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VOL. 8 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 13, 2015

Stones Rock Music City

Once considered a ‘secondary’ concert market, Nashville’s Rolling Stones gig is major league

TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger correspondent

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Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed our name. Well, hell, Mick, if it’s puzzling you, it’s Nashville. Music City USA.

We’re the national media’s flavor of the day – the “It city,” which has gone from being a secondary concert market – remember The Beatles played Memphis, not Nashville – to one of the country’s prime touring destinations.

For proof, all you have to do is go to LP Field Wednesday, June 17, and be sucked in by the almost irresistible force of The Rolling Stones. Yes, they are old. They’ve heard all the “Strolling Bones” jokes and constantly have to be reminded that this could, indeed, be the last time.

Sure, they are older, but the Rolling Stones seem ageless. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts rock on. 

(Claude Gassian)

“Once they are gone, it’s the end of a certain kind of music. A certain type of Chuck Berry chugalug rock ’n ’roll,” says Nashville rock pioneer Andy McLenon, 60, who with Kay Clary and the late Jack Emerson rocked Music City at Praxis International, an independent label that evolved into an artist development company and swam upstream to hatch the Hank Williams-meets-Joey Ramone cowpunk of Jason & The Scorchers in a steel-guitar town.

“There’s a certain kind of noise that only the Rolling Stones can make together,” says McLenon, who with his partners nurtured all flavors of rock ’n ’roll, from the Georgia Satellites to Webb Wilder.

Long-suffering Nashville rock fans often, at least until the last 10 years or so, had to drive down to Atlanta or up to Chicago to see real, big-stage rock ‘n’ roll. Nashville was considered a “secondary market.”

A prime illustration of the growth of the city as a market can be had by tracing the history of the Stones and Nashville.

No, they didn’t avoid Nashville like The Beatles did during their 1966 “More Popular Than Jesus” tour. The Stones have been here all along, playing in venues that increased in size and magnitude. Fact is their 1965 tour stopped Nov. 16 at Municipal Auditorium, where they performed songs from their then-hit album “Out of Our Heads.’’ Perhaps the best-known song on that album is a sweet, little ditty called “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And they were pushing their follow-up Single, “Get Off Of My Cloud,” which appears on their “December’s Children (And Everybody’s)’’ album.

Three bucks – $2.82 ticket price and 18 cent tax – got you a balcony seat.

Contrast that with the almost $3,000 sticker price on some of the prime seats this time around.

They again played Municipal June 29, 1972 – right after the release of “Exile on Main Street’’ – and they served up “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Sweet Virginia” and “Street Fighting Man,” among a decades’ worth of classics.

“The Bridges to Babylon” tour hit Vanderbilt Stadium Oct. 26, 1997. A highlight for aging Boomer fans was the fact that the concert started in the afternoon, a concession to nearby neighbors who argued against the concert basically because it would disturb a good night’s sleep.

Sheryl Crow, who refers to herself as “The Rolling Stones’ little sister,” started things off at about 4 p.m. and Mick and the boys took the stage at an hour when, according to their dissolute image (which is quite contrary to Jagger’s rigid workout regimen), they normally would be getting up. I had a press pass for that one, so don’t know the ticket price.

Their 40th anniversary “Forty Licks” tour played what is now Bridgestone Arena Nov. 25, 2002, and the prime-seat ticket birthday-gifted me by pals Peter Cooper and Brad Schmitt was $300.

The Stones are one of the few live acts that would attempt to fill LP Field. Others have included the likes of One Direction, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, ‘NSYNC, and Steve McNair with Eddie George.

Now that Nashville has become more of a hub for touring music, with venues including the new Ascend Amphitheater, Bridgestone, the Ryman, Vanderbilt’s stadium and Memorial Gym, Municipal, TPAC, the Schermerhorn, Centennial Park band shell, Carl Black Chevy Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel as well as some rather large nightclubs and theaters and even museums with concert space, how important is a Rolling Stones stop here?

After all, U2 played here. Springsteen makes it a fairly regular stop. McCartney’s played Bridgestone twice in the last five years or so. Younger superstars like Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift fill up the arena multiple nights on a tour.

Heck, there are so many big concerts in Nashville that Bob Dylan – arguably the greatest American songwriter, the one-time hipster folkie from Hibbing who channeled Woody Guthrie before plugging in to become one of the rock revolution’s front men, the same guy who traded wisecracks, wordplay and weed with John Lennon – didn’t even get covered by the local daily newspaper when he played in town recently.

So, while The Stones are important, has their luster diminished to the point where while 10 years ago it would be the show of the year now it’s “just another” concert in Music City?

