For whom the Dell tolls

Posted: July 11, 2013

WITH HER crazy-big vocal range and deep catalog of hits, soul-pop wailer Chaka Khan gets to play all over the world, at everything from jazz festivals to symphony concerts. But when we described the Dell Music Center, where Khan will open the 2013 season tomorrow night, the 40-year music veteran concluded that it's a breed apart, one of a kind.

"An outdoor amphitheater like the Hollywood Bowl, but dedicated to mostly black music like at the Apollo or Howard Theater? I've never come across that before," said the jet-lagged though extra-friendly talent in a phone interview.

"Sounds classic-esque and classy, too, in the way they've done it," Khan added. "I've been told it's recently refurbished, very green and a really good venue for sound. That's my kind of place. When you get to perform outdoors, it's really a treat. Your voice and band sounds don't bounce back [off walls, floors and ceilings] to distract you and muddy the mix. There's no beating God's acoustics."

Over the past four years, about $7 million has been poured into renovations of the 78-year-old concert venue, built originally as the summer home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, detailed the city's answer to Amy Poehler, Parks and Rec deputy commissioner Susan Slawson.

The city started with a fresh concrete "bowl" and larger, more comfortable seating, reducing the Dell's original 9,000 capacity to 5,284. The summer showplace also has lots of ramp-accessible viewing locations (and nearby parking) for handicapped and aging visitors "who've been coming here for 30 or 40 years," Slawson said.

The Dell's had its urban music slant for just about as long.

Last year the stage was rebuilt, too. "Now we can hang modern lighting and sound equipment. And we've got the nicest dressing rooms of any venue in town," Slawson added - a detail sure to please divas like Khan. This year, the Dell team tackled the public bathrooms, refinishing and increasing the number for women, and got to work on signage, making it easier to find the joint.

The tried, the true

All that upgrading, plus an ongoing emphasis on family-friendly, classic R&B artists, seem to be paying dividends to the East Fairmount Park venue, city-owned and annually underwritten to the tune of $1.15 million.

With tickets starting at just $25 and maxing out at $60 (or $40 some nights), advance sales have already topped 3,500 for Khan's show, also featuring her kindred soul/jazz spirit and friend, Ledisi.

"That's really good when you consider we historically sell 60 to 70 percent of our tickets the night of the show," said Slawson. If there's a sellout, lawn seating accommodates an additional 600 people.

This year's heavy-duty Funkfest, top billed by Cameo, is "already at 2,100 sales," though it's not until Aug. 29, the last show of the weekly-on-Thursdays Essence of Entertainment Concert Series.

A July 25 battle of R&B vocal groups, akin to the showdowns at North Philly's Uptown, is at 2,800 ticket sales. That lineup includes the Whispers, Stylistics, Chi-Lites and Breakwater.

And there's more where that came from, including a Bell Biv DeVoe/SWV/Dru Hill bundle on Aug. 8, and a Jeffrey Osborne/Stephanie Mills co-bill on Aug. 15.

As usual, the series also delivers one sanctified, jumping contemporary-gospel show, this year starring Israel Houghton and New Breed (Aug. 1). Plus a compatible smooth-jazz soiree (Aug. 22) headlined by Dave Koz, this time bringing his friskier-than-usual Summer Horns package with fellow saxophonists Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, plus Philly's Pieces of a Dream and crooner Peabo Bryson.

What's wrong with this picture?

Clearly, there's a lot of preaching to the (mature) choir with the 2013 Dell talent lineup, and hardly any new-audience nurturing.

That's a concern that Slawson and Dell operations director Facetta Greene are "mindful" of having to tackle "to make sure this place is still thriving 10 years from now," Slawson said.

Only one bill this year qualifies as "youth appeal." We're talking the July 18 show with "American Idol" breakout Fantasia, returning for the second consecutive summer, plus the somewhat edgier Joe, who last played the Dell two years ago, and comedian Dominique.

The Dell has "lots of competition" bidding for contemporary talent, explained Slawson, starting with deep-pocketed promoters Live Nation and AEG, and venues like the Susquehanna Bank Center, Mann Center and Keswick Theatre.

Still, smaller showplaces like the Apollo and, locally, World Cafe Live often convince talent agents that an intimate setting can trump a bigger paycheck. Especially when the artist is launching an album as, no coincidence, Joe and Fantasia are.

For reaction, we threw some other fresher names at the Parks and Rec exec. The arty India.Arie, cementing a heavy Stevie Wonder connection on her terrific new "SongVersation" long player, "is one we definitely tried to get, but she's not touring," Slawson shared. The Dell also couldn't grab a package of hip-hop dudes Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar, she said. The latter has booked onto the Budweiser: Made in America festival here Aug. 31-Sept. 1.

Slawson "suspects" that big production showgirls Ciara and Kelly Rowland are out of the Dell's reach, financially.

But that argument can't be made for worthy second-tier urban talents like crooner Donnell Jones, also with a new album to peddle. And it would be smart if the Dell was building its future on the backs of Princely hipsters like Janelle Monae, neo-Motown emulators Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne, bilingual Latin-soul stirrers like Juanes and blues-rock blaster Gary Clark Jr.

Slawson and Dell operations manager Facetta Greene have been attending venue-management school the past two years and are "growing relationships" with major talent agencies. And they are achieving some traction.

Last year the Dell "really lucked out" booking Robin Thicke, a blue-eyed-soul talent craving community credibility. This summer, Thicke has one of the biggest singles on the planet, "Blurred Lines," a collaboration with T.I. and Pharrell.

"We tried all kinds of ways to lure him back, unsuccessfully," Slawson sighed. "It's definitely not easy doing this. Fun, but not easy."


Dell Music Center, Ridge Avenue and Huntingdon Street, 215-683-3675, mydelleast.com.


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