But people didn’t care. A barrage of car horns rang out across the parking lot at Wisconsin State Fair Park — a rousing demand for an encore.
The band obliged. The lights came on to the sound of a snapping snare drum and driving guitar, the intro for the group’s beloved cover of “Little Drummer Boy.” But just as the song was about to kick into high gear, the power went out.
A few minutes passed, and many cars began to leave. Then one of the brothers got on the megaphone again, and said they were going to do “Drummer Boy” acoustic and unplugged.
Some stragglers — probably between 75 and 200 people in total — abandoned their cars and gathered closely around the stage to better hear the music, and began singing along with the band.
In normal times, this would have been a thrilling, triumphant moment. Based on the huge smiles I saw, several people clearly felt that it was.
But the reason I could see those smiles is because several people were not wearing masks.
And the reason this was a drive-in concert in the first place — the reason there haven’t been traditional concerts in much of the world for six months — is to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, a deadly disease that has infected more than 6 million and killed nearly 200,000 in the United States.
Understandably, For King & Country did not want to let people down, and I suspect they didn’t intend for their gesture of goodwill to lead their fans to gather so closely, and sing so closely, together.
Earlier in the night, Joel Smallbone asked fans to keep their masks on whenever they left their designated space.
But if you’re going to play a song unplugged, in a parking lot where sound clearly can’t travel far, of course people are going to draw near. To me, that unnecessary risk — even if it was just a few minutes at the end of an otherwise uplifting night — tarnished everything that came before it.
What it had been was the single biggest concert the Milwaukee area had seen since The Lumineers played Fiserv Forum on March 11, the night before the touring industry shut down.
There have been other drive-in concerts in the area these last six months, largely with local acts, and a few national artists, like a solo acoustic set with country star Lee Brice.
But this show was a full-on spectacle, with streamers blasting off for “Fix My Eyes” and confetti raining down for “joy.,” with dramatic lights and cinematic video displays.
The context of the coronavirus crisis gave these songs about hope and love and empathy even greater conviction, from “Together,” the released-in-the-pandemic anthem with Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin (both making video cameos); to “Control,” which Joel Smallbone prefaced talking about the destabilizing conditions of the pandemic.
Both brothers offered rousing speeches that matched the message of the music Saturday. The most moving came from Joel Smallbone, who recalled his recent U.S. citizenship ceremony. (The brothers, based in Nashville, were born in Australia.)
“The room was electric with excitement and pride,” he said. “The judge gave us this charge. He said, ‘Bring your ideas, bring your culture, bring your religion, bring your art, bring your food … bring your technology, because this great United States of America is built on this idea of diversity and different cultures and coming together to make something beautiful.’ “
He added: “I charge us tonight find someone who looks different from you, who acts different from you, who votes different from you … , who thinks different from you, and love them my friend. In a time of social separation, in a time of political division, in a time of racial isolation, I believe that it’s more important than ever that we fight with all that is in us to come together.”
That’s a powerful sentiment. And I deeply believe that music, and concerts, are the greatest forces we have to attain such unity.
But experiencing live music, as we traditionally have, is a dangerous health hazard. During this pandemic, concerts can and should only take place where everyone will enjoy the music a safe distance from strangers — under all circumstances — until it’s finally safe for us to be closer together again.