“It’s hard not to consider it a big deal that with only 15 dates on their worldwide touring schedule announced at this point, that Nashville is one of them,” says Pollstar Editor Gary Bongiovanni.

Bongiovanni, whose magazine tracks the international touring business, says this concert stop says important things about Nashville and its position in the touring trade.

“My quick read at the tea leaves is that they expect the concert business in Nashville is healthy and it is expected to do good business,” adds Bongiovanni, of The Stones’ stop.

“LP Field is a big stadium. They (The Stones) must feel comfortable they’ll sell (plenty of tickets) for them to do it,” he says.

“It may well end up being the most expensive concert ever in Nashville on a basis that The Stones are pricing it to get as much as they can,” he explains. “With The Stones, it’s closest to a dynamic pricing model. It moves with the demand. They start out asking for a lot of money for tickets. The public really has to prove them wrong.

“You won’t get $300 for a ticket unless you ask for it. Once everyone is done buying those $300 tickets, they lower the price to about $250 or $200,” Bongiovanni says. “When you are only doing the 15 markets, you are going to pick the 15 best markets you can see and presumably they’ll sell out.”

Ali Harnell, senior vice president of AEG Live/The Messina Group, which is marketing The Stones show, notes that in general, other big name groups and artists have played the arena here…. But they play stadiums elsewhere.

“I think coming to LP Field is a big deal,” she says.

“Taylor Swift is going to do two nights at Bridgestone and she’s in stadiums in other markets.” Same goes for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, other big outfits that can pack them in stadiums in the big cities but who choose to play before 15,000 at the arena rather than 60,000 at LP Field, she notes.

Pollstar’s Bongiovanni echoes this point, noting that for many artists “maybe you are better off shooting to sell 15,000 seats in an indoor arena, declare victory and move on,” rather than taking on the financial risk of a stadium show.

“I still think the big events here are fewer and farther between than say Soldier Field,” says Harnell of that landmark venue where The Monsters of the Midway eagerly aim for the discount double-check guy’s head every autumn.

In the summer it’s turned over to other live events, and this year it’s where three of the four Grateful Dead 50th anniversary farewell concerts will be held. With the only other stop a two-night stand in the Bay Area, the finale shows in the Windy City allow Weir, Lesh and the guys to cash in one last time.

It’s sort of like The Beatles playing a farewell tour without John (and George), since the heart of the band, Jerry Garcia, died 20 years ago. Still, there are plenty of Deadheads out there, bankers and lawyers and chemists who will relive their youth. At last check a good seat could be purchased online for around $1,000. The deadest head may be interested in ending his/her long, strange trip with the single remaining limited-view lower-bowl ticket priced $19,100 online at last check.

The Dead is/are a timely illustration of the fact that most big stadium shows have generally bypassed mid-sized market Nashville. (Notable exception being the CMA Fest, which delivers hordes of hillbilly-music lovers to LP for four nights straight each summer to enjoy what’s more of a variety show than a concert: a pop-country mega-Grand Ole Opry of sorts.)

Harnell says that regardless of The Stones, the city is improving as a concert marketplace. “Nashville is so routable. You can get from Atlanta to Louisville, east to west routing wise.”

She adds that while “routing wise it’s an easy city” for bands to visit, the city image also has improved to the point where “vibe-wise” Nashville is a favorite tour stop. She adds, “the number of human bodies (living here) has increased every year.” The mass-migration to and gentrification of Nashville is bringing ticket-buyers as well as condo-dwellers.

No, this show is not “just another concert” on the star-studded calendar, according to Harnell. “I still think The Rolling Stones is the concert of the summer, hands-down,” she says.

Harnell, whose days of dealing with touring acts in Nashville date back to the old Starwood Amphitheater hole-in-the-ground (literally) in Antioch, emphasizes that the city has evolved to the point that more and more acts want to perform here.

“It has changed,” she says of this music marketplace. “The CMA has grown yearly and it’s a huge event in June here. Now we have the riverfront amphitheater and the Woods Amphitheater (at Fontanel up in Joelton).”

She notes that in the 11 years since she left her Live Nation/Starwood days behind and went to work for AEG, there has been dramatic change.

“Back then my platform business was The Ryman, Starwood and River Stages,” she says. The change has been dramatic and now “the options of where a show can go is unbelievable.”

“You can go to the Ryman and have your mind blown. You can go to this intimate boutique amphitheater in the woods (Carl Black Chevy Woods Amphitheater). Then you can go down to honky-tonk central and go out to the Riverfront and see a show.”

