This summer, Pier Six finally gets hot

Promoter John Scher thinks Baltimore's pavilion is poised to attract the young and the hip.

May 30, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When the Cordish Co. asked concert promoter John Scher's Metropolitan Entertainment Group to analyze the potential of the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, it didn't take long for Scher and company to reach a conclusion.

"Our observation was that it was underutilized," says Scher, confirming what Baltimore music fans have long suspected.

While Washington-area venues were booking with-it rockers like Alanis Morissette, Radiohead, the Spice Girls and the Dave Matthews Band, Pier Six was offering moldy oldies like the Four Tops and the Doobie Brothers -- acts more likely to sedate than excite. Where the rest of the Inner Harbor exuded youth and cool, thanks to its ESPN Zone, Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe, Pier Six perched on the harbor like a forlorn fuddy-duddy.

Scher hopes to change all that. Instead of graying teen idols Bobby Sherman and Davey Jones, this summer's Pier Six schedule offers such current heartthrobs as 98 Degrees, Britney Spears and B*Witched. Add in shows by alt-folkie Ani DiFranco, country iconoclast Lyle Lovett, art rock avatar Roger Waters and progressive soul star Seal, and suddenly Pier Six seems cutting-edge.

"We've got a pretty good, strong, diverse lineup," says Scher. "There are some other things that we would like to have done, that I think we will be able to do eventually. It's a matter of getting people used to thinking that, from June to September, there are going to be concerts down there."

Scher credits the turn-around to several factors.

First, there's Pier Six's size. At 4,338 seats, the venue is far too small to attract megastars on the order of Elton John or Shania Twain. But as Scher points out, there's a whole second level of stars for whom the relative intimacy of Pier Six is just perfect.

"There is starting to be, throughout America, a sub- circuit from the amphitheater business," he says. With capacities running between 4,000 and 5,000 seats, this circuit includes outdoor venues like Harborlights in Boston, the Nautica Stage in Cleveland and Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, as well as indoor halls like New York's Radio City Music Hall, The Wang Center in Boston, the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles and the Fox Theaters in Detroit, Atlanta and St. Louis.

"We had an industry that was forcing our artists into venues that were either too big, or too small," says Scher. When the only choices a market offered were 800-seat clubs and a 13,000-seat amphitheater, a lot of up-and-coming or mid-level acts found themselves having to choose between packed-but-poorly-paying club shows, or playing to empty seats at oversized arenas.

Most amphitheaters, like the Merriweather Post Pavilion or Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge, offer several thousand "shed" seats, under a roof, and a much bigger area of "lawn" seating, where concertgoers merely stretch out on the grass. Scher points out that some acts tried to justify playing such venues by convincing themselves that the lawn was just "optional seating space," and that the only spots that really mattered were the seats under the shed.

"But as we all know, part of the excitement of going to a concert is going to a venue that feels like there's something happening there," says Scher. "Whether it's totally sold out, or just filled. [For an artist to take] the position that 'We weren't even trying to sell the lawn' doesn't keep a place from feeling empty."

Another factor that Scher thinks will work to Pier Six's advantage is the extent to which Baltimore has been overlooked by the concert industry.

"For us, Baltimore was and is a sleeping giant," says Scher. "This is a big, sophisticated market that, for one reason or another, has been somewhat ignored."

One big reason Baltimore has been ignored is that most of the promotional muscle in this area has been centered in Washington. Both the Virginia-based Cellar Door productions (now owned by the mammoth SFX conglomerate), and IMP Productions have done much to make the District a major concert center. But both companies have treated Baltimore as a backwater, a secondary market whose only value was to absorb overflow from their primary base in D.C.

Scher had no trouble recognizing Baltimore's situation, because it was similar to what he faced when he started out in northern New Jersey.

"In 1971, when I opened the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, we said, 'Hey, there's plenty of room to play New York and to play northern New Jersey. Plenty of room.' And it has proven to be absolutely factual. Lots and lots of acts play both Madison Square Garden and the Meadowlands Arena. Lots and lots of acts play Radio City or the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and the new New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

"So we've got a model that works for us, that we're going to try to apply down in Baltimore."

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