Until this summer, the Tampa Bay area was the only major market in the country without an outdoor concert amphitheater.
This weekend, the Ford Amphitheatre will be unveiled to the public. The opening of what's being billed as the most state-of-the-art venue of its kind in the nation should mean big changes for the area concert scene.
The amphitheater will lure the kind of festivals and outdoor shows that in past years skipped our area. We never got a Lilith Fair or a Lollapalooza. We sometimes missed out on Ozzfest. Not so this year, when Ozzy Osbourne and his caravan of heavy metal hooligans arrive Sept. 2. The goth-rocking Curiosa Festival rolls in on Sunday. And the multiband Projekt Revolution hits the venue Aug. 18.
It also means acts such as the Dave Matthews Band that relish playing outdoors will not bypass the Tampa Bay area. (Matthews on his last tour exclusively played outdoor venues and didn't perform here, but he did hit the Sound Advice Amphitheater in West Palm Beach.)
The 20,000-seat, $23-million Ford Amphitheatre, the 38th such structure Clear Channel has built in the nation, boasts optimal sight lines and top-quality sound, elements developed through experience, the company says.
"We've taken everything that's right with an amphitheater and put it in here, and taken everything that's wrong and thrown it away," says David Harb, director of marketing for the venue.
Unlike the St. Pete Times Forum and the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the Ford Amphitheatre was not built for sports, but for concerts; it will host 30 to 40 a year.
That's good and bad for the local concert industry.
"It's going to make everybody work that much harder," says Bobby Rossi, director of entertainment at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Rossi has worked in the local concert industry for 17 years.
Rossi knows that any time a venue opens, the surrounding ones must work that much harder to compete for acts. Ruth Eckerd Hall wanted to book Norah Jones and Boston but lost the bids to the amphitheater, he says.
Rossi also knows that concertgoers will be eager to check out the venue. "Any time a new venue opens, there is a honeymoon period," Rossi says. With incentives such as Clear Channel's recent $10 ticket promotion for big-name acts, the amphitheater is sure to be filled for its first shows.
Though Rossi is happy that the amphitheater will bring more entertainment to the Tampa Bay area, he warns there's a down side.
"How many shows can you go to?" Rossi says. "How much money do these kids have to spend?"
The amphitheater's high volume of concerts could cut into crowds for other community events, he says.
"The boat fests and Ribfest. Festival of States. Blues Fest," Rossi says. "There's going to need to be communication between the organizers of these events and concert promoters."
What about competition between the amphitheater and the St. Pete Times Forum, both of which host concerts promoted by Clear Channel? The company says the venues aren't really competing because they're appropriate for different kinds of shows. But there is a curious dearth of concerts scheduled at the Forum next month. (The venue's next concert is scheduled for Sept. 9: Van Halen.) In any case, Clear Channel's dominance over local radio (it owns eight stations in the Tampa Bay market) and the concert industry continues to grow.
Since the time Clear Channel announced the amphitheater project, plenty of questions have been raised about it, not just from the folks who stand to lose business to it but from those of us who go to shows. Who wants to go to outdoor concerts in the hot, rainy Florida summers? Who wants to drive on chronically congested I-4 when so many venues are closer to where most Tampa Bay area residents live?
Speaking as a constant concertgoer (I've been at this since seeing Alabama and Juice Newton at the Florida State Fairgrounds in 1983; not my choice, but I did enjoy it), I'm eager to see what concerts at the amphitheater will be like and what the place will mean for us overall.
(Watch for my report on the first concert, Friday's Michael W. Smith show, in Saturday's St. Petersburg Times.)
Meanwhile, here's what I saw during my two hard-hat tours of the venue:
ACOUSTICS: Hey, those ancient Greeks and Romans were on to something. Designing their venues without boxy walls eliminated obstruction of sound waves. No hard edges means no flat surfaces for sound to bounce off.
"It's designed like that so sound can travel in the direction it's supposed to travel in," Harb says. "There is no delay in the sound's travel. When a musician hits a note onstage, fans hear it at the same time in the audience."
Standard halls with walls and ceilings use padding and reflective devices to try to "capture" sound. Or, as anyone stuck in the crummy seats at the USF Sun Dome (that is being renovated, much to my joy) or the St. Pete Times Forum knows, sound gets muddled beyond recognition.
Harb contends that the amphitheater boasts CD-quality acoustics for every concertgoer. I'll prowl the premises Friday night and let you know if that's true.
STAGE VIEW: Based on amphitheater experience, the Ford Amphitheatre was designed with a lawn that was set back a bit more, offering better sight lines.
