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Merriweather Post Pavilion to host eclectic mix this season

MusicMusic IndustryGrateful Dead (music group)Concerts

For some, the first signs of spring are warmer days and cherry blossoms. For others, the season truly begins with the arrival of the new concert season at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Workers have been busy with spring cleaning in anticipation of the first show of the season, which happens on Saturday, April 28.

"There's been lots of cosmetic maintenance," says Audrey Schaefer, senior publicist with I.M.P., which operates the award-winning amphitheater.

The venue also has some upgrades. "We installed a new lighting system on stage," Schaefer adds. "It uses LED lights which makes it greener."

There have been numerous environmentally friendly improvements over the past years and other transformations as well.

"When we first took over, the food concessions were run by a very large national company that also supplied food to airports and it tasted like it," Schaefer says.

I.M.P. chose a local company to run the concessions and now works with Baltimore's Charm City Hospitality. Gone are the days when nachos and stale popcorn were your only options.

"We're really proud of our food selection," Schaefer says.

Fittingly, the Merriweather season kicks off with the Sweetlife Food and Music Festival, an event created by the owners of Washington-based restaurant group, Sweetgreen.

"Part of the DNA of their company is a love for music and they use it to help brand their organization and connect with customers," Schaefer says.

The inaugural Sweetlife Festival was held two years ago in the parking lot of Sweetgreen's Dupont Circle restaurant location.

"Last year the group made a pretty bold decision to hold the event at Merriweather," says Schaefer. "This year they are really doubling down by having two stages. There'll be a smaller stage with local and emerging acts and the mainstage has some really top names."

That list includes hip-hop artist, Kid Cudi, indie rock band The Shins and star DJ, Avicii. "He is the electronic music pinnacle," Schaefer says. He sells out enormous arenas all over the world."

The Sweetlife festival food component will focus on healthy, locally grown foods. Thirty area vendors and celebrity chefs like Jose Andreas will be on hand.

As for the rest of the season, here's a preview of what's in store.

Now in its fourth year, the M3 Rock Festival has emerged as one of the biggest hard rock and heavy metal celebrations in the country.

"It's really getting national acclaim because a lot of these bands don't necessarily tour but they come in for this," says Schaefer of the two-day event. "For fans, it's their birthday, Christmas and Fourth of July all wrapped into one."

Baltimore's own Kix lead the charge with the annual Kix-Off concert May 11 along with co-headliners, Night Ranger. The following day features a full slate of music including performances by Ratt, Queensryche and Quiet Riot. But why stop at just two days of headbanging heroics? On May 13, Rob Zombie and thrash metal pioneers Megadeth will team up for the Metal Lord's Day. Other hard rock concerts on the schedule include Def Leppard and Poison on July 10 and The Scorpions on July 12.

The Vans Warped tour

If your taste runs more skateboard chic than spandex, The Vans Warped tour may be right up your alley. Now in its 18th year, the event began as a skate punk/extreme sports festival. It has since grown into a perennial celebration of youth culture with a diverse line-up of cutting edge music from hip-hop to alternative rock.

On July 24, more than 60 bands will perform across three stages. This year's model includes pop-punk pranksters, All Time Low. Several years ago, the Baltimore area natives played on the tour's emerging artists stage. They've since released their major label debut, 2011's "Dirty Work." Other notable acts include post-hardcore outfit, Taking Back Sunday and ska-revivalists, Streetlight Manifesto.

Six-time Grammy award winners Lady Antebellum will please the country crowd when they bring their "Own the Night" tour to Merriweather May 20. The platinum selling trio is currently in heavy rotation on country music radio with their hit single, "Dancin' Away With my Heart."

The recipient of critical adoration for many years, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams broke through to a mainstream audience with her 2001 Americana masterwork, "Essence." Each subsequent release has edged a bit higher on the Billboard music charts. Dubbed "America's Best Songwriter" by Time magazine, Williams performs May 19 with Georgia's Drive-By Truckers. Atlanta sextet the Zac Brown Band will round out the venue's country music offerings May 31. Best known for their No. 1 hit "Chicken Fried," the band led the field of nominees for last year's Academy of Country Music Awards with nine nominations.

Two of the more buzzworthy acts in indie rock will raise Columbia's hip factor this season. "One of the emerging bands that are hot right now is Foster the People, Schaefer said. "We're really excited to have them on June 10."

Barely known until recently, the band first gained prominence on the internet when a self-produced video for their song "Pumped up Kicks" became a viral sensation. The trio was quickly signed to a major label and their debut CD 2011's "Torches," garnered two Grammy Award nominations.

The Black Keys ascension may have taken a bit longer, but they are arguably alternative rock's reigning favorites. The Ohio duo recently sold out Madison Square Garden and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. The Black Keys play May 18 and are touring behind their newest release "El Camino."

Not every concert at Merriweather this season will require a hipster badge. Who could be cooler than 69-year-old jazz great George Benson? Often called one of the greatest jazz guitarists, Benson is just one of the big names appearing at this year's annual Capital Jazz Fest. The three- day contemporary jazz, soul, and R&B showcase kicks off June 1. Other prominent performers include Anita Baker and Spyro Gyra.

If you're an urban music fan, you'll likely want to return to Merriweather August 4 for the Summer Spirit Festival. Soul songstress Erykah Badu, rapper Common and D.C.'s go-go music king Chuck Brown are among the artists slated to perform.

Anyone with a Deadhead sticker on their Cadillac will want to be at Merriweather July 8 for Further, featuring Grateful Dead alumni Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. Fans can expect their signature improvisational jams and more than a few selections from the Grateful Dead songbook.

One of the more anticipated tours of the summer touches down in Columbia June 15 when The Beach Boys come to town. After years of bitter acrimony, original members Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine join long-time members Bruce Johnston and David Marks to commemorate the legendary band's 50th anniversary. It will be the first time this lineup has performed together in more than two decades.

Pop music fans are also anticipating the return of one of their favorites and this time she'll have one heck of a backing band. On July 5, Sarah McLachlan performs in concert with The National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maryland natives O.A.R return to Merriweather August 10. Since their formation in 1996, the boyhood pals from Rockville have developed a distinctive blend of rock and reggae alongside heartfelt lyricism.

No less introspective and earnest is musician Jason Mraz. The Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter has come a long way since his coffeehouse beginnings. The pop-smith holds the record for the longest run on Billboard's Hot 100 with "I'm Yours," which remained on the chart for 76 weeks. Mraz brings his feel good pop to Merriweather Aug. 24.

It all adds up to an eventful concert season in Columbia and promoters promise there's more to come.

"We're not done yet, that's for sure," Schaefer says. "There's still more programming to be done, so you can expect plenty more shows will be added."

Sweetlife Food and Music Festival is Saturday, April 28. Gates open at noon. Tickets $75-$125 available at ticketfly.com. More info at http://www.merriweathermusic.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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