Intimate venues mark Prince, Sade tours


You say you've had it with lousy sightlines, tin-can sound, brutish bouncers and seats so high you've thought about slapping on an oxygen mask? Well, so have some of your favorite concert performers.

While it may be premature to announce the outright death of stadium and arena rock, the days of herding music fans into cavernous sports complexes are dwindling.

For big stars who have clout with promoters, and tour at least semi-regularly, "booking down" is this year's buzz phrase.

* Prince's first U.S. tour in nearly five years will visit theaters and small auditoriums. His tour began Monday with a two-night stand at the 4,084-seat Sunrise Musical Theatre, west of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Other theaters include The Fox in Atlanta, The Orpheum in Boston and Radio City Music Hall in New York. (He will play the Patriot Center Monday and Tuesday and the Warner Theater Wednesday. All shows are sold out.)

* When singer-songwriter Sade announced her new tour -- also her first after a long hiatus -- theaters were her priority even though shecan sell upward of 3,000 tickets an hour. Promoters say that tickets to her shows sold so fast they could likely present her for six nights.

(She plays to sold-out audiences at DAR Constitution Hall on March 26 and 27.)

* Among the first superstars to ignore promoters' ongoing demands to play in larger and larger venues, Sting scaled back into theaters at the height of his solo popularity during the late 1980s. He has been there ever since, mixing more profitable visits to larger arenas when his schedule does not permit a multiple-night stand in one city.

These and other performers such as Van Halen, George Michael, Keith Richards and Alice In Chains are among several who have tired of the industry's extravaganza mentality, the lasers and pyrotechnics that dominated the business through the '80s. They want the emphasis back on their music.

Some performers have always felt this way. Billy Joel, for example, took on six consecutive nights at the Miami Arena in 1990 (accounting for more than 96,000 tickets) rather than play one or two nights in an outdoor stadium. His stripped-down shows (no scenery, no gimmicks, just music) were more work and paid him less money than he would have earned outdoors, but there was no changing his mind. He repeated the multi-night pattern in most cities on that tour.

Assuming a performer is healthy, can handle the rigors of consecutive shows and doesn't mind the up-close scrutiny from fans, the newest measure of status is to scale down into venues that are under one's perceived drawing power. Hence Eric Clapton's recent arena run in lieu of stadiums, and Van Halen's March 3 gig (also a video shoot) at L.A.'s tiny Whiskey-a-Go-Go nightclub.

"It's very in," Florida-based promoter Jack Boyle said of the new less-is-more trend. "Performers are loving it."

In fact, Prince has been doing just that for years with out-of-nowhere one-nighters at his own Minneapolis and L.A. clubs, The Glam Slam, and other clubs such as Roseland in New York and Le Loft on Miami's trendy South Beach.

"Prince has always preferred those shows," said keyboard player Tommy Barbarella, a member of Prince's band New Power Generation. "He's always been a musician first, and his fans appreciate that."

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