While Little Rock's outdoor summer concert season lineup is paltry for a number of reasons - the Parks Department's revised renting setup at Riverfest Amphitheatre being a large hurdle for promoters unfamiliar with this region -summer tours and venues seem to be suffering all over the United States.
The cancellation of Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza tour sent shockwaves through the rock industry last week. Farrell, probably the last guy you'd expect to see in tears at a press conference, got a little sniffly in talking about the failure, blamed on bad ticket sales at all the tour stops. The lineup wouldn't have drawn much in secondary markets like Little Rock, but it still figured to sell in the large cities with strong rock followings such as Seattle or Chicago, and, of course, New York.
Chicago's major outdoor venue, the Tweeter Center, has had five summer shows canceled. Britney Spears blamed a knee injury for shutting down her recent tour, but the fact is ticket sales were poor all over, particularly for her European swing. Chicago still has several other top shows scheduled that are selling decently, according to Pollstar, including Sting and Annie Lennox tour (a good seller nationally, though the closest we'll get to it is Nashville on Sept. 6).
The Dave Matthews Band, after successive summers of big shows, has seen ticket sales wane a little, even though Matthews routinely keeps prices down.
But most tickets to the major shows in major markets have reached the gouging level. When Clear Channel bought up an array of outdoor pavilions around the country and refigured them into "sheds" with covered reserved seating, the company also took to charging mega-bucks for the mega-stars. That policy has come back to bite the big dog in this summer of plus-$2 gasoline and other economic uncertainties.
Little Rock doesn't have to worry about the mega-stars appearing outdoors here; they aren't going to. Riverfest Amphitheatre, which wasn't designed with rock concerts in mind anyway, doesn't offer enough staging or the room for all the 18-wheelers that accompany the big shows. Promotion companies working this market, such as Beaver in New Orleans or California-based AEG, shy from outdoor shows. Look at Memphis; years ago the 5,600-seat Mud Island Amphitheater was THE place to be and summers were booked solid; now, little plays there. Outdoor venues have to seat as many as indoor arenas to make a major concert stop work.
As for Riverfest Amphitheatre, it would take millions to upgrade it into a venue along the lines of the Sandstone in Bonner Springs, Kan. (outside Kansas City), or the Smirnoff in Dallas. And still, the big acts might not come. Plus, it's obvious with what's happened in other markets that lining up with Clear Channel to upgrade and operate the venue wouldn't guarantee a concert schedule or any success - not that Clear Channel doesn't know that about this market anyway.
While the strength of sales for indoor shows at Alltel Arena is apparent the first weekend tickets are available, the outdoor concert crowd in recent seasons here has been a late-buying group, waiting almost until the show day to spike attendance figures. Even then, only a couple of shows in the past several years topped 10,000, which would be low for the mega-stars in the big markets.
Groups that appeal to younger fans, such as 3 Doors Down coming July 27 with Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, are a safer buy for this amphitheater. Widespread Panic is another, a group that steadily gained in support here each of the past four years.
But, while July will be a slow month in music throughout Central Arkansas, August heats up with an array of shows, all indoors at Alltel Arena. Strangely, in a summer that has been relatively mild, the best acts and fans here and everywhere are still going for the air conditioning.
I had forgotten just how funny Leo Kottke can be. Sure, you want to see him (and see him up close in such a venue as Wildwood Park's Lucy Cabe Festival Theater) play his 6- and 12-string acoustic guitar, and he'll grace about a third of them with lyrics and his deep, almost George Jones-like voice.
But Saturday, in Wildwood's closing festival event of the summer, Kottke had the nearly fullhouse of the theater laughing the whole show with his kooky, tangental-style of conversation.
He didn't say a word for the first two high-spirited, acoustic warmup songs of the set. Then, the first thing out of his mouth was, "I saw a guy in my hotel today who looked like Stalin. I've been thinking about Stalin a lot lately and there he was." I realize that doesn't read as funny as it sounded; you had to be there. I could rattle off a dozen other Kottke-isms, but you had to hear him tell them. You also have to be there, watching him figure the frets, slip a slide in a couple of times, stop in midsong and tell a story. It was unforgettable.