Why the Triangle still doesn’t have the perfect amphitheater | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Why the Triangle still doesn’t have the perfect amphitheater

Too big, too plain, too quiet



Never mind the solstice: In America, it’s Memorial Day weekend that welcomes the summer. In Indianapolis and in Charlotte, race cars sprint by, and baseball finally comes into focus. On porches and in parking lots, at barbecues and on boats, people pop the tops of their favorite domestics and let the high temperatures roll in.

Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, then, was the perfect summer inaugural. The air still dripped from a Friday night downpour, and the unobstructed sun burned even the coolest brow. But downtown, between the radiant Shimmer Wall of the Raleigh Convention Center and the concrete-and-brick blah of the county’s newest nine-level parking garage, a dozen construction workers weren’t reaching for cold ones. Rather, they were scrambling to install green plastic-and-steel seats and backstage facilities at the new Raleigh Amphitheater, a 5,500-capacity facility that, if the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission votes later this month to overturn a particular long-standing state regulation—which is unprecedented—will be named for Bud Light, the best-selling beer in America since 2001.

That’s a big if, with bigger consequences. When the amphitheater opens this week, it won’t have a title sponsor. In May, the ABC Commission delayed its decision, requesting to hear from the public first. In a subsequent City of Raleigh survey, only 55 percent of more than 1,600 respondents supported naming the venue for alcohol. Last week, neither Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker nor City Councilman Bonner Gaylord—outspoken advocates of the space and name—were convinced such a margin could persuade the commission.

If the exemptions aren’t granted, the City of Raleigh stands to lose $300,000 annually until it can find a sponsor willing to pony up that kind of cash for the next five years. The city could also fall behind on its seven-year schedule of paying for the $2.5 million amphitheater, which includes a $522,000 stage. That stage was built in part because city officials were confident the sponsorship—now being debated by state officials—was secure. If it falls through, the financial burden will fall to Raleigh taxpayers, whether or not they approve of the venue, its name or the bands it hosts.

“If people understood that it was Bud Light or increased taxes, it would be a more rational equation,” says Gaylord. “Do we get $1.5 million from the pockets of taxpayers?”

The question of sponsorship is one of many immediate issues that face the evolving amphitheater market in the Triangle. Between 1991 and 2001, the 20,000-seat shed at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek could claim a monopoly over large-scale outdoor entertainment. In 2001, Cary entered the scene with a 7,000-seat sylvan haven, Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park. And on Friday, if the seats are in the concrete and the speakers are strung from that gargantuan stage, Raleigh will swing open the gates on its own boutique amphitheater. The combination and variety of venues should bring more big-ticket bills to the Triangle. Local promoters agree the spaces even have the combined potential to turn this market into a touring destination, not just a stop between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

But none of these places—each supported by public resources—is perfect. Whether too big, too plain or too quiet, a combination of science, politics and music industry speculation presents a number of hurdles that must be negotiated sooner rather than later. Otherwise, picking which amphitheater to play—or to pay to attend—may turn into a debate about which isn’t the worst.

Ryan Nichols is a 16-year-old of slight build, with braces and close-cropped black hair. He lives with his parents in Willow Springs, a bedroom community between Fuquay-Varina and Garner. Nichols doesn’t have a job, and he doesn’t play sports. Listing his hobbies, his first and most emphatic response is music.

“Listening to it. Talking about it. Writing about it,” he says one recent Saturday morning. He buys mostly vinyl, but he still purchases CDs. Nichols attends about 40 concerts a year in amphitheaters and clubs like Cat’s Cradle, and he often travels to see his favorite bands. He’s been to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and this summer, he’ll follow Phish on tour with his uncle, from Chicago to California. Essentially, if 16-year-olds like Nichols were more rule than increasingly rare exception, the music industry wouldn’t be in such a tenuous place right now.

In late April, Nichols’ mom dropped him off alone at Koka Booth Amphitheatre, a little more than 20 minutes from the family’s home. Two months earlier, his parents advanced him about $40 of his birthday present to purchase a ticket for the first Triangle appearance in five years by Kentucky rock band My Morning Jacket. Nichols had seen the band play for more than four hours two years before at Bonnaroo. “One of the greatest shows I’ve seen,” he says matter-of-factly. In Cary, he arrived early, claimed a spot in the front row and waited for what he hoped would be a reprise of that sprawling Tennessee night.

“It was incredibly quiet,” says Nichols. “A loud, arena-rock-style band like My Morning Jacket should never have that low of volume, and they did. Obviously, the band played a great show. You just couldn’t hear it.” Nichols wasn’t alone in this complaint.

“I had fans, all night long, yelling at me and accosting me: ‘Cut it up! Cut it up!’ It’s so distracting, but I can’t blame them for feeling that way. You pay top dollar to see one of your favorite bands, and you get nothing,” says sound engineer Ryan Pickett. For the last nine years, Pickett—a veteran of several Triangle rock bands who lives in Durham—has toured with My Morning Jacket, mixing their music. He’s risen with the quintet from small rock dives to the country’s biggest arenas, including New York’s Madison Square Garden. Pickett stands in front of the band, among the audience and behind a soundboard, adjusting the levels of instruments and voices so that the crowd hears the right sounds at the right volume. In Cary, he just couldn’t make it happen.

“It was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my life,” he says. “Even the band had a poor show because they couldn’t feel the front-of-house speakers.”

The volume of rock ’n’ roll shows was a persistent point of debate at Koka Booth for much of the venue’s first decade: for attendees, for bands, for town and venue officials and for residents of the affluent neighborhoods separated from the amphitheater only by Symphony Lake.

