What’s new at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion?
How about a VIP deck above the new stage that allows concertgoers to watch the musical mastery from behind it? And that stage encompassing a circular area that revolves, which has already allowed acts at the just-held first event of the season, the M3 Festival, to kick into their heavy metal grooves much faster than they used to?
Those are the latest additions after the $6.5 million first phase of the renovation to Merriweather, which began last summer. Those upgrades encompassed a new box office, merchandise/retail and a small concession stand in what’s called West Plaza, and they’re complete; it was after the last curtain fell last fall that the second phase of the total five-year, $30 million project began. It not only includes the new stage house, but also a new backstage area, dressing rooms and other amenities.
Now, with M3 in the rearview mirror, the stage house is also done and the backstage facilities are slated for completion later this summer. The next phase, to begin after the last show this fall, will include the hydraulic raising of the pavilion roof by 20 feet (to match the stage house) and the new seating bowl, with cross aisles that will move from side-to-side, and parts of the small concrete walls that separate the loges from the center section, to be removed.
The following off season, scheduled upgrades include adding an elevator to the south plaza, along with upgrades to the ticket offices and restrooms on the east side of the venue, with the whole property slated to be upgraded to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, thus allowing the physically challenged to move, in a circle, all the way around the property.
In mid-April, the staff at Merriweather was “feeling good about having the pavilion stage house completely ready to go for M3, including the stage, loading dock and the roof above it. So, it’s everything the audience sees,” said Brad Canfield, director of operations for It’s My Amphitheater (I.M.A.), operator of the pavilion.
The progress on the back house hasn’t happened as quickly as had been hoped. “We’re still working on some parts of back of house, finishing the dressing rooms, the green room, etc.,” Canfield said, “so we have temporary accommodations coming online.”
As for the oft-discussed parking plan for Merriweather, long-time pavilion goers will be disappointed to find that they will again be forbidden to park at The Mall in Columbia lot, where a number of tow trucks cruised the lots before some of last year’s shows. (A phone call was placed to the Howard Hughes Corp., which oversees development in downtown Columbia, to obtain comments for this article. Those efforts were declined through the public relations department).
In addition, “a handful of spaces are not available due to construction on the dirt lot behind the pavilion, but it is basically the same as it was last season,” said Canfield. “Parking will be available on the lot behind the pavilion and in the parking lots of local offices buildings,” he said, “as well as another old lot where the Symphony Woods petting zoo was back in the ’70s, by the barn.”
The most important aspect of this phase of the project, said Jamie Pett, principal with JP2 Architects, of Baltimore, “is that the stage house is new and contemporary, with the rigging grid 60 feet above the stage. It can accommodate theatrical lighting and sound equipment that the old stage just couldn’t handle. It will be phenomenal for the festivals, because it’ll only take about two minutes to rotate.”
Also, the backstage building will provide a solution to the scattergun collection of trailers and tents that were used for dressing rooms and artist support. “We’ll have it done later this season. It was originally scheduled for construction next year, and we’re doing it now,” Pett said. “In that way, we’re ahead of schedule.
“It can take an entire day to set up a concert,” he said, “and this facility will be a true state-of-the-art venue. We hope the next phase will continue without any big issues, even though we have to build it during the cold weather months. That makes it a challenge.”
Even with foibles that weren’t apparent to the fans, “Merriweather already has a positive image and [the renovations] will burnish that,” said Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of Pollstar, an online music industry trade publication. “Everyone out there touring knows what venues are good to play and which ones may have some issues.”
Merriweather’s competition is often Jiffy Lube Live, a larger amphitheater that is nestled in the further reaches of Northern Virginia that has a severe access problem. Bongiovanni expects that competition to continue, to a degree. “Sometimes artists follow their potential to sell more tickets, but most of the amphitheater shows don’t sell out.”
That fact could bode well for smaller Merriweather. “The agents have a saying: ‘There are no bad shows, just bad deals,’” he said. “Remember, the amphitheater wants to sell concessions and parking, if they can. But at Merriweather, it’s about the overall experience — which has been the case with [pavilion promoter] Seth Hurwitz and [his company] I.M.P. (as in It’s My Party) all along. I.M.P. sells the quality of its facilities against competitors that often compete by throwing more money at the band.”
For Hurwitz, however, the issue “has never been acts choosing where to play. When acts have a choice, they nearly always choose Merriweather,” he said. “The problem is that, to try and defeat that, Live Nation (Jiffy Lube Live’s owners) offer all-or-nothing tour deals that force acts to play their venue if they need dates in other cities. Of course, if acts were going to play there regardless, they wouldn’t need to make those deals.”
While the improvements at Merriweather are welcome, they’re really just part of its constant evolution. “As is the case with all of my venues (which includes the 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C.), there is always room for improvement,” Hurwitz said. “As soon as you think you’re ‘there,’ you’re standing still. And that’s never good.
“Also, we want there to be new things for music fans to see every time they visit us,” Hurwitz said. “We want to surprise and delight, without disrupting the really good routines.”
It looks like “surprise and delight” are in the air, to hear long-time observers of this very long renovation saga tell it. “It’ll be great when it’s finished,” said Howard County Councilmember Mary Kay Sigaty, from District 4. “We’ve all been holding our breath concerning the completion of the second phase of the renovation, but it looks like things are far enough along to get the season underway successfully.”
“Merriweather patrons are a special breed, and they love to support their favorite acts there. I’m certain that this year will be as special as [those of] years past,” said Sigaty, adding that this season’s upgrades, including changes to the sound system, will be further refined before the start of 2017.
Also feeling upbeat about the changes is Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts & Culture Commission, who co-founded an organization in 2003 called Save Merriweather.
“The stage house was original from 1967, and it was very short and could not hold the lights, sets and the needs of modern tours,” said Kennedy. “[The rebuilt stage house] will add many more potential opportunities to Merriweather’s calendar — and we still have the trees, the lawn and the iconic roof. This is an incredibly exciting time to see everything happening in the middle of downtown Columbia.”
Kennedy also noted a sign displayed at the venue that also seems to be an indicator of what’s happening in that part of Columbia. “The sign says, ‘Welcome to Merriweather Post Pavilion, Make Yourself at Home,’” he said. “That’s the spirit of the venue and the spirit of the people who work there.”