Summer means outdoor concerts, and for 50 years, people around Baltimore and Washington have been heading to Merriweather Post Pavilion for music in the woods. Originally designed by Frank Gehry as a home for the National Symphony Orchestra, the pavilion and lawn have played host to some of the biggest names in rock and pop, from David Bowie to Stevie Wonder to Pink Floyