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Cruel Summer

Are we hearing the death rattle of the sheds?

A couple of weeks ago, the entire Lollapalooza Tour was canceled. Earlier this summer, Christina Aguilera likewise pulled the plug on a whole tour, citing a throat condition, and her rival pop tart Britney Spears also canceled a bunch of dates, pegging the blame on a bum knee.

Though there was no Houston date planned for Lollapalooza, neither Spears nor Aguilera will be treating Woodlands audiences to their naughty dance moves or saucy songs as scheduled. The Mary J. Blige show there in May was also a bomb, as opposed to da bomb. So far, it's been a down year for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Houston's foremost concert amphitheater, or shed, as they're called in the music business.

"We've got about the same number of shows as last year," says Mitchell Pavilion president Jerry MacDonald. "And so far it's been a little off. There's a number of reasons for that -- probably the No. 1 reason has been the weather. We've had 30 days of rain in the last month, and that hasn't helped us."

But even in sunnier cities, the summer season has been a washout. Nationwide, shed shows are hurting. Sales of general-admission lawn seats are said to be especially weak.

"Everyone from the Dead to Dave Matthews to Norah Jones is suffering," read a statement by Marc Geiger of the William Morris Agency, the company that helped found and organize the 13-year-old Lollapalooza festival. "There's not one explanation for this. It might be that ticket prices are too high…Maybe it's the sundry add-ons that up the cost? Maybe gas prices are too high?"

Think about all that in relation to Houston and the Pavilion. Let's pick an upcoming concert and apply Geiger's rhetorical questions -- say, the Kid Rock show on July 23. Lawn tickets are $28 -- not too bad, compared to some others; John Mayer is asking $35.50, Sting and Annie Lennox $38, Dave Matthews $39.50. But here come Geiger's "sundry add-ons." Ticketmaster tacks on its usual $7 "convenience charge" to each ticket and its usual $4.15 "order processing charge" for the entire order. (And these fees are nonrefundable -- even if the Kid dies before the show, you're out $18.15.) The Pavilion demands another ten bucks for parking, or $12.30 if you let Ticketmaster handle it -- they get a 23 percent markup. And in this case, alone among the shows this summer season, you would also have to pay a seven-buck-per-ducat "facility fee" to the Pavilion. (After all, it's Kid Rock we're talking about -- there will probably be more puke slicks to mop up than usual.)

So let's say you plan to take a date to go see the Kid. That's $56 for two tickets, plus $42.15 in fees, of which Ticketmaster takes $18.15 and the Woodlands folks $24. Ring-ring, that's $98.15, please, all before your first expensive beer or soggy nacho.

Of course, you could pocket Ticketmaster's share by picking up your tickets at the box office, but unless you're an extreme masochist who enjoys traffic on I-45 and can take a couple of hours off during their office hours (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays), it's unlikely you will. After all, the Mitchell Pavilion is a full 30 miles of treacherous, traffic-clogged interstate from downtown, and much farther from Sugar Land and Pearland. At the end of all that driving and time off work, you'd still be stuck with the Pavilion's $24 worth of surcharges. And what does a 60-mile round-trip cost in gas these days?

When you get to this Kid Rock show, what do you get? The right to navigate a confusing system of parking lots, all far from the venue, for starters. Once inside, you get a few square feet of grass, hundreds of yards from the stage, in an amphitheater carved out of a swamp, in August, in one of the worst summer climates in the world. And then it might rain, transforming your patch of grass into part of a huge, sloped Woodstock-like mud wallow. At many shows, you can't bring in umbrellas or blankets, both of which the venue deems dangerous and/or a nuisance, though the venue will provide you with a rain poncho you can keep for $5 and a rented lawn chair for another four bucks. Or you can bring in a bath towel -- not a beach towel, mind you -- to sit on. (You can't bring in your own lawn chair, of course. According to the venue, you might block somebody's view.)

"They've played baseball indoors for 45 years in this city, and somehow we've built an outdoors concert venue 30 miles from town in a swamp," fumes one nonfan of the Pavilion.

Classic rock fan Pam Tinsley is another Pavilion basher. She claims that the back speakers -- the ones closest to the lawn -- have been off every time she's been there recently. "I went to the Boston, Journey and Aerosmith shows, and they were off every time," she says. "I confronted some people who work there about it, and they denied it, but I know they were off. You can't hear anything. I can hear the bands louder on my car stereo on the way home than at the concert." (Two other fans backed up Tinsley's claim, though MacDonald and Pavilion media relations director Cindy Dubois both said they had yet to hear similar complaints.)

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