It was midday on a Friday at The Bend, gnats swarming a 20-acre plot of grass knoll flanked by marsh and the Ashley River.
The Charleston Music Hall extended crew — one that includes 10 stagehands from an equipment-rental company from Greenwood, nine temporary stake-drivers and a portable toilet delivery driver — had been on-site since 8 a.m.
Bug spray cannisters were strewn about, and Charles Carmody swatted a swarm of no-see-ums from his face.
"This is different," said Zach Bechtel, one of a team of four stake-drivers, as he hauled a square-shaped PVC pipe contraption over to his right.
The measuring device, used to gauge the proper distance between stakes he then hammered into the soil, is one purchase Carmody had no idea he'd ever be making for the Music Hall.
It's one of the many items needed to host a successful outdoor concert in the age of COVID-19, a pivot the Music Hall director made last fall after the 965-seat downtown music venue had been closed for half a year.
In early October, the first set of outdoor concerts, dubbed the "Around the Bend" series, took place. The lineup featured local acts like Susto and Shovels & Rope, and nine of the 11 shows sold out.
"The sheer number of people that were willing to come out here and give us a chance based on the reputation we’ve built downtown, it felt very rewarding to have such success during such unknown times," the Music Hall's operations director, Nicholas McDonald, said.
This year, the series is back with 11 shows set through early June, including The Indigo Girls, Fitz and the Tantrums, Old Crow Medicine Show and Yacht Rock Revue.
So what does it take to move a concert from indoors at the Charleston Music Hall to outdoors at The Bend?
Well, during a global pandemic, it takes 1,224 wooden stakes from Home Depot to make 306 socially distanced pods along 17 rows. It takes 9,180 feet of Uline rope to section off those pods, a semitruck that converts into a 24-by-20 foot stage decked out with lights and PAs, 16 portable toilets, five field light towers and two video panels.
It takes 12 to 14 hours to set all of that up, and then a long night to tear it all down — a repeat process throughout the series.
On show nights, it also takes 20 security guards, 17 ushers, at least five bartenders, four box officers and a couple of portable toilet attendants equipped with sanitizer spray.
Before artist fees, it takes $30,000.
“What’s funny is I think there’s a perception that we’re like rolling in money, and I mean, we’re making a little bit of money, we’re staying relevant, we’re giving artists work; it's good, but long-term this is not a sustainable model," said Carmody.
While he can host around 1,200 people at The Bend in four-person squares that cost between $120 and $400 each, Carmody could be selling individual tickets in the already-equipped Music Hall building.
He doesn't expect to open back to full capacity from the Hall's current limit of 280 guests until July or August. But when that shift does happen, Carmody expects the shows at The Bend as we know them now will cease to exist.
Compared to the simple steps of “turn on AC unit, unlock door" at the downtown venue, the setup at The Bend is "taking like 100 times more effort," said Carmody.
"It's like a circus or something," he said of the logistics.
McDonald, who used to work at the Music Farm and has a history operating outdoor festivals like the Carolina Country Music Festival in Myrtle Beach, first began configuring the infrastructure after a walk-through of the grounds last summer.
Unlike the usual festivals he planned, he had to check off a few new boxes: enforcing social distancing, creating a contactless box office and eliminating touch points.
"It’s kind of like the final exam, if you will, because you really have to take everything that you’ve learned inside and regurgitate it and re-create it out here," McDonald said. "The devil’s in the details.”
For the first shows, the stage was smaller, the parking was a little less organized, and outside food and drinks were the only options.
For this iteration of the series, the crew has things down pat.
New this year is a bar. Guests can order beer or bottles of wine from their square on their phones. Then, bartenders deliver those drinks in a custom cooler bag. Pre-orders can also be made.
“The reward here is having the ability to come here and try something new and do something that we deemed as safe and also having the support that we had in the middle of a pandemic," McDonald said.
Andy Syorka of Custom Audio & Lighting, the group that sets up the stage and sound for the "Around the Bend" series, lost 80 percent of its targeted concerts in 2020. The Charleston Music Hall and The Woodlands were among his Lowcountry customers that literally kept the lights on.
"Last year was our worst year," he said. "And I'm 55 now and have been doing this since I was 16 from the back of my car."
For Syorka, who used to set up sound systems for Hootie & the Blowfish, Cravin Melon and other South Carolina 1990s favorites, COVID-19 has been a major upset to his business. He's cautiously optimistic more festivals will return this summer now that the COVID-19 vaccine is readily available.
As a sea of spaced-out concertgoers munched on picnic table snacks, pulled out 25-ounce Bud Light tallboys from their custom cooler bags and waved neon glowsticks while the sun set, Syorka's wishes seemed to be validated.
Ranky Tanky played live music, Charlton Singleton's trumpet blasting and Quiana Parler's powerhouse vocals radiating over the marsh. People laughed and clapped and danced in their squares.
For a hopeful moment, things seemed normal again.