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Two pavilions vie for fans, but how do they rate? Battle of the Bandstands

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Cellar Door president Dave Williams decided his company deserved to have an outdoor amphitheater of its own in the Washington area, he had fairly specific goals in mind.

After years of losing out on summer business to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Williams decided he "wanted to have an opportunity to compete." So Cellar Door bought some land near Manassas, Va., and built the 25,000-seat Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge. Williams wasn't satisfied with merely making his venue bigger than the 15,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion; he was determined to make it better.

"My place is much more user-friendly," he boasted earlier this month, before the Nissan Pavilion opened. "I've got more parking. I've got more seats under the roof. It's just more comfortable. I'm new, I'm spiffy, I've got great sound, I've got great video, the ambience is much better.

"People that come to my place aren't going to go back to Merriweather if they have a choice."

Is the Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge really that much better than Merriweather? Obviously, a comparison was in order, so this reporter spent last weekend seeing the band Boston play both venues.

Although some of the differences, such as parking, restrooms and concessions, are clearly extra-musical, what matters most is how a band sounds and looks onstage. Fortunately, the two Boston shows were virtually identical, right down to Brad Delp's between-songs patter, and that made it easy to determine where each venue's strengths lay.

The Trip

Even if both pavilions were equal in every other way, Merriweather would always have one advantage over Stone Ridge for Baltimore audiences: location.

Columbia is considerably closer to Baltimore than the Nissan Pavilion's home in Bristow, Va. In fact, from downtown Baltimore, it takes at least three times as long to drive to Stone Ridge as it does to drive to Merriweather, meaning you may spend more time in your car than you will at the concert. And, at the risk of seeming parochial, the local traffic is much easier to bear than that on the Capital Beltway and I-66 in Virginia.

For purposes of comparison, both trips began at The Sun's offices at Calvert and Centre streets, and despite posted speeds of 55 mph, most highway traffic was moving at speeds of 60 mph and higher.

To Merriweather: After looping around Monument to St. Paul Street, I took Conaway to I-95 and got off at Route 175, which I followed into downtown Columbia. Apart from some unexpected foot traffic near the lake -- spillover from the Columbia Festival of the Arts -- the trip was largely uneventful. Total elapsed time: 27 minutes.

To the Nissan Pavilion: After taking the same route to I-95, I settled in for the long haul down to I-495, the Capital Beltway. Because the exit for 66 West off I-495 is almost exactly on the opposite side of the Beltway from the junction with I-95, you go in either direction. Heading north toward Rockville is probably five to 10 minutes faster, but I opted for the southern route, since the twilight glare can be brutal as you pass Connecticut Avenue on the northern route.

There are two problems with the southern route, though. First, there's almost always a slowdown at the Wilson Bridge; second, some drivers on the Virginia side of I-495 seem to believe that the passing lane is not on the left but on the far right, meaning you may have to dodge cars doing 75 or 80 mph to take the right-hand exit for I-66 West. (Fortunately, there's also an exit on the left.)

Traffic moves a little slower on 66, in large part because there's construction all the way from I-495 to the turn-off for Route 29 at Exit 43B. The congestion wasn't that bad on my trip, but then again, it was a Sunday; expect weekday traffic to be much heavier. There are plenty of signs for the Nissan Pavilion, and it was easy to get from Route 29 onto Wellington Road, and then into the Nissan Pavilion parking lot. Total elapsed time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Hint: Remember on your way back that the turnoff from Route 29 to I-66 East -- your route back to Baltimore -- is blink-and-you-miss-it-close to Wellington Road. Be alert and ready to turn right!

Parking

At Merriweather: Even with three entrances (from South Entrance Road, Little Patuxent Parkway and Broken Land Parkway), getting in and out of the parking lot is such slow going that there are still some patrons who would rather park off the property and walk. Not the safest way to get around, nor is it any cheaper, since a $2.50 parking charge is added to the cost of each ticket, regardless of where you park or how many people are piled into your vehicle. Handicapped parking is available.

At Nissan: Although there's plenty of parking here, the roads outside the Pavilion grounds slow the way in and out. But Nissan gets points for its extra-large handicapped parking area -- particularly since it's paved and wheelchair-friendly. Parking is $5 per vehicle.

Seating and views

At Merriweather: In the pavilion itself, Merriweather is pleasant and relatively intimate. There are decent views even from the back, though the sight-lines in the loge seats -- the sections farthest to the right and left -- sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Handicapped seating is at the back of the pavilion. There are 5,270 covered seats, and about 9,000 lawn tickets are available.

Because the pavilion roof isn't all that high, those on the lawn have a somewhat constricted view of the stage; moreover, without video screens, it's sometimes hard to see who, exactly, is doing what.

Tickets for the Boston show ranged from $35 for "gold circle" seating to $25 for the rest of the pavilion to $20 for the lawn. The pavilion was sold out, the lawn only partly filled.

At Nissan: With its wider basin and much higher roof, the Nissan Pavilion can hold 15,000 under its roof, but it doesn't look that much bigger than Merriweather. The views are good enough even on the sides that the video screens seem superfluous in the front sections, and the higher stage -- six feet off the floor to Merriweather's four -- ensures good sightlines all the way back. Handicapped seating is midway back in the pavilion, just in front of the corporate boxes.

Things are just as nice on the lawn, where 10,000 tickets are available. Not only does the ground curve up at essentially the same grade as inside the pavilion, but you can rent lawn chairs for $5. It also seems to drain more easily; unlike at Merriweather, there was no mud around the edges. And with two 30-by-40-foot video screens flanking the stage, those on the lawn don't have to guess which guitarist is taking the solo.

Unlike in Merriweather, smoking is permitted in the Nissan Pavilion.

There are some problems. Bristow is about 100 miles west of Baltimore, so sundown comes a little later there -- it wasn't really dark until 9 p.m. Sunday -- and that diminished the video screens' effectiveness in the early parts of the show.

With the pavilion less than two-thirds full, the folks on the lawn seemed almost in exile, cut off from the rest of the crowd by an expanse of empty seats. Also, it's quite a climb to the top of the lawn; you may want to spend some time on the Stairmaster before heading out. And though those in the front row at Merriweather were able to reach up and slap five with Boston's Delp and Fran Cosmo, the fans at Nissan were kept at bay by a fence and 4-foot security barrier.

Tickets were $34.75 for front pavilion, $24.75 for rear pavilion, and $14.75 for the lawn.

The Sound

At Merriweather: Volume can be a concern, but mainly for those who live near the pavilion. For those in the audience, the Boston show was loud, crisp and clear, regardless of whether you were in front, at the side or on the lawn.

At Nissan: Sound quality was the real surprise. Although I sat on the right side for both shows, the sound at Merriweather was clearer and fuller, particularly in the lower frequencies. At Nissan, the bass was often indistinct or inaudible, and there was a lack of mid-range definition that blurred the vocals early on (though it cleared up as the show progressed, which suggests the fault was with the band's sound man). Worst of all was the sound during Tom Scholz's pipe organ solo, in which some pedal tones were disproportionately loud and others oscillated annoyingly.

Fortunately, the folks at Cellar Door are aware of the problem and are working on it. Almost every new venue needs some acoustical fine-tuning after it has been opened, and the architects who designed the Nissan Pavilion are already planning adjustments.

"Where you were sitting, above the 'golden circle,' is one of the few areas where there are parallel planes," said Mallory Warner, one of the pavilion's designers. What that means is that the sound bounces

around a little more than it should there. Warner says plans are in the works to hang diffusers from that part of the ceiling to break up the sound waves and get rid of that unwanted resonance.

For the time being, though, you may want to avoid pipe organ solos.

The Amenities

Even though people say they go to shows for the music, the extras -- everything from beverage choice to restroom location -- are often what determine the difference between a good night out and a bad one.

At Merriweather: Where the older pavilion most clearly shows its 28 years is in its restrooms. There are 103 stalls -- 55 for women, 48 for men. The largest concentration of toilets is at the back of the grounds, which is fine for the folks on the lawn but generally leaves the pavilion people crowding into the smaller restrooms nearer their seats. Moreover, the facilities are less than opulent, suggesting summer camp more than anything else.

On the food front, Merriweather has stands all around the perimeter, offering the usual assortment of beverages -- mostly beer and soda -- as well as nachos, pizza, hot dogs and the like. Perhaps the most unusual sight was a small stand from Record & Tape Traders, offering CDs for sale.

At Nissan: After spending more than an hour and a half in the car, odds are you'll arrive at the Nissan pavilion either hungry or in need of relief.

Both are in ample supply. With 300 stalls (in a 60-40 ladies'-room-to-men's room ratio) on hand, there weren't any potty lines to be seen at the Boston show. Needless to say, everything inside was clean and new.

As for food, the choices were almost stupefying. Not only were there burgers and dogs, nachos, pretzels and "Cella Doro Pizza," but there were deli offerings as well, including turkey subs, "Virginia stacked ham," and shish-kebob. Drinks included beer, wine, sodas, bottled water, and frozen pina coladas and margaritas (not the non-alcoholic kind).

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Location: Columbia

Drive time (from downtown): 27 minutes

Seating capacity: 15,000

Covered seating: 5,270

Sight-lines: Pleasant and intimate, though loge seats leave a bit to be desired

Lawn view: Sometimes hard to see what's happening onstage

Acoustics: Loud, crisp and clear

Video screens: None

Restrooms: 103 stalls

Concessions: Mostly beer and soda with nachos, pizza and hot dogs

Smoking: Not permitted

Cost to park: $2.50 (included in ticket)

Nissan Pavilion

Location: Bristow, Va.

Drive time (from downtown): 1 hour, 45 minutes

Seating capacity: 25,000

Covered seating: 15,000

Sight-lines: Good all the way back

Lawn view: As nice as that from covered seating

Acoustics: Bass often indistinct or inaudible; lack of mid-range definition

Video screens: Two 30-by-40-foot screens

Rest rooms: 300 stalls

Concessions: The usual options plus turkey subs, "Virginia stacked ham," and shish-kebob; typical drinks plus bottled water, frozen pina coladas and margaritas

Smoking: Permitted

Cost to park: $5

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