Rolling Stone

Amphitheat­ers Rise Again


A LITTLE MORE than a decade ago, outdoor concert amphitheat­ers seemed like dying relics. New arenas had popped up all over the country, offering fans and artists convenienc­es that were impossible to replicate at drab concrete amphitheat­ers (or “sheds”). “Once an act is dead,” went a familiar industry mantra, “they play the shed.”

But a quick glimpse at the 2021 concert calendar shows that amphitheat­ers are the center of the action, with places likes Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York, DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston, Michigan, and the Gorge in the state of Washington booked solid with acts such as Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Dead & Company, and the Jonas Brothers. The fact that outdoor venues are less risky in the age of Covid is a happy coincidenc­e: The current amphitheat­er boom is the culminatio­n of a long effort to bring these venues back to prominence.

The story of Columbus, Ohio, is a typical one. In

1994, a consortium of promoters turned a giant plot of rural land about 20 minutes outside of town into the 20,000-seat Polaris Amphitheat­er. That first summer, it had a jammed schedule, but two arenas opened up in downtown over the next few years, sucking away most of the bookings. In 2007, after a final season in which it managed to hold just seven concerts, Polaris was razed to the ground. “It’s a bummer,” says Scott Stienecker, who co-founded the venue. “People send me photos of what it looks like now and I don’t even want to see them.”

By the time the bulldozers were descending on Polaris, Stienecker had already moved much of his attention to what is now Express Live!, in the heart of downtown Columbus. Not only is it a quarter the size of Polaris, meaning nobody needs to use binoculars to see the stage, it also has a novel setup that utilizes an outdoor stage on one end of the complex and an indoor one on the other, enabling it to hold events 12 months out of the year. Most important, the smaller size allows Express Live! to book a wide range of midlevel touring acts like Modest Mouse, Bleachers, and Old Crow Medicine Show, leaving bigger draws like Elton John and Pearl

Jam to the nearby arenas. “There’s thousands of bands that grow to a certain level, but never hit arenas,” says Stienecker. “They are perfect for us.”

Meanwhile, megapromot­ers Live Nation and AEG have both been buying up older amphitheat­ers across the U.S. and routing big tours through them — in part because they get a bigger slice of revenue from concession­s and parking. “The only problem I’m having now is finding open dates for shows,” says AEG’s Rick Mueller. “But let’s put that under the heading of ‘good problems

to have.’ ”

 ??  ?? The Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York
The Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York

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