Shell beck­ons with fall con­certs

> Over­ton Park land­mark to host 25 events this sea­son

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan

Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Over­ton Park’s Le­vitt Shell marks the end of its first full year of op­er­a­tion with the kick-off this week of its fall sea­son of free con­certs.

The Shell’s sec­ond sea­son of­fi­cially starts Thurs­day with a per­for­mance by the Jewish rock mu­sic group Tear Down the Walls. But Shell ac­tiv­i­ties ac­tu­ally be­gin Satur­day with or­ga­niz­ers’ first kick-off party. Then on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the group the Mys­ti­cal Arts of Ti­bet be­gins an elab­o­rate, five-day spir­i­tual rit­ual lead­ing up to their per­for­mance next Sun­day.

In all, the up­com­ing sea­son will fea­ture 25 con­certs run­ning through Oct. 4. Show days are Thurs­day-Sun­day with each night ded­i­cated to a sin­gle mu­si­cal theme: Thurs­day is Amer­i­cana night. Fri­day is R&B, gospel, and blues per­form­ers. Satur­day fea­tures two con­certs, an af­ter­noon kids show and a Latina-themed evening per­for­mance. Sun­day is World Rhythms night, fea­tur­ing a wide va­ri­ety of eth­nic mu­sic tra­di­tions. All shows are free.

“I think this is the best sea­son yet,” says Barry Lichter­man, pres­i­dent of Friends of the Le­vitt Shell, the non­profit group that man­ages the Shell.

Orig­i­nally built in 1936, the Shell — the site over the years of many sym­phony and opera per­for­mances, the­ater pro­duc­tions, and big-name con­certs, in­clud­ing Elvis Pres­ley’s first paid gig — was saved from de­mo­li­tion ef­forts in 2004 by the Mor­timer Le­vitt Foun­da­tion, a Los An­ge­les-based non­profit de­voted to re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing out­door con­cert venues around the coun­try and in­stalling free mu­sic pro­grams in them.

Last fall, the newly re­named Le­vitt Shell at Over­ton Park opened to the pub­lic fol­low­ing a $1 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion paid for by the foun­da­tion and the city. Anne Pitts, the Shell’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor who man­ages the day-to - day op­er­a­tions, says that last fall the venue had an es­ti­mated at­ten­dance of about 21,000 (it seats about 2,500). For the spring sea­son, that fig­ure jumped to about 35,000.

“One of the things that is hap­pen­ing is that peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­ily com­ing out to see ‘that band,’” says Pitts, who is par­tic­u­larly proud of this sea­son’s world mu­sic of­fer­ings, which in­cludes the all-star Hawai­ian en­sem­ble Ohana Maui on Sept. 13 and Celtic rock­ers the Prodi­gals on Sept 27.

“They may not even know who’s play­ing. They just know that it’s go­ing to be good and their friends are go­ing to be there and it’s go­ing to be a great night of sit­ting on the lawn lis­ten­ing to mu­sic.”

To help en­sure more suc­cess­ful sea­sons to come, Friends of the Le­vitt Shell is hold­ing its first fundraiser event Satur­day, a kick-off party fea­tur­ing live mu­sic by Hill Coun­try Re­vue, Jimbo Mathus, Blind Mis­sis­sippi Mor­ris & Brad Webb, and Delta Joe San­ders. Ad­mis­sion is $10. Food and drink ven­dors — in­clud­ing al­co­hol, which is pro­hib­ited at the shell’s free con­certs — cost ex­tra.

Friends of the Le­vitt Shell man­ages its mis­sion of pro­vid­ing up to 50 free con­certs a year on a bud­get of roughly $415,000, says Pitts. About $100,000 of that comes from the Mor­timer Le­vitt Foun­da­tion, part of a five-year com­mit­ment to get the group on its feet. The rest comes from lo­cal foun­da­tion grants, cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships, and in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions. The kick-off par­ties, which will be held be­fore the Shell’s spring and fall sea­sons, are part of an ef­fort to ramp up the non­profit’s fundrais­ing ap­pa­ra­tus.

“One of the things we have com­mit­ted to do­ing is hav­ing fund-rais­ers,” says Lichter­man. “And we thought what bet­ter to do that than to tap into some of our lo­cal and re­gional en­ter­tain­ment and have a good time as well.”

While Satur­day’s party looks to the Shell’s fu­ture, the other ad­di­tion to the sched­ule this sea­son is a de­lib­er­ate ac­knowl­edg­ment of the venue’s past. The ap­pear­ance Thurs­day of Tear Down the Walls, a pro­duc­tion de­signed by best-sell­ing Jewish rock mu­si­cian Rick Recht to in­spire so­cial com­mit­ment, is the de­but of what or­ga­niz­ers say will be an an­nual Raoul Wal­len­berg

Memo­rial Con­cert.

Wal­len­berg, a Swedish diplo­mat work­ing in Hun­gary in World War II, is cred­ited with sav­ing tens of thou­sands of Jews from the Nazis. The Shell at Over­ton Park was re­named in his honor in 1982. In his spirit, Lichter­man says the an­nual con­cert in his name will be ded­i­cated to artists with an un­com­mon com­mit­ment to so­cial causes.

“To me this is ex­tremely im­por­tant,” says Lichter­man. “This gives us an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate not only our her­itage but this won­der­ful per­son. … We want to make sure ev­ery­body in Mem­phis cel­e­brates the time it was the Raoul Wal­len­berg Shell.

That sense of higher pur­pose also in­hab­its the other spe­cial Shell-re­lated events. Wed­nes­day at 6 p.m., the Mys­ti­cal Arts of Ti­bet, a tra­di­tional mu­sic group made up of 10 Bud­dhist monks, holds an open­ing cer­e­mony for the construction of a man­dala, a large, in­tri­cate di­a­gram of spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance made with col­ored sand. The monks will work on the man­dala daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the grounds of the Mem­phis Col­lege of Arts ad­ja­cent to the Shell, and spec­ta­tors are in­vited to watch. On Sun­day, the day of their per­for­mance at the Shell, the monks will de­stroy the man­dala as part of a 1 p.m. cer­e­mony.

“It’s go­ing to be one of those things that we so rarely get to see in Mem­phis,” says Pitts, who em­pha­sizes the event as a chance to rec­og­nize the up­com­ing visit of the Dali Llama to ac­cept the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum’s Free­dom Award on Sept. 23. “It’s a great pre­lude to that and re­ally rep­re­sent what the Le­vitt Shell is all about.”

The fall sea­son kick-off party at Over­ton Park’s Le­vitt Shell fea­tures Hill Coun­try Re­vue. There is a $10 ad­mis­sion fee since it’s a fundrais­ing event for the Shell.

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