Promoter Leads Merriweather Back From Obsolescence

July 05, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

This year, when A-list acts like Taylor Swift and Phish were penciling in their summer tours, they planned stops not in Baltimore, or even Washington, but at the woodsy Merriweather Post Pavilion. So did the organizers of the Virgin Mobile Free- Fest - one of the summer's hottest festivals.

Sleepy, suburban Columbia is once again a go-to stop for live music. And it's quite the turnaround for the nearly 42-year-old amphitheater, which only five years ago was written off as obsolete.

"This season - without Virgin Fest - is one of the best in memory," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. "Merriweather's back, and it's not going anywhere. It's on the rise."

Much of the credit goes to promoter Seth Hurwitz, a co-owner of the 9:30 Club in Washington and producer of the Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Hurwitz proved that with the right strategy, Merriweather could regain its status as one of the region's dominant concert venues.

Hurwitz was brought in to run Merriweather at the end of the 2003 season, when the 17,500-capacity amphitheater was at a low point. Earlier that year, with Clear Channel calling the shots, the venue had only 19 shows, down from as many as 50 in earlier years.

Officials at Rouse Co., who owned Merriweather then, looked at the numbers and thought the amphitheater would make more sense if it were smaller and enclosed. They wanted to develop the nearby parking lots and drastically scale back Merriweather, which they envisioned as a year-round venue.

"They were trying to portray Merriweather on its last legs," Hurwitz said. "They wanted the place downsized or shut down."

Rouse was met with stiff opposition from residents and local government officials. Ulman, then a councilman, said he advocated bringing in an outside promoter such as Hurwitz. Rouse agreed and signed the veteran local promoter.

At first, Hurwitz thought Rouse wanted him to fail.

"I honestly believe I was brought in to be the final nail in the coffin," Hurwitz said. "I believe they thought it would be Merriweather's last breath."

Instead, Hurwitz prospered.

In 2004, Merriweather lined up 28 concerts, including A-list acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney. This year, that number is up to 35, give or take a few. But for Hurwitz, quality comes before quantity.

"I never base it on the number of shows," Hurwitz said. "To me, the quality of the shows has gotten better and better."

The Taylor Swift show sold out in a record 30 minutes. But the record didn't last long. When tickets went on sale for Phish's concert, rabid fans snapped up all the available seats in a mere two minutes. In late August, Merriweather will be expanded to hold 35,000 for the Virgin Mobile FreeFest - the largest single-day event ever held at the Columbia amphitheater.

The festival, which started at Pimlico Race Course in 2006, is the region's biggest live music event. Blink-182, Public Enemy and Weezer are among the nearly 20 acts performing on two stages and a dance tent. Tickets for the free festival were gone in a matter of hours.

Virgin Mobile officials wanted this year's festival to be free, and setting up stages at Pimlico would have cost too much. They scouted Merriweather as a possible site, and fell in love with the beech trees, which they said gave the place a laid-back feel.

"When we went and visited Merriweather, it all clicked," said Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile's senior director for brand marketing and innovation. "It was such a beautiful space - totally within our vision of what we wanted to do."

Merriweather has more than visual appeal - it has a storied past.

One of Columbia's first public amenities, Merriweather opened July 14, 1967. It was originally intended as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra, but because of financial issues, the NSO occupied it only for a couple of years.

In the late 1960s, the venue started bringing in a variety of pop and rock bands. Jimi Hendrix played there. The Who shared a bill with Led Zeppelin there. And Jackson Browne taped parts of his acclaimed Running on Empty album there.

"I never fail to walk in the place without a pinch-me thought," said Hurwitz, who grew up going to shows at Merriweather.

"I never dreamed I would actually be running it," he said. "It's like going to Disney World. Essentially, I get to run Disney World."

As for those plans to downsize the amphitheater? Rouse became General Growth Properties, which last year announced plans that would upgrade Merriweather: more covered seating, a raised roof and a new stage.

Since then, it has tripled the size of the restrooms and added new concession stands and artwork.

"It's gone a long way, what we did just the past year," said Greg Hamm, senior vice president and Columbia general manager for General Growth. "But it can be so much better. ... We'll take what is the best outdoor venue in the Baltimore-Washington area and make it infinitely better."

With Hurwitz's guidance and help from Ulman and local residents, Merriweather is back on the map. And the future looks better than it has in years.

"The bottom line is, Merriweather is a wonderful venue that was left for dead," Hurwitz said. "The good guys won in this case."

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