Two pavilions vie for fans, but how do they rate? Battle of the Bandstands

June 21, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When Cellar Door president Dave Williams decided his company deserved to have an outdoor amphitheater of its own in the Washington area, he had fairly specific goals in mind.

After years of losing out on summer business to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Williams decided he "wanted to have an opportunity to compete." So Cellar Door bought some land near Manassas, Va., and built the 25,000-seat Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge. Williams wasn't satisfied with merely making his venue bigger than the 15,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion; he was determined to make it better.

"My place is much more user-friendly," he boasted earlier this month, before the Nissan Pavilion opened. "I've got more parking. I've got more seats under the roof. It's just more comfortable. I'm new, I'm spiffy, I've got great sound, I've got great video, the ambience is much better.

"People that come to my place aren't going to go back to Merriweather if they have a choice."

Is the Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge really that much better than Merriweather? Obviously, a comparison was in order, so this reporter spent last weekend seeing the band Boston play both venues.

Although some of the differences, such as parking, restrooms and concessions, are clearly extra-musical, what matters most is how a band sounds and looks onstage. Fortunately, the two Boston shows were virtually identical, right down to Brad Delp's between-songs patter, and that made it easy to determine where each venue's strengths lay.

The Trip

Even if both pavilions were equal in every other way, Merriweather would always have one advantage over Stone Ridge for Baltimore audiences: location.

Columbia is considerably closer to Baltimore than the Nissan Pavilion's home in Bristow, Va. In fact, from downtown Baltimore, it takes at least three times as long to drive to Stone Ridge as it does to drive to Merriweather, meaning you may spend more time in your car than you will at the concert. And, at the risk of seeming parochial, the local traffic is much easier to bear than that on the Capital Beltway and I-66 in Virginia.

For purposes of comparison, both trips began at The Sun's offices at Calvert and Centre streets, and despite posted speeds of 55 mph, most highway traffic was moving at speeds of 60 mph and higher.

To Merriweather: After looping around Monument to St. Paul Street, I took Conaway to I-95 and got off at Route 175, which I followed into downtown Columbia. Apart from some unexpected foot traffic near the lake -- spillover from the Columbia Festival of the Arts -- the trip was largely uneventful. Total elapsed time: 27 minutes.

To the Nissan Pavilion: After taking the same route to I-95, I settled in for the long haul down to I-495, the Capital Beltway. Because the exit for 66 West off I-495 is almost exactly on the opposite side of the Beltway from the junction with I-95, you go in either direction. Heading north toward Rockville is probably five to 10 minutes faster, but I opted for the southern route, since the twilight glare can be brutal as you pass Connecticut Avenue on the northern route.

There are two problems with the southern route, though. First, there's almost always a slowdown at the Wilson Bridge; second, some drivers on the Virginia side of I-495 seem to believe that the passing lane is not on the left but on the far right, meaning you may have to dodge cars doing 75 or 80 mph to take the right-hand exit for I-66 West. (Fortunately, there's also an exit on the left.)

Traffic moves a little slower on 66, in large part because there's construction all the way from I-495 to the turn-off for Route 29 at Exit 43B. The congestion wasn't that bad on my trip, but then again, it was a Sunday; expect weekday traffic to be much heavier. There are plenty of signs for the Nissan Pavilion, and it was easy to get from Route 29 onto Wellington Road, and then into the Nissan Pavilion parking lot. Total elapsed time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Hint: Remember on your way back that the turnoff from Route 29 to I-66 East -- your route back to Baltimore -- is blink-and-you-miss-it-close to Wellington Road. Be alert and ready to turn right!

Parking

At Merriweather: Even with three entrances (from South Entrance Road, Little Patuxent Parkway and Broken Land Parkway), getting in and out of the parking lot is such slow going that there are still some patrons who would rather park off the property and walk. Not the safest way to get around, nor is it any cheaper, since a $2.50 parking charge is added to the cost of each ticket, regardless of where you park or how many people are piled into your vehicle. Handicapped parking is available.

At Nissan: Although there's plenty of parking here, the roads outside the Pavilion grounds slow the way in and out. But Nissan gets points for its extra-large handicapped parking area -- particularly since it's paved and wheelchair-friendly. Parking is $5 per vehicle.

Seating and views

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