Lemonade Park is making it possible to see live music right now

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Photo by Zach Bauman

Of all of the industries that has been affected by COVID, the live music industry is one that has been almost incomparably crushed. Essentially all national tours have been canceled, and while a few local venues have pieced together a smattering of small local shows, due to the inherent nature of the events even these have felt unwise. A concert usually means that groups are gathering in what basically are sweaty, crowded bars, and singers are projecting their voices (and the dreaded droplets) towards the audience. People drink and start losing inhibitions that would otherwise help them remember to keep their masks on and to keep distance. Bathrooms are inevitably a breeding ground for gross at the best of times.

Lemonade Park represents what might just be an answer to the dismal prospect of live music being out of our lives for the forseeable future. Organized by Wes Gartner and Jill Myers (Voltaire, the Golden Ox, and Moxie Catering) along with Steve Tulipana (the Record Bar), Lemonade Park is located in a large outdoor space in Kansas City’s West Bottoms, within eyesight of Kemper Arena. Outfitted with astroturf, string lights, and picnic tables, Lemonade Park has been set up to promote a summer concert atmosphere. But it hits the safety marks with a very limited capacity despite its large space, low limits on how many people can sit at each of the well-spaced tables and benches, a mask policy, hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, and a no-contact option for food and drink orders.

“The idea just came out of sitting in the backyard,” says Gartner. “I was thinking about how we could move everything outside? [Voltaire] already had this parking lot, which is owned by Bill Haw Jr., So I talked to him and then called Steve, ’cause I thought, ‘well, what else—what other people are needing to do this right now?”

“All tours have canceled—the stuff we depend on since we moved downtown,” says Tulipana, referring to scheduling at the Record Bar.  “And we pushed all local shows back further and further. I mean, nobody really wants to be traveling like you do in a band situation. You’re stuck in a van for hours. If someone picks something up and everybody’s going to get it and then you have to try to figure out how to get medical care wherever you are. It’s hard in a normal time.”

Lem Park Portrait

From left: Steve Tulipana, Wes Gartner, and Jill Myers. Photo by April Fleming

Gartner, his business partner and friend Jill Myers, and Tulipana all started talking to friends about Gartner’s idea. Quickly, they had assembled an enthusiastic group of contractors, stage builders, and even an architect to help them design and construct the space. It looks like something that took much longer than a few weeks to assemble. Lemonade Park’s stage features a massive vintage flatbed truck (on loan from a friend), and built onto the flatbed is a professionally-wired stage that Tulipana jokes is “better than what we have at the Record Bar.” A series of picnic tables and benches—all spaced about 15 feet apart from one another, fan out from the stage. Several “VIP” tables nearest the stage, have a maximum capacity of six people apiece. Beyond the tables is an open space at which people can sit in their own camping chairs. Tulipana says that in a normal circumstance, the 12,000-square-foot space (a little smaller than the footprint of a hockey rink) would have a capacity of about 1,000. Lemonade Park is limited to 100.

The team at Lemonade Park is incorporating a variety of measures to keep guests safe – as well as its staff and the musicians, no less importantly. Even though the space is fully outdoors, masks are required unless you are seated. Hand sanitizer stations and handwashing stations are abundant. Porta potties are sanitized every hour. And no-contact ordering from Voltaire’s menu is available: just pull up Voltaire’s take-out menu on your phone, place your order for food and/or drinks, and the bagged order is brought out to a table for no-contact pickup (orders are delivered directly to VIP tables). A small walk-up bar is also available, and customers are encouraged to utilize social distancing measures and are only permitted to pay with debit or credit cards.

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Photo by Zach Bauman

Lemonade Park has booked out weekend shows throughout the rest of the summer, including appearances from Stephonne, Katy Guillen and the Drive, the MGDs, Grand Marquis, and more. Local musicians who have placed the space have embraced both the opportunity to get out in front of a crowd, as well as the space itself. Tulipana and Gartner are toying with the idea of having DJs come into the space, and even showing movies some nights.

Musicians who have played the venue rave about it. Jeremiah Gonzales, who played Lemonade Park last weekend with his band, Redder Moon, calls it an oasis: “They did everything right, from the sound system on stage and out front, to safe and comfortable seating. Music lovers and musicians, thirst no more!”

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Photo by Zach Bauman

As for the concert experience itself, I can only speak for my time at one show, but I’m a nervy person about COVID, and Lemonade Park does *feel* safe–as safe as anything out of the house can, and is comparable perhaps to going to a drive-in. It did feel more comfortable than most trips to the grocery store—people respect the mask requirement, it in no way feels crowded, there really is a good amount of space between tables, and the outdoor environment ensures good airflow. It seems to be about as good as we can do in an increasingly terrible situation.

Lemonade Park is a big experiment for Gartner, Myers, and Tulipana, and it is uncertain how long it will exist as a venue—whether this is for one weird summer, or if Lemonde Park has a future beyond 2020. For now, the three partners all are trying to just keep their businesses alive, provide opportunities for musicians, and to keep paying the employees they do have. They also all acknowledge that they want to maintain a sense of community while doing everything they can to create an atmosphere that keeps people safe.

Says Tulipana, “I think it’s just like, it’s bit of a labor of love and a bit of trying to maintain some sanity. It’s normalcy.”

Tickets to shows at Lemonade Park range from $15-$140, ranging from bring-your-own-chair General Admission seating to $140 for a VIP table for 6. Tickets and calendar are available via lemonadeparkkc.com or Lemonade Park’s Facebook page

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Photo by Zach Bauman

Categories: Culture, Music