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Backstage Report: It’s a New Era for Merriweather

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We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play
—Lyrics from Jackson Browne’s
“The Load-Out.” From the Asylum album “Running on Empty.” Written by Jackson Browne and Bryan Garafalo.
Performed at Merriweather Post Pavilion Aug. 27, 1977

 

Most of the music fans who plan to be at Merriweather’s 50th Anniversary Concert on Saturday, July 15, which will feature Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, classic country icon Willie Nelson, singer-songwriters Grace Potter and Father John Misty, will recall Browne’s above lament from “The Load-Out.”

If they’ve reflected on Browne’s as-usual cerebral lyrics, they also have a good idea about the other side of show business: the grind with the fast food, the overnight bus trips, the hotels.

The separation.

And yes, the load-out. And the ensuing load-in.

The concerts are fun. But that ain’t the half of it.

Many of those fans have scads of memories of Merriweather and know why music industry publications, like Billboard and Rolling Stone, have lauded the venue on various occasions in recent years, citing its Walden-esque charm at what feels like the Oriole Park at Camden Yards of music.

But few of them ever saw the old, way-too-small backstage, which as independent promoter Seth Hurwitz of I.M.P. humorously noted in a recent interview with WTOP Radio: “That really got to be almost like a shantytown back there,” he said.

Speaking of making a musical memory, the old backstage area is now just that. With a $55 million price tag, its future has arrived — with an exclamation point.

New Out Back

The host of features that the new backstage offers to artists and their crews is extensive and can be comfortably mentioned aside the names of Marriott and Hilton.

One can begin with the headliner suite, which includes a private outdoor lounge with a 40-foot stone fireplace and two full restrooms; nine other full-size dressing rooms, with full baths; a large production office that accommodates 12 people, with ample storage; a 400-capacity multi-purpose room for after parties and a private meet-and-greet gazebo.

Then there’s a commercial-level laundry room, a full kitchen in addition to the catering services of London-based Eat to the Beat, a massage room and a concierge in case there are any questions.

And, by the way, there’s a Jacuzzi with a small swimming pool.
Hurwitz said that lots of jaws are dropping when the tour parties see the specatcle for the first time.

“They’ve truly never seen anything like it,” he said. “The best result is that they hang out there instead of on their buses, and that was the intent. I’ve had a lot of, ‘Wow … can we stay here next time? Seriously?’

For the sake of comparison, The Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park, which is located in Northern Virginia and often competes with Merriweather for shows, was built to host large-scale Broadway productions, as well as concerts. This summer, “The Little Mermaid” and the upcoming “Mamma Mia” are highlights on its schedule; the venue is also the summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra, so that means accommodating 90 musicians, plus their instruments.
That’s no problem, said Michelle Pendoley, spokesperson for the venue, who said Wolf Trap “can very comfortably house them in its 16 principal dressing rooms,” along with three chorus dressing rooms that each hold 50 people. All told, the backstage area can accommodate 200 people.

And amenities are “certainly part of how an artist experiences a venue,” she said.
“We’re incredibly artist-centric, and have catering and prep kitchen facilities in-house, as well as an Xbox, a custom-branded arcade console that plays all of the games from the ’80s and other accoutrements,” Pendoley said, “but what’s different about Wolf Trap is a private patio that backs up to a national park.”

Tour Hijinx?

Guitarist Cory Churko is a veteran music tour warrior, having played internationally while serving as music director for country legend Shania Twain and as guitarist for popster Kelly Clarkson. In recent years, he’s spent considerable time playing with Twain during her residencies in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace and the subsequent 2015 North American tour. While he has yet to see the new backstage at Merriweather, he’s impressed by the photos and is hoping for the opportunity experience the pavilion.

“Playing at Caesar’s was nice, because Shania had a full-on condo and every band member had their own dressing room,” Churko said, “but I’ve also hung out in plenty of hotel rooms, buses and trailers. I’ve never seen a hot tub and a pool behind the stage. Judging by the photos, Merriweather’s is the nicest backstage area I’ve seen.”

That may seem like a big statement, but Churko well knows the usual drill.
“We had an arcade-type basketball hoop at one stop on one of Kelly’s tours,” he said, trying to recall some kind of highlight at the usual venues, “but more often than not, we’re on the bus, binge watching TV, playing video games, answering email,” etc.

Churko and most of Clarkson’s band recently toured with Jordan Smith, the winner of season nine of NBC-TV’s “The Voice,” and the dates included a stop in Annapolis at Maryland Hall. While that day also involved some sightseeing, he added that he and his mates spent time “playing hockey with a plastic cup and coat hangers while sitting in rolling chairs backstage.”

For fans who wonder what’s happened to the tales of sex and drugs before the rock-and-roll segment of the day, Churko says that’s over with. “The drugs have been replaced with a juicer,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s pretty much the norm on tours these days.”

‘A Big Deal’

Scott Boorey is manager for the Steve Miller Band, which just returned to Merriweather for the first time in nine years. He and the band were similarly impressed with what awaited them on the early stop of its 30-plus city tour.
“I must say, after 35-plus years of managing, I have never seen an in-ground pool and spa in the back stage area before,” Boorey said. “Merriweather Post has stepped up the backstage environment 10-fold.”

As jaw-dropping as the new accommodations may be, the question of the deluxe creature comforts equating to more shows and more money for I.M.P. remains; but know that the company has built its reputation on offering a personal touch to artists and their organizations.

Gary Bongiovanni said it will. The CEO and editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a Fresno, Calif.-based company that provides various information services for the concert industry, said that comfort is a big consideration for touring acts.

“Most artists follow the money” and may opt to play a venue where they can charge more for, or sell more, tickets, “but this is a big deal,” Bongiovanni said. “I hear about hot tubs and Jacuzzis, but I don’t often hear about a pool being backstage. Merriweather also has the advantage of being close to the population centers, yet is nestled in a park-like atmosphere.

“Know that the booking agents go around to different shows and they want the road crews to be comfortable, too,” he said, “and the crews remember being at certain venues. Going to Merriweather has been a good experience that’s gotten better.

“And,” Bongiovanni said, “Seth built this backstage based on his personal experience. He knows what the road crews want.”

The Pay Off

With bookings at Merriweather for 2017 up about 25% from last year, is the new backstage the reason why?

“No, not at all,” said Hurwitz. “The [current schedule was] booked way before any word got out about [the updates]. I kind of dropped the ball last year, to be honest. You think you’re at a point where you can coast a bit, and then you are cruelly reminded that that day never comes. No coasting. Ever.”

So now that he’s back in gear and fighting with the region’s other venues for bookings, most notably Jiffy Lube Live, a larger shed that’s located in the outer reaches of Northern Virginia (which is owned by Live Nation, a corporation that Hurwitz has battled in court over booking practices), he’ll have even more buzz to sell as he approaches artists’ reps about playing the classic amphitheater.

And by the way, speaking of “The Load-Out” — when Jackson Browne’s current entourage rolls into Merriweather this month, they’ll be glad to see the new loading dock. It now features a 24-foot-wide by 12-foot-tall door, with six lighted bays and a working area that’s 30 feet wide and 75 feet long.