According to the Town of Cary’s Noise Ordinance, sound above 70 decibels cannot cross into a residential boundary, meaning that officials must closely monitor the volume of the music within the amphitheater. To prevent illegal sound, volume measurements are taken at the soundboard—where people like Pickett work—during shows. In any five-minute interval, the band has to maintain an average volume of 92 decibels at a distance of 80 feet from the stage (or since April 2009, 90 decibels from 100 feet). The public health partnership Dangerous Decibels equates those levels to a household food blender or a busy urban street. For many bands, they just won’t work.

“People turn up rock music, you know?” says Justin Glanville, who has worked as the front-of-house engineer for The Avett Brothers since 2005. The Avetts packed Koka Booth in 2008 but, according to a Town of Cary report, refused to return in 2009 because of the volume limits. “They want to hear it. They want to feel it. That starts happening around 95 decibels at front-of-house. I usually mix a little louder.”

Venue records confirm that rock bands consistently push the town’s limits. In 2006, the amphitheater fined Black Eyed Peas $2,000 for their volume, a sum to be paid by the band. In 2008, three shows generated $5,000 in fines. Every headlining rock or soul act at Koka Booth in 2009 averaged or eclipsed 90 decibels, except Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls and The Robert Cray Band. The Carolina Bluegrass Festival even averaged 90 decibels.

Kings of Leon finished their April 2009 set with the highest average allowed, but fans still took to the Internet to lodge complaints about the low volume. “I could easily hear the chatter of people around me. When the crowd cheered, I could barely hear the band play,” said a commenter on the blog Triangle Music. “The sound flat-out sucked, thanks to Cary regulations,” echoed another.

Koka Booth offers the most generous and thoughtful programming of any large venue in the area in one of the area’s most identifiable public spaces. Since 2005, it’s averaged 62 events per year. As a pop venue, it serves both as a platform for bands rising to larger amphitheaters or arenas (Kings of Leon and John Mayer) and for those no longer able to fill such spaces (Ben Folds and Counting Crows). Two years ago, the venue signed a new booking contract with Outback Concerts after several seasons with Live Nation. Local promoters agree it’s produced healthy competition in the area.

But that’s not the bulk of Koka Booth’s programming. The amphitheater screens a dozen family-oriented films each summer with its Movies by Moonlight series and hosts popular community gatherings like the traditional Indian celebration Diwali. The official summer home of the North Carolina Symphony, Koka Booth drew nearly 20,000 people to the park to hear classical music in 2009.

“The amphitheater structure was designed and built to specifically project symphonic music,” wrote Ted Leamy, an acoustics consultant with California company Pro Media/ UltraSound, in a study for the Town of Cary conducted in 2008. Situated among 14 acres of hardwoods and pines, the amphitheater—an oddly wondrous glass, wood and steel frame that opens like the mouth of some benevolent alien craft—wasn’t crafted for rock bands. It reflects too much sound for electric guitars and drums, and the grounds are intended more for sprawling out than packing in. But rock, soul, country and blues shows generated more income than any other event category by far in 2009 for the venue, which still receives an annual operating subsidy from the town. Those shows also attracted nearly a third of the year’s attendees, according to town documents.

Still, the town’s response to Leamy’s report suggests those shows aren’t the space’s top priority. The town spent $24,500 implementing a number of his suggestions. It built a second mixing position 20 feet back from the original to give sound engineers like Pickett a more accurate assessment and installed heavy drapes to absorb some sound that might misfire into the neighborhoods.

But they stopped short with Leamy’s report, which insisted that the two delay sound systems—clusters and rows of speakers that distribute music through the crowd after it emanates from the speakers on stage—“should not be utilized for rock concerts.” My Morning Jacket used them. More important, the report’s first recommendation is that the town “design and install a sound system optimized for the venue.” The town passed on the idea.

“That would be extremely expensive,” explains Town of Cary Cultural Arts Manager Lyman Collins, “and require much more study than we have currently done.”

More study might be exactly what Koka Booth needs. Six years ago, a team of acoustic architects at the Massachusetts firm Acentech spent nearly two years investigating sound at Atlanta’s Chastain Park Amphitheater, a 6,700-capacity facility situated in that city’s largest park. Like Koka Booth, Chastain Park sits near a wealthy neighborhood that’s historically been sensitive to concert noise. After studying two-dozen concerts at the venue, the team concluded that the lower frequencies at concerts provided the nuisance in surrounding areas. These days at Chastain Park, sound engineers cap the sound at that frequency rather than fuss about overall decibel levels. According to Acentech consultant Thomas McGraw, who implemented those same standards at the new Raleigh Amphitheater, the community has been very satisfied with the results. So was My Morning Jacket, who played at Chastain Park one week before visiting Cary.

“The Chastain Park show went without a hitch. We had a perfectly normal show. No one complained. The band was happy. I was happy,” says Pickett. “Having done both venues now, I really feel like the Town of Cary should retool the way they temper the sound ordinances. Or they should book symphonic acts, folk acts, whatever. Anything amplified should be somewhere else.”

Management at Koka Booth has at least been proactive in informing bands about the venue’s limitations. The terms of the sound ordinance are included in contracts, and before installing any sound equipment the day of a concert, a representative of the artist must sign an agreement that restates the conditions and fines. Last year, two acts—Stone Temple Pilots and Jane’s Addiction—balked at the terms and passed on a show in the Triangle. My Morning Jacket reconfigured their entire live setup for the tour because of Cary. Frontman Jim James even bought a new amplifier. But it wasn’t enough. According to the band’s manager, Mike Martinovich, My Morning Jacket won’t return, either, at least until the necessary fixes have been made.

“I don’t think the band would want to put themselves or their audience through what they considered to be a diminished experienced,” says Martinovich. “I would love for Koka Booth to not get a bad rap for this. My Morning Jacket had a great turnout for the show. The market deserves an aesthetically pleasing music experience.”

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