Friday, September 26, 2008

FLORIDA TIMES-UNION: St. Augustine Ampitheatre a "Major Player"

The Florida Times-Union

June 20, 2008

A major player

The Times-Union

ST. AUGUSTINE - Saturday night, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and teen dream Jesse McCartney will sing here. Wednesday, it's Modest Mouse with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

A few weeks ago, Trace Adkins was doing that whole Badonkadonk thing. ZZ Top was here. So were George Thorogood, 3 Doors Down, Little Richard and Corey Smith. Coming up are the old country of the Old Crow Medicine Show, the new rock of Slightly Stoopid and Pepper and old rock from Boston.

Coming out of nowhere, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre has become a major player in the Northeast Florida concert scene.

It seems like every week another e-mail comes in announcing another couple of shows. (This week, it was word of Black Crowes and O.A.R. coming.)

Ryan Dettra, the general manager, said he plans to have one or two concerts every weekend this fall. It's important that they're on the weekend, he said, because many of customers are coming from out of town.

Only about one-third of those coming to shows so far have been from St. Augustine, one-third from Jacksonville and a third from elsewhere.

So far, Dettra said, ZZ Top and 3 Doors Down are the only sellouts, but Modest Mouse is coming close.

The amphitheater, on Anastasia Island near the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, has a couple of things going for it.

It is an outdoor amphitheater, with the green and open-air ambience that goes along with it. St. Johns County isn't the first to think that might be a good idea.

In the late '90s, then-mayor John Delaney pushed for the city of Jacksonville to build a 7,000-seat amphitheater in Metropolitan Park. But after running into organized opposition from residents across the river who objected to the noise and from the Rev. Homer Lindsay, then pastor at First Baptist Church, who objected to rock concerts in general, Delaney dropped the idea.

Plans were announced to build other amphitheaters in the area, but nothing came of those.

Meanwhile, St. Johns County came up with $9 million to completely renovate its old structure on A1A.

And then there's the size. The amphitheater holds about 4,000 when the area right in front of the stage is open for standing and dancing, 3,850 when the chairs are there.

In Jacksonville, the only thing close to that is the Moran Theater in the Times-Union Center of the Performing Arts. But its 3,000 seats are used far more for plays than for concerts. When it does have rock or pop concerts, it tends to lean toward older and tamer acts like Lyle Lovett or Sheryl Crow. There is no moshing in the Moran.

Nan Coyle, marketing manager for SMG, which runs the city's six venues, said the Moran is open to all kinds of events, but that the FCCJ Artist Series takes most of the dates for its annual slate, which tends not to include, for example, Slight Stoopid.

The Florida Theatre hold 1,900 and has a wider variety of concerts.

"We'll do virtually anything," said Erik Hart, general manager of the Florida Theatre. "But I find a lot of those bands don't want to play a seated theater. They want an open floor, so they end up out at Freebird."

He said he was looking at booking some of the bands that are playing at the amphitheater this summer, including Old Crow Medicine Show, which played the theater last year.

"G. Love and Special Sauce is a band that probably should be playing here. I think it's a show that's better suited for a concert hall," Hart said. "But I think there's enough out there for everybody."

Still, the amphitheater has had an impact.

"We felt it when the T-U Center opened a few years ago," Hart said. "And the Wilson Center [on the FCCJ South Campus]. Promoters are curious."

John Valentino and his company, AEG Live, brought ZZ Top and Adkins to the amphitheater and are bringing Boston in August. He brought ZZ Top to the Florida Theatre in March 2007 which, despite $100 tickets, sold out in a few days.

With the larger capacity of the amphitheater, tickets were $38 to $73 and also sold out.

He's bringing Tom Waits to the Moran next month, but said he probably wouldn't have brought ZZ Top, Adkins or Boston to the area this summer were it not for the amphitheater.

"Each venue offers something," Valentine said. "It's a good sized venue, and it's intimate for its size. Anywhere where an artist feels like he really connects with the audience is a good play. And that's been our experience. It's set up well, we've had good ticket sales and good crowd reaction.",

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The setup

The amphitheater has been completely rebuilt from the old place that used to host Cross and Sword every summer. There are three sections. The first, called the pit, is a flat area right in front of the stage.

Whether that's open for standing (capacity 600) or full of chairs (capacity 400) is up to the performer. The next section, which holds 2,427 seats, slopes quickly up from the stage. That and the pit are covered by a big white tent similar to the one at Jacksonville's Metropolitan Park.

The third section of seats is above that and not under the tent. Some of the seats there are obstructed by three big poles that hold up the tent, but Dettra said those seats are only sold if all other seats are gone. The farthest seat is 172 feet from the stage, and much of that is up.

There are several walkways that circle the amphitheater, where you can still hear the music, but not see the stage. Two grassy areas off to the side of the upper section have drink booths and picnic tables, but those areas are mainly used by smokers.

Concessions There are two permanent concession stands, as well as a number of drink stands scattered around, depending on how big the crowd is.

The concession stands are pretty limited at this point: Sodas ($2), hot dogs ($3), etc. Drink prices: Beer, $5 for 16 ounces, $7 for 24 ounces. Wine, $7 for 9 ounces, $12 for 16 ounces. Mixed drinks, $7 for 10 ounces, $12 for 16 ounces.

Parking The lot next to the amphitheater only holds 350 cars and fills up quickly. There's room for another 150 at the Elks Lodge next door and another lot about a third of mile north that holds 800 cars, with a free shuttle. All lots are $5. Cars pulling into those lots can back traffic up on A1A.

UPCOMING SHOWS The St. Augustine Amphitheatre will host two concerts this week: Jordin Sparks and Jesse McCartney on Saturday and Modest Mouse with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Wednesday.

Jordin Sparks Jordin Sparks got the most coveted of all jump-starts on her musical career. Last year, only 17, she became the youngest winner of American Idol. It's been up and down since then.

Her self-titled debut album - upbeat and safe, more R&B than anything she did on the show - came out in November. Though it got generally positive reviews and debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard album chart, it was the lowest-selling debut of any of the Idol winners.

When No Air was released as a single from the CD in February, it went to No. 3 on Billboard's singles chart. But soon after that, when Sparks was scheduled to open for Alicia Keys, she injured her vocal chords and had to cancel some shows. But now she's back on the road and on the stage.

Jesse McCartney Jesse McCartney was already a veteran actor when he started appearing on the TV soap All My Children at the age of 11. A year only he joined the boy band Dream Street for a couple of years.

A solo music career and a stint as a bad-boy surfer on the TV series Summerland soon followed. Then came a few more movies, including the voice of Theodore in a couple of Chipmunks movies.

He performed at the St. Johns Town Center during its 2005 grand opening. He's 21 now and Departure, his third solo album, came out last month. Less tweeny-bopper than his earlier work, the single Leavin' has been a big hit in the dance clubs. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets ($29.50 to $49.50) are available through Ticketmaster.

Modest Mouse Indie rockers Modest Mouse have been around for 15 years, producing smarter than average rock that, refreshingly, doesn't sound like anyone else.

The band, led by Isaac Brock even stumbled onto a few hits. It's last album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, debuted at No. 1 last year. New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band has recorded a few tracks with Modest Mouse as well as toured with them from time to time.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Tickets ($29) are available through Ticketmaster.

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