of the house for the first time, and I could see her just so elated to be out, because she was in the safety of her own car,” Smallbone recalls. “Every time I’d look in her direction, she would profusely wave at me to say, ‘I’m here.’”
Past the audience, Smallbone could see first responders outside the Salvation Army. The juxtaposition – of the pandemic’s wrath and the moving Christmas tunes For King & Country sang that night – created a moment of “great hope in the midst of the reality of loss,” Smallbone says.
Last November and December, For King & Country hit the road to support their first Christmas album, October 2020’s A Drummer Boy Christmas, and comfort fans in Texas, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida after 2020’s devastation. Across 17 shows – all drive-ins save for one date at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, which also livestreamed via Mandolin – For King & Country grossed $1.29 million, securing the No. 2 ranking on Pollstar’s Q1 worldwide ticket sales chart. (The band began the tour a week prior with five California shows that grossed an additional $441,599; these concerts fell outside Pollstar’s Q1 period.)
By the Christmas run, For King & Country were drive-in touring pros. In late spring, a collaborator told Smallbone about European drive-in concerts – “I was flabbergasted,” Smallbone says of the “genius” format – and the band played drive-in shows in 16 states between July and October, channeling what Smallbone describes as its “go big or go home” attitude.
“We crafted this ability of putting a show on the road in two trucks that we could set up really anywhere, from stadium parking lots to fields to fairgrounds,” says Smallbone’s brother Josh, who oversees For King & Country’s day-to-day activities as part of Smallbone Management. “It was pretty amazing to see everybody come together and figure out how to make this work.” (Another Smallbone brother, Luke, fronts the band alongside Joel.)
“You literally pulled off the freeway, in the middle of nowhere, and there’s just this field … an alfalfa field, or something,” says Joel, reflecting on some of the makeshift venues For King & Country played. “There’s nothing there in the morning. Then, by dusk, there’s a stage and LED and 500, 600 cars and spray-painted parking spots. Those were the days that were like, ‘This is a logistical nightmare turned into this wonderful dream of a scenario.’”
For King & Country followed strict COVID safety rules because, as Josh says, “If someone gets sick, you risk everything for everybody.” The results were worth it. The band erected giant LED walls to reach the audience’s most distant vehicles and used cherry pickers to lead carols by candlelight high above the crowds. (Luke is “awfully frightened of heights, so this was a massive sacrifice for him,” Joel says with a brotherly laugh.)
And the gigs served the profound purpose, Joel says, of facilitating collective Christmas reverie when the pandemic had rendered traditional holiday celebrations largely impossible.
While For King & Country is already eyeing a return to arenas when safe to do so – and released a concert film documenting a 2019 tour on March 25 – the band will long cherish its 2020 drive-in shows.
“Something had been stolen from you that you never thought could be stolen” when traditional concerts went offline, Smallbone says. “To have a taste of [live music] again was this small dose of euphoria for people and for us.”
The tour was “one of the most complicated tours we have ever done … but one of the most rewarding, undoubtedly, if not the most rewarding tour we’ve ever been a part of.”