Mega Mann

More pop acts packed into its music schedule

Posted: April 17, 2007

REMEMBER HOW red hot the contemporary music schedule used to be each summer at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts?

Then a rival shed, the Sony Blockbuster Entertainment Center (now called the Tweeter Center) opened on the Camden waterfront in 1995 and lured away almost all of the big contemporary music acts with its larger capacity and fatter paychecks.

Brother, did trouble ever follow in the wake. Without that magic combination of "Bach and Rock" - the pop shows supporting the Mann's mainstay Philadelphia Orchestra series - our lovely Fairmount Park facility almost went bankrupt.

But in recent years, the West Philadelphia venue has been on the comeback trail under the steadying hand of president and CEO Peter Lane. The center diversified its arts and cultural programs to tap new audiences and new funders, "with everything from Shakespeare to opera to an expanded program for children," Lane said.

In the past two years, Lane has pushed through $15 million in capital improvements to spruce up the looks and user friendliness of the 30-year-old facility. This year, the most notable upgrades are the Field Education and Outreach Center, plus new restrooms and concession stands (to complement new food vendor Culinart).

And, lo and behold, even the pop stars are back in force for the 2007 summer season, starting June 1 through Sept. 22, with significant help from outside presenters Live Nation/Electric Factory Concerts (owner of the rival Tweeter Center!) and AEG Live, plus local promoters BRE Presents and Al Edmondson and a consortium of other performing arts centers working with the Mann.

"We'll have a 35 percent increase in shows this summer, 41 or 42 in all, with the biggest increase in contemporary music acts," Lane said with obvious pleasure. The pop stuff will more than offset the decrease in Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. (See story on Page 47.)

Such contemporary acts as poetic balladeer Damien Rice (May 24), neo-swinger Michael Buble (Aug 7-8) and the flamboyant chamber popster Rufus Wainwright (Aug. 17), plus the huge PBS breakthroughs Celtic Woman (June 23) and "American Idol" fave Clay Aiken (July 17) will sing in the park this season.

So, too, will an impressive number of seasoned mid-level acts and superstars whose appeal has leveled off in recent years, from British cult hero Morrissey (June 29) to soul legend Smokey Robinson (Aug. 3) to alt-country darling Alison Krauss with Union Station (Aug. 14).

Strength-in-number double bills are gonna be numerous at the Mann: the biting folk of John Prine and Patty Griffin (June 16), country/jazz fusions of k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett (June 19), the rock and blues of Bryan Adams and George Thorogood (Aug. 2), soul/funk explosions of War and Mandrill (Aug. 25), and the new bluegrass collaborations of Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby (Aug. 30).

And take a gander of the lineup for the goofily named "Hippiefest" (Aug. 9), a throwback to the freaky '60s with the Turtles (aka Flo and Eddie), Felix Cavaliere's Rascals, the Zombies, Mitch Ryder, Badfinger and Country Joe McDonald.

According to Lane, some acts chose the Mann because it's the better place, sonically and aesthetically, for them to work out with a big, lush orchestra.

That's how we'll be taking in Aiken, the Decemberists (July 15) and Elvis Costello (Sept. 8, doing up hits and bits from his oratorio "Il Sogno"). Each will perform with a huge Mann Festival Orchestra.

The original "Dreamgirl" Jennifer Holiday will be a special guest (June 1) with the Philly Pops. Another presentation from the Pops and conductor Peter Nero promises "The Sound of Music" from the latest generation of von Trapp Children (July 31), whose ancestors inspired the hugely popular musical.

Clearly, the Mann is also the better shed to stage "Congo Square" (June 15), Wynton Marsalis' extended-length Afro-jazz cultural celebration, using the talents of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy with his ensemble Odadaa!

Gospel music is coming to the Mann in a big way, too, with shows from the Caravans (plus numerous "special guests") (June 2), CeCe Winans with Donald Lawrence (Aug. 4), and Martha Munizzi & Israel and New Breed (Sept. 22).

"We've had such large and enthusiastic audiences in years past with the annual Sunoco Welcome America! gospel show [this year moving to Penn's Landing] that we decided to expand on that theme," said Lane.

A Mann-sized venue

Concert business tracker Ray Waddell of Billboard Magazine said there's greatly renewed interest in mid-sized performing arts centers like the Mann because of the realities of the concert business today.

There are "maybe 20 or 25 acts a year" that can sell out the largest facilities, like the 25,000-capacity (7,000 seats under cover and 18,000 spots on the lawn) Tweeter Center. Many more can pull a respectable - if not sell out - crowd at a place like the Mann, which maxes out at 5,000 patrons under the roof, with another 10,000 on the lawn.

"The sweetheart zone for the business today are halls with 2,000 to 8,000 seats," said Waddell. "And it's better, psychologically, to leave people waiting at the gates, unable to get in [to a sellout] than to have a lot of empty seats. You create a buzz, an excitement that's good for the act, the promoter and the audience."

Is that what's finally brought Live Nation/Electric Factory back into the fold, with at least five and probably more (to be announced) shows at the Mann this summer? Last year, the concert company threw just one, Bonnie Raitt, to its hometown Philadelphia facility.

"I've been having conversations with [Electric Factory chief] Larry Magid since I came to town in 1997, trying to restore the great working relationship we had going for 18 years," said Lane. "Now there's a play on mid-size theaters like ours . . . My hope is that this will work for Larry, for all the promoters we're involved with, so we can continue to preserve the Mann as a cultural treasure that does the city proud." *

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