“This is like an Allman Brothers concert if the Allman Brothers didn’t show up,” Mike Birbiglia quipped to hundreds of people perched quietly in lawn chairs, sitting within crudely sketched 8’8″ cubes. It was a cool, humid September night. In the crowd, one could hear crickets. But unlike other standup shows, that wasn’t entirely inappropriate.
Birbiglia, Pete Davidson and John Mulaney were performing standup sets on a 13-acre site as part of a Twilight Concerts on the Farm series at South Farms, a family-owned cattle farm in the hills of northwestern Connecticut.
In the pre-COVID era, a small town one hour outside of Hartford (albeit one with a surprisingly extensive Wikipedia page) would not be considered a draw for A-list standups. Yet amid a faltering live event industry, South Farms has served as an unlikely magnet for high-profile acts like Bill Burr, Dinosaur Jr., Dark Star Orchestra, and Warren Haynes.
Though the project had been in development for years, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that it got into full swing, with the venue being constructed in just two and a half weeks before acts started performing in mid-August, says Keith Mahler, president of Premier Concerts/Manic Presents. Owner Ben Paletsky “is the Max Yazgur of his generation,” Mahler tells Rolling Stone. “He caused this thing to happen outdoors at South Farms in the middle of this pandemic because live music was needed.”
Despite its far-flung location, South Farms has been attracting high-end talent due to the relative dearth of outdoor venues during the pandemic. “Normally, if we want to see John Mulaney, we have to go to New York or Boston, but this is 30 minutes from my house, which is crazy,” says Charlie Altemus, 25, a coil factory worker from Bristol, CT. “It’s nice to see Connecticut being something other than a highway between New York and Boston.”
The unorthodox setting of the event was fodder for much of the comics’ material that night. “There’s a butterfly,” observed Pete Davidson, in between jokes about masturbating to dead porn stars, Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and how Adam Sandler would pronounce the name Lizzo. “There’s something I’ve never said during a comedy set before.” Unsurprisingly, the unstable current climate served as a prime source of material for the comics, particularly Mulaney, who deadpanned impressions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and mused about how Charles Manson would have viewed the pandemic era: “I’m so sad he didn’t live to see this because all he wanted was for society to fall apart.”
South Farms is part of a larger trend of socially distanced concerts taking place in creative venues. In July, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (who performed at South Farms over the weekend) took the stage at the Monmouth Racetrack for a drive-in concert, while singer/songwriter Sam Fender recently performed at the UK’s first socially distanced show for a crowd of 2,500 people.
The transition to the “new normal” of live performance has not been without speed bumps. A Hamptons concert featuring the Chainsmokers made headlines this summer when footage surfaced of attendees standing elbow-to-elbow, prompting an enraged tweet from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and threats of a Department of Health investigation.
Altemus, who cares for his grandmother, was concerned about whether social distancing protocols would be enforced at the show. Indeed, though most attendees appeared to be safely ensconced within their 8’8″ grids when the show actually started, social distancing protocols were not at all enforced on the line to get in the show. Hundreds of attendees, though masked, were stacked atop each other, prompting some level of anxiety among attendees. (Mahler said the line was backed up due to the need to perform temperature checks.)
Yet the sheer enthusiasm generated by emerging from the cocoon of quarantine overpowered the sense of unease among many attendees. Altemus echoed many in the crowd about being enthusiastic at the prospect of attending one of the first standup sets in the pandemic era, comparing it to Dave Chappelle’s historic set in June. “I’ll be saying in a few years, ‘I went to a concert during a pandemic, and there was all this weird stuff we had to do beforehand,’” he says.
“I feel like everybody’s here to laugh and feel some sense of normalcy,” adds Sydney Shugdinis, 24, of Simsbury, CT. “Everyone’s desperate to get something out of this … there’s a sense of mutual discontent. Everyone’s like, life sucks, let’s laugh.”