DAYS of the Dinosaurs Music: Once thought to be extinct, the Sex Pistols, REO Speedwagon, Jethro Tull, Lynyrd and Frampton come alive at the at the box office in a summer of gray, onstage and in the crowd. T-Rex, anyone?

June 12, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

They said rock and roll would never die, but who ever imagined it would lead to the Summer of the Living Dead?

Look through the listings for the local amphitheaters, and you'll find plenty of the year's hottest acts -- assuming the year in question is 1978. And while that may be good news for classic rock aficionados, there haven't been this many dinosaurs walking the earth since the Jurassic Period.

How bad is it?

At the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, the summer got under way Sunday with a double bill of Styx and Kansas, while upcoming shows include such cutting-edge acts as the Moody Blues(tomorrow); Chicago with Crosby, Stills and Nash (Friday); Boston with Cheap Trick (Aug. 6); Lynyrd Skynyrd with the Doobie Brothers(Aug. 7); and Jethro Tull with Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Aug. 23).

Pier Six is representing the '70s with War, the Average White Band and New Birth (July 20), Gladys Knight (July 26), and Little Feat with Dr. John (Aug. 24). A couple of shows there go even farther back in time, what with double bills like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard (June 20) or Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons and the Four Tops (July 12).

Meanwhile, down in Bristow, Va., even the newly-built Nissan Pavilion is attracting its share of oldies. In addition to its own dates with the Moody Blues (June 12) and the Boston/Cheap Trick pairing (Aug. 4), Nissan will be host to REO Speedwagon with Foreigner and Peter Frampton (July 17), Steely Dan (July 21), and the Steve Miller Band with Pat Benatar (Aug 2).

Add in the fact that the two most-hyped tours hitting the road this season are also throwbacks -- the Sex Pistols reunion and the full-makeup, original-member Kiss extravaganza -- and it seems as if this summer's reruns won't be confined to TV.

But even though these acts are all oldies, they're definitely goodies when it comes to ticket sales. "The ticket sales are very, very strong," says Merriweather general manager Jean Parker. "Our out-of-the-box sales have been strong, and they just seem to be continuing." Indeed, Styx recently sold out the Blossom Music Center near Cleveland, while the concert industry trade journal Pollstar lists Lynyrd Skynyrd as the 14th highest-grossing act on the road right now.

No big albums

All of this might be a little easier to understand if these big comeback tours were accompanied by big comeback albums. But apart from Meat Loaf, who saw massive sales for his "Bat dTC Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell," most of these acts are well past their prime as record-sellers. Although Kansas, Foreigner, Jethro Tull, Chicago and Peter Frampton have all continued to release albums, you wouldn't know it by the charts.

So if "Frampton Comes Alive II" was D.O.A. at record stores, why would anyone expect him to sell concert tickets? Simple: Because nostalgia is big on the summer amphitheater circuit.

"When somebody really attaches themselves to an act, it recalls a bunch of different things," say Nick Nichols of Cellar Door Productions. As he explains it, baby boomers want to see the groups they grew up with -- or, more accurately, hear the hits they know best. "It's not so much the act as the song, and the fact that it's attached to the good times they had," he says. And this year, those boomers -- and their bands -- are out in droves.

In fact, Merriweather's Parker reports that the crowd for Styx and Kansas was older than the average amphitheater audience. "The average age was probably very close to 40," she says. Typically, crowds at Merriweather are younger. "Over the years, the average age has definitely increased," she allows. "But the average age overall is closer to 28-32."

This is a great time for '70s nostalgia, after all. According to Pollstar, the Eagles reunion was last year's biggest tour, and it's a fair bet that the Kiss reunion will be close to the top of the charts this year. (Kiss won't be coming to the Baltimore/Washington area until some time in early October, when the band will play the USAir Arena.) Even the Sex Pistols -- due at the Patriot Center in August -- are expected to do strong business with those who recall the controversy surrounding the band's previous U.S. tour.

A resurgence

VH1 has done quite well on cable with nostalgia-oriented fare like "8 Track Flashback" and disco-era "American Bandstand" reruns, while '70s-oriented radio stations continue to gain ground. "There seems to be a resurgence of this type of music," says Parker. "So maybe now it's falling into the touring industry, too."

Still, it's worth wondering: Are dinosaur bands glutting the market because older listeners are the ones most likely to buy amphitheater tickets?

"It's more a function of who's touring," says Jeanne Wagner, director of marketing for the Nissan Pavilion. Because this summer doesn't have so many modern rock or superstar tours available, it only seems as if the older bands are dominating the market.

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