SOUNDS OF SUMMER Concert scene is booming this year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is there anything more optimistic than a booking agent in the spring?

You wouldn't think so from looking at the year's summer concert schedule. After two years of limited offerings and lackluster concert crowds, the summer of '93 is shaping up as big and busy, with a host of major acts heading out on tour.

Unlike last year, when the best the bookers could come up with were faded fogeys like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, this season's offerings include some of the biggest and hippest names in the business. Among those heading out are Aerosmith, Dr. Dre, Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel and the Grateful Dead, as well as the Lollapalooza '93.

So far, there's plenty for those on the business end -- particularly venue owners and concert promoters -- to be happy about. Already, tickets have sold out for shows by Van Halen, Jimmy Buffett, and Neil Diamond (although Diamond just added a second show to meet the demand). And though this area's Lollapalooza date won't be announced until Wednesday (WHFS-FM will have a live announcement at 9 p.m.), Lollapalooza tickets in other cities were snapped up in hours.

Why the big change? Some, like Jean Parker, general manager at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, see an increase in consumer confidence -- at least on the entertainment front. "As a whole, consumers are going to be a little bit more liberal with their dollars," she says, adding that even though the Pavilion booked fewer shows than usual last year, "Our average attendance was up dramatically."

Others, like concert promoter Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P. Productions and the 930 Club in Washington, think the difference is simply that bands, booking agents and promoters have learned from the mistakes of years past.

"One of the reasons it might be a better summer than the last few is the acts that stiffed for the last several years are not going out," he says. "They're finally being replaced by tours like the Spin Doctors and 10,000 Maniacs, and things like that will do well. The problem with previous summers was that you just had these mediocre acts going out and thinking the market was still there, and it's not. So they've been replaced by more contemporary, cooler shows.

"The dogs are finally dying out."

Changes everywhere

Regardless of how these promoters view the coming season, almost everyone is making changes. Perhaps the most pronounced are at Pier Six, which has responded to last year's disappointing sales with a near-complete managerial overhaul.

"We now use an outside booker for our attractions," says new general manager Brian Liddicoat. "The umbrella of the Baltimore Center for Performing Arts is now taking a more active interest in the Pier, giving us the support that's necessary to make sure that people understand that it's a viable performance center.

"So far, looking at the cross section of what's booked for the season, I think we've done a pretty good job."

Even so, optimism only goes so far in the music business. Thus, despite a general consensus that things are getting better, the more candid admit that it won't be totally smooth sailing this summer.

"There are still too many shows," says Hurwitz. "People still only have so much money. They're going to pick and choose."

Indeed they will, particularly given the amount of concert activity crowded into various portions of the season. For instance, there are more than 30 shows booked for the period between June 18 and 28, including dates by such heavy-hitters as Jimmy Buffett (June 18, 19 and 20 at Merriweather), Peter Gabriel (June 22 at the Capital Centre), and the Grateful Dead and Sting (June 25 and 26 at RFK Stadium).

Were each of these shows appealing to different audiences, this sort of congestion would be no problem. But in many cases, there are simultaneous shows hoping for the same crowd, as on June 23, when alternative rockers the Sundays play Shriver Hall the same time as the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum and Screaming Trees do their thing at Merriweather.

In short, having a good show booked doesn't guarantee an audience will attend, says Michael Jaworek of Chesapeake Concerts. "My feeling is that a lot of this is just optimism."

Packaging

Perhaps that's why packaging is such a big deal this year. This way, instead of relying on a single big name to pull in crowds, a promoter or venue has the advantage of several well-known names sharing the bill. Lollapalooza is generally recognized as the package approach's greatest triumph, but it works just as well with country and roots music as it does with alternative acts.

"This seems to be what the kids want to see," says Don Wehner, president of Upfront Promotions. "It's allowing new artists to get exposure where last year and the year before last, they couldn't."

"They're competing for people's dollar the way that any business should, by offering greater value for the money," agrees Hurwitz.

Package shows come in all shapes, styles and sizes. On the most basic level, they exist as three-fers, shows that try to triple their appeal by relying on three equals (or near-equals) instead of a single star. Thus, Poison is throwing its lot in with Damn Yankees and Firehouse (June 13 at Merriweather), Lynyrd Skynyrd is going with Bad Company and Drivin-N-Cryin' (June 16 at Merriweather), REO Speedwagon is joining Cheap Trick and .38 Special (June 30 at Merriweather), and Ricky Van Shelton teams with Cleve Francis and Joy White (July 1 at Merriweather).

Then there are the theme packages, which base their appeal as much on a specific concept as ordinary star-power. For instance, there's a guitar package that matches country picker Chet Atkins with jazzy new agers Tuck & Patti and idiosyncratic folkie Leo Kottke (June 4 at Wolftrap).

There are two Louisiana packages. First up is Wolftrap's "4th Annual Louisiana Swamp Romp," with Dr. John, the Iguanas, Wayne Toups and John Mooney (June 6); then, at Merriweather, there's "Festival New Orleans," an all-day affair bringing together the likes of Buckwheat Zydeco, the Radiators, Beausoleil, the subdudes, John Mooney, Evangeline, the Zion Harmonizers and the Young Olympia Brass Band (July 31 at Merriweather).

Plus, there's the Reggae Sunsplash package with Freddie McGregor, Majek Fashek and others (July 10 at Merriweather); the Wolftrap Preservation Jazz and Blues Festival, with Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis and many more (June 24, 25 and 26); the Rocky Gap Festival, with Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Marty Stuart, Dolly Parton and others (Aug. 6, 7 and 8); and a big band confab, featuring current versions of the Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Glenn Miller bands (Aug. 21 at Pier 6).

Lollapalooza

Still, in terms of ambition or box-office clout, none of these can quite compare to Lollapalooza '93.

In addition to the main stage, which will feature Primus, Alice In Chains, Arrested Development, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr,, Front 242 and Tool (Babes in Toyland is playing the first leg of the tour, but will have dropped off by the time the festival gets to this area), there will also be a second stage for lesser-known alternative acts like Mercury Rev, Unrest and Sebadoh (Cell and Mosquito are rumored to be booked for the D.C.-area show).

On top of all that, Lollapalooza '93 is also bringing along something called "The Village," a grouping of artistic and political booths that will offer anything from ethnic cuisine to animal rights info, and from adult puppet shows to handmade jewelry booths.

"It's going to be the most amazing ever," Hurwitz says confidently.

And there's still more to come this summer. Parker predicts that the Merriweather schedule will top 50 shows this season (so far, only 30 or so are on sale), while Liddicoat expects another 15 concerts to come to Pier Six.

Among the most noteworthy acts on the horizon are Aerosmith, which should play this area by late summer or early fall; Rod Stewart, whose all-acoustic tour should arrive about the same time; a rap package featuring Dr. Dre, the Geto Boys, Run-D.M.C. and Onyx, which should be at the Baltimore Arena in late July; the annual Budweiser Superfest R&B; package, which is expected at RFK on July 16; and an outdoor alternative show featuring the B. Surfers and Stone Temple Pilots, due sometime in August.

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