As for the 9,500 covered seats in front of the 10,500-capacity lawn, I was led on one tour to the worst seats in the house, the 300 level, in the very back. The view was still fine.
The venue also features two huge video screens on the walls around the stage.
DANCE FLOOR: The amphitheater offers a dance floor in front of the stage. (Pssst: Punk rockers, if you want to annoy Clear Channel, call it a mosh pit. The company is trying to avoid the term.) The area up front can fit 800 to 900 seats, or the seats can be removed, making room for 1,400 moshers and dancers. That's good news for spunky, energetic bands that don't want to play to rows of fans sitting in chairs.
"Younger bands like 311, Linkin Park and the bands on the Curiosa tour like seeing their fans dance to their music," Harb says.
For acts such as Rush, Boston and Sting, Harb says, those chairs will be put back in place. (What? Older folks don't dance?)
CLIMATE CONTROL: The Ford Amphitheatre is the first to feature a cool-looking fabric roof. But the roof is not just for decor: Developed for NASA by a Crystal River company, the fabric blocks out a lot of the sun's rays.
As I can attest, on a sweltering summer day, the temperature under the roof was nearly 15 degrees cooler than the surrounding area. And you could feel a noticeable breeze, thanks to good cross ventilation.
However, the roof works the same way during the winter, when 15 degrees cooler can get chilly. Then again, amphitheaters generally don't book a ton of winter shows.
ARTISTS' PERSPECTIVE: Dave Matthews, Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam and Aerosmith are huge fans of amphitheaters.
But you won't catch Bruce Springsteen performing in one. He hates outdoor venues. Same goes for diva Bette Midler. And Neil Diamond.
Proponents say that in addition to being closer to the elements, amphitheater seating is fanned out more widely, so the audience is closer to the stage, which many performers prefer.
TRAFFIC: Chronic concertgoers know there's just no way around traffic jams when there's a big show. We'll see what happens when an amphitheater show conflicts with evening rush hour. Meanwhile, you can reach the venue from I-4 (take the U.S. 301 exit), or from I-75 (Take the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue exit).
PARKING: Those of you who have bought tickets to a Ford Amphitheatre show may have noted a $4 surcharge for parking. That's kind of presumptuous. What if you're not parking? What if you and four of your friends are piling into one car? You're paying $20 to park one car?
Let's break it down.
The pros: Parking is available onsite (this is the Florida State Fairgrounds, after all), unlike at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center or the St. Pete Times Forum, where you're at the mercy of independent parking lot attendants who can charge you between $5 and $25. (I have paid $25 to park at an 'N Sync concert at the Forum.)
Another plus: With this parking surcharge, people won't be driving around searching for the best deal on parking, which should ease preshow traffic tangles.
The cons: So much for discovering that great free, on-street space that you and only you know about. And I wonder if there could be MORE traffic, because there's no incentive to car pool.
FOOD & DRINKS: The amphitheater has more than 200 "points of purchase." That's marketing talk for a whole bunch of places to buy grub. You'll find typical concert food such as pizza and hot dogs. You'll also find fancier fare in the form of chicken wraps, sausage sandwiches and vegetarian salads, from $3 to $10.
For those seeking "adult beverages," or what we concert folk call hooch, the amphitheater has a full-liquor license and several bars.
And a real boon for those all-day outdoor shows populated by kids who can't afford $3 for a teensy bottle of water: The joint has plenty of water fountains.
BATHROOMS: Somebody planned well: I counted 129 women's bathrooms, and I hear the menfolk have just as many. Finally, a venue where a tinkle break won't take as long as the band's set.
BAD WEATHER POLICY: In
general, shows go on, rain or shine. But if there's a big storm that could pose a safety
threat, call before you go (813) 740-2446 cq. Not all covered seats will remain dry during
heavy rains, and those on the lawn will definitely get wet. Ponchos are available for rent for
purchase if you forget your rain gear. No umbrellas are allowed.
LOCAL MUSIC: "We're greatly involved with the local community and local music," Harb says. To prove it, the amphitheater will sometimes offer a small stage for local bands to perform before the gig on the main stage begins.
However, "it won't be a big payday," Harb says. The acts will get enough dough to offset the cost of performing, Harb says, meaning covering the expenses of hiring a sound guy and other things the band will have to do for itself. The amphitheater merely provides the stage. Still, it's great exposure.
THE FUTURE?: Tampa Bay area music lovers have long needed a large-capacity venue with good acoustics and good seating. (And a good veggie salad sure wouldn't hurt.)