Getting Pier Six back in the act


No sooner did word get out that the Cordish Co., which revitalized the Power Plant, might also manage and operate the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, then there was talk of "bigger and better acts" being booked into the 18-year-old Inner Harbor venue.

It's not surprising that local music fans believe the pier could be booking better-known bands than it has been. Last summer, for instance, the Merriweather Post Pavilion brought in Lilith Fair, the Backstreet Boys, Pearl Jam and Phish, while the Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge had the Spice Girls, Dave Matthews Band, Shania Twain and Ozzfest.

At Pier Six, meanwhile, there was Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers and a package featuring aging teen idols Peter Noone, Bobby Sherman and Davy Jones. It was a pretty hot schedule - for 1975. Too bad the calendar read "1998."

With Cordish in the picture, things would change. Under the Cordish proposal - which is still under negotiation - Pier Six would be booked by Metropolitan Entertainment, a New Jersey-based company (headed by industry veteran John Scher) that books such prestigious Manhattan venues as Irving Plaza and the Hammerstein Ballroom.

A powerhouse booker like that would have no trouble bringing in big acts, right?

Well, maybe. Although Metropolitan would probably shift the bookings at Pier Six away from the oldies, there's no way the venue could ever compete with Merriweather or Nissan for superstars. The biggest names like to play to the biggest crowds; with a capacity of 4,338 seats, Pier Six is not at the same level as Merriweather (15,274) or Nissan (25,000).

At the same time, Pier Six doesn't have to be the area's also-ran amphitheater. Although last season's schedule was heavy on geezer acts, it did include some big-name R&B; shows (Mary J. Blige, Brian McKnight), as well as swing-revival hepcats Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and "Ally McBeal" songstress Vonda Sheppard.

Moreover, the pier has also played host to an impressive array of up-and-coming stars over the years, including Barenaked Ladies, Trisha Yearwood and Shawn Colvin.

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion (which currently manages Pier Six), said that he would have liked to have had more stars-on-the-rise at the pavilion, but the realities of booking the venue often got in the way.

Because Pier Six has been dependent upon corporate sponsorship, much of its schedule had to be put into place well before its annual June opening. "A lot of the cutting-edge bands, we couldn't get them because we had to book in advance," he said.

Further, because of its location, Gilmore had to be careful about the kinds of performances booked into the pier. "The pier sits in the middle of a public park," he points out, and sometimes passersby can hear what's going on.

Consequently, the city made every effort to avoid booking profane or indecent acts. In other words, no Marilyn Manson or Def Comedy Jam. "If you're on a promenade or having dinner at Victor's, you don't want to be assaulted by profanity," said Gilmore.

So before getting our hopes too high about what new management might bring to the pier, perhaps we ought to think about what, exactly, the pier should be doing for Baltimore.

From the Cordish Co.'s perspective, the answer is obvious: Bring more business to the Inner Harbor.

"David Cordish told us that he's not interested in doing this just to be a nice guy," says Gilmore. "When we have concerts at the pier, he sees a huge increase in business at the Power Plant."

Music fans, on the other hand, want more than just a summer's evening by the water. For them, dinner out or a walk on the promenade should be just fringe benefits to seeing a show at the pier. It should be the music, more than anything, that gets the crowds out.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions that would help make Pier Six a true summer concert contender:

Fewer Oldies - Older acts are a no-risk proposition for promoters. addition to having built-in name recognition, they appeal directly to the older, less-active concert-goers who traditionally make up a big chunk of the summer amphitheater audience.

Trouble is, having too many oldies on the schedule gives the impression that your venue is out of touch, and that makes it harder to attract younger listeners. Mention Washington's 9:30 Club, and people think "cutting-edge," because it books the likes of Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos. Do we really want the name "Pier Six" to conjure images of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Styx?

Package Shows - What do Lilith Fair, Ozzfest, Smokin' Grooves and the Warped Tour have in common? They're all package shows, and they all did terrific business at stadiums and large amphitheaters last summer.

There's no reason why smaller packages couldn't do the same for Pier Six. Even though a club-level act like Sean Lennon or Pavement couldn't fill the Pavilion on its own, a group of six similarly-sized acts would.

Dance Music - Baltimore has one of the strongest audiences for electronic dance music - everything from house and techno to trance and drum 'n' bass - on the East Coast. Why not take advantage of that by booking acts like Chemical Brothers, Grooverider or the Orb?

Jam Bands and Jazz - The success of acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Phish are no accident. There's an avid and growing audience for adventurous, improvisational music, and plenty of up-and-coming talent in the field, from Leftover Salmon and Ominous Seapods to Jazz Is Dead and Medeski, Martin and Wood. With its open-air atmosphere and abundant lawn seating, Pier Six seems perfect for such shows.

Free Shows - Because it's getting harder for record companies to break in new bands, some labels have begun to work with local radio stations to offer free, "introductory" shows by new acts. Why couldn't Pier Six play host to such events? Not only would that bring people downtown, but it might broaden the city's musical tastes.

Pub date: 12/20/98

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