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Alltel's March of music

Big shows come rapid-fire this spring.

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R. KELLY: At Alltel March 17.
  • R. KELLY: At Alltel March 17.

Michael Marion, the general manager at Alltel Arena, was close to having a big problem in April.

“If I scheduled one more event for March, I think my staff was going to up and quit,” he said, sounding almost serious.

March was set up to be an amazing month for the nearly 7-year-old arena. “This will be the biggest single month we’ve ever had in this building,” Marion said. “It’s really just the way the tours fell and when they were coming through our area. We had a big March in ’04, including having a Jermain Taylor fight, but it was nothing like this.”

Alltel’s version of March Madness started with the sold-out show by the Rolling Stones on March 9, but the arena crew began working overtime with the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament and the High School Basketball Championships on the first two weekends of the month.

Now, it really gets juicy.

Kid Rock brings his naughty act back to Alltel for the fourth time on Friday, March 17. In three previous visits, the Detroit barroom rocker has never drawn fewer than 10,000 people. In essence, he’s to Little Rock in this decade what Lynyrd Skynyrd was in the 1990s, overflowing Riverfest Amphitheatre with crazed fans, some donning the Confederate Stars and Bars.

Naughty might also describe R. Kelly, the R&B star who takes the Alltel stage on Saturday, March 18.

Grunge-rockers Nine Inch Nails will play for Central Arkansas’s earring-baring fans for the first time on Tuesday, March 21.

Cirque du Soleil, the famed Canadian show that blends circus with big-time Broadway-style production, brings its first touring show created for an arena to Alltel on March 22-23.

Rocking country boys Rascal Flatts will headline a show with country pretty boys Blake Shelton and Keith Anderson on March 24.

Then, cross-dressing actor Tyler Perry brings his “Madea Goes to Jail” act, the inspiration for the new movie “Madea’s Family Reunion,” to the arena for two shows March 28-29.

Then, Marion’s staff can breathe again — but only for a short time. Nothing’s confirmed yet, but it appears that country crooner Brad Paisley and country beauty Sara Evans will appear in concert April 28. The show is listed on Pollstar, the concert-following website and magazine, but no contract’s been signed. Marion says he’s also looking for a rock show for April or early May to blend with the widely diverse shows already scheduled.

Disney on Ice returns with another Pixar cartoon on skates: “The Incredibles,” coming April 19-25.

“It won’t be a drought after March is over,” Marion said. “We’re looking at rock shows, that’s what we’re short on and what we’re looking for real hard.”

The rush of March shows has not overloaded the pocketbooks of concertgoers, Marion says. The high-dollar Stones show went on sale last summer, he notes, and the cost of such shows as Kid Rock and R. Kelly is $35. “The proof is in the pudding and all of the shows are doing as well as expected, if not better. The market has stepped up and shown it can support several diverse acts. … It’s not like these are all high-dollar shows that will take everybody’s money. There’s variety and they are inexpensive shows.”

Outdoor concerts in Central Arkansas, meanwhile, are still in the planning stages. Dennis Stone’s All Access concert company has several dates on hold with the city to rent Riverfest Amphitheatre, starting with a succession of alternate Thursdays starting in May. Butch Stone, Dennis Stone’s father, confirmed that a festival series is a possibility but wouldn’t name the investor looking to promote the shows. The Stones’ All Access would provide the ancillary security and amenities for the concert-goers, such as food and refreshments.

All Access and Blake Rutherford, a local lawyer who re-started the Movies in the Park series last year, will feature up to 14 nights of free movies this year, beginning March 22 with “Fletch.” Rutherford says the total number of movies depends on how much money can be raised to support the nights and keep them free.

On the music front, Butch Stone said he expected an announcement in conjunction with an out-of-state music promoter about major concerts for later in the summer. Traditionally, the Riverfest Amphitheatre concert season started after Riverfest on Memorial Day weekend, but in the past two years the venue has been mostly left dark, with the exception of Juneteenth, a hip-hop and R&B weekend sponsored by Power-92 and run by “Broadway” Joe Booker.

The amphitheater had an exclusive contract with Butch Stone for several years before opening the venue up to all comers two years ago. But instead of more shows by several promoters, the amphitheater has barely had any.

Bryan Day, Little Rock’s assistant city manager, continues to oversee the amphitheater, and says he still believes in the open arrangement, and that better marketing will help.

“We’re working with the [Convention and Visitors Bureau] to come up with a plan to market the place to national acts,” he said. “But they’re not knocking the door down.”

He added, “Our goal is to have 15 to 20 shows a year there. We all remember the glory years and we’d like to return to that, but the business is hard, the tickets are expensive now and the artists have big demands. When we had the exclusive arrangement, that’s all one person focused on, but we don’t have that right now.”

Day did note that the amphitheater does about 200 events a year, ranging from weddings and receptions to class reunions.

Some physical improvements to the amphitheater entrance are underway and expected to be finished by Riverfest. Riverfest officials have already announced some of their bigger acts coming for May 26-28, including Dwight Yoakam, Kool and the Gang, Pat Green, the Doobie Brothers and the Neville Brothers.

Other improvements that might make the venue competitive with major amphitheaters around the country await funding, which Day says he’s trying to get.

“The park, and the riverfront, is a high priority,” he said. “Quality of life is as important as anything in the community. Do we have a lot of money set aside or earmarked for the amphitheater? No. But are we looking for ways to creatively make it work? Yes.”

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