Is the heat getting to you yet? Rocks Off is not going to say this week or two of consecutive 100-plus-degree days is affecting our judgment, but earlier today we approved one of our writers' pitch to make a playlist of songs about Hell. Seemed right on the money to us.
But last week, in the middle of all the hand-wringing about the Kings of Leon cancellation, we thought we glimpsed the shadow of a bigger story. Although only Caleb Followill and his doctor (and maybe his bandmates) know if heat exhaustion was the real reason he prematurely left the stage at Dallas' Gexa Energy Pavilion July 29, it did make us wonder if the stifling weather conditions we've been subjected to recently might make other artists - or, more accurately, other managers and booking agents - wary of routing their summer outdoor tours through the broiler that is Texas in the future.
We chatted with Jerry MacDonald, CEO of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, as maintenance crews were still sweeping up glitter from last Tuesday's Ke$ha show, to see what he thought. "You would think it would, but I don't think it does," he admitted.
"You would think that amphitheater tours would try to book more in the cooler months than July or August, but it's just a matter of scheduling, really. It seems like there's really no rhyme or reason to it."
While we had him on the phone, Rocks Off asked MacDonald about something else that's been bugging us lately. Hot weather or not, it just seems like there are fewer shows, period, this year than in the past. He agreed, but said he thinks the reason stems from a different sort of climate.
"This year, the tours for some reason just started late," MacDonald said. "Last year was a down year in most markets; it wasn't really a down year for us. We had a good year last year, but a lot of markets in the Northeast, Vegas, Phoenix, and some of those markets that were having some real problems in the economy, [it] was also reflected in their number of shows and attendance in their amphitheaters, and entertainment in general.
"I think a lot of tours are coming out later just to see how things were, and that's the reason we're so late," he added.
What MacDonald means is that by this point in an average year, the Pavilion - which is traditionally one of the top two or three highest-grossing venues in North America - has had about 15 or 16 shows. Ke$ha was No. 9. But the lull isn't going to last much longer; this weekend's Friday-Saturday-Sunday run of 311, Stevie Nicks and the Goo Goo Dolls sets the table for a serious run through September and into October. (One of those shows, Santana on Sept. 10, is the subject of a contest you can learn more about on the Pavilion's Web site.)
"We've got 16 shows in the next 60 days," MacDonald noted. "It's crazy."
Besides the late start, MacDonald said the only difference he had really noticed between 2011 and years past is that the Pavilion was short on country tours. Last year the venue had five or six, while this year there have not been any, and none are on the calendar at this point.
Although some touring country artists like Kenny Chesney and George Strait, bolstered by arena/amphitheater-level support acts such as the Zac Brown Band, have moved up to the stadium circuit - as has Taylor Swift, who plays Minute Maid Park in November - many acts that tour in the summer and fall have already played the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. MacDonald says it can be difficult to convince them to come back through the Houston market again so soon, as well as not very cost-effective for his venue.
At the rodeo, he said, "they get 50, 60 thousand people, so their ticket price is $20-22, and their touring show might be $70-75, because you've got two or three opening acts and a whole different show."
"You think it's hard to sell a [Brad] Paisley that plays for 22 dollars, then we get 'em and we try to charge 75 dollars," he said. "We have to be very careful about who we select in country."
The Pavilion is getting one 2011 RodeoHouston alumnus, Kid Rock with Sheryl Crow on Sept. 3. It's trying to be more selective in general, MacDonald said, which has been easier to do since the post-Hurricane Ike renovations were completed, allowing the venue to begin closing the lawn and have seated-only shows at a capacity of 6,000. That was the case at Arcade Fire and Ke$ha, and will be at Stevie Nicks and Adele.
And the venue does have one more advantage over its neighbor in Dallas.
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"Our stage is fully air-conditioned, so even in 100-degree weather we can take that stage down to 68 degrees for the performers," MacDonald said. That might have been one of the problems with Kings of Leon up in Dallas, is their stage is not air-conditioned to that extent. It can be a real scorcher up there.
"But interestingly enough," he added, "a lot of the artists don't want the air-conditioning on during the set. They like to show a little sweat up there."