David Kells is another veteran Music City concert marketer, also at Starwood as well as at the Exit/In and at the long-ago-demolished 328 Performance Hall. Now he’s senior vice president of booking at Bridgestone Arena, where 150-200 nights a year are filled with everything from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to the latest children’s confection to monster trucks, bull-rasslin’ and, of course, Nashville Predators hockey.

“Over the past 10 years, the concert market here definitely has taken some good steps forward,” he says. “The promoters have been willing to take risks on shows that maybe they haven’t been willing to take in the past.”

He says the fans have proven the risk worthwhile “by attending those shows” and that there’s a venue here for any kind of tour, from the clubs, to the arena to, yes, LP Field, so an increasing number of performers are cashing in here.

Success breeds success, and if bands and promoters hear that Music City is the place to be, because people like to go to shows, then more and more come, he notes.

He points out that is one of the most attractive parts of having the new 6,800-seat Ascend Amphitheater on the Cumberland River.

Eric Church is inaugurating that new outdoor venue July 30. Ascend, championed by Mayor Karl Dean, fills a major void downtown. Finally getting an outdoor venue in the city’s heart was among the primary initiatives of the Music City Music Council: A coalition of tourism-promoters, Music Row insiders, civic leaders and municipal image-builders co-chaired by Dean.

“It’s the last piece of green space in downtown, and I wanted to make sure we got it right,” says Dean when asked about the downtown shed. “It was important that we turn it into a signature public space for Nashville. It’s the perfect home for an iconic city park and a premier music venue, and it will be a great addition to our riverfront as well.”

Live Nation is promoting a full summer of concerts – from Australian Pink Floyd to ZZ Top – at the new amphitheater. Live Nation officials declined multiple opportunities to comment on what is a promising slate that so far tilts slightly toward the Boomer demographic, with jam bands and country thrown in.

Kells says that from his vantage point at the Bridgestone, “I’ve been able to see how things have changed and how folks are coming out to more events. We are getting the quality events in Nashville and people respond to these quality events.

“Other acts then see this and they respond” by playing here. He rattles off a list of upcoming Bridgestone shows: Imagine Dragons, Train, Fallout Boy, Def Leppard, Tim McGraw …. but hints that there may be some big announcement or announcements coming, thanks to Nashville’s reputation.

“Nothing is confirmed yet, but Nashville has been on everybody’s radar. We get the big tours now,” he says.

He points to the multi-night engagements Harnell mentioned as proof of this market’s viability. “Before where the big tours would play once. We get doubles. We had two Taylor Swifts. Two Luke Bryans. Two Kenny Chesneys. And Justin Timberlake did two on the same tour cycle.”

He notes that “tours in the last couple of years have been doing hybrids. Doing both inside and outside, depending on the market, venue availability. Is it going to be cold? Is it going to rain? Am I going to be safer playing inside?” Now Nashville is able to answer all of those needs.

Kells, who is going to see The Stones, says having them here is good for the growth of the live entertainment business.

Even Butch Spyridon, honcho at the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., gets into the conversation about the value of The Stones to Nashville and how it impacts business.

“You know anytime you have an iconic act of that magnitude, they are not stopping everywhere, so you know it’s good and it’s the kind of show that also fills hotel rooms.

“People will come from all over. The fact is we have become more of a destination for events than some of the other markets. People say, ‘We can make a long weekend. We can catch The Stones and stay in Nashville.”

He points to the seven free stages at CMA, the Live on the Green free series, the free music on Lower Broad where honky-tonk dreamers play for tips and hope and the free New Year’s Eve concert as things that help Nashville when it comes to selling itself to fans and performers. “We deliver a value to go with our reputation.”

Mayor Dean, who says “Satisfaction” is one of his top five favorite singles, also is enthusiastic. “As rock bands go, it just doesn’t get any bigger than The Stones ….We’re eager to have them here….”

“I think it’s great for the city,” says AEG’s Harnell. “To be one of 15 cities in North America that the Stones are going to play is testament to what a fabulous city Nashville is.”

Brad Paisley – the guitar-slinging star and acclaimed awards show host, who will open the evening for The Stones – says that even though more and more music is coming here, The Stones’ appearance is far from just another concert and it “speaks about the healthiness of the music scene in Nashville.”

“I don’t know if this will be the last time they’ll play here, but they are getting there. This is a must people don’t want to miss.”

Nashville’s early rock pioneer McLenon, mellowed by age and health concerns, says he’ll likely sit this one out in his rocking chair. But he doesn’t expect any relaxing at LP after Richards fires up a smoke, flicks back his scarf and hits the opening riff.

“They have been told they are dinosaurs looking for a tar pit,” he says. “It’s not like they don’t know people say that stuff. They are going to come out and kick ass, regardless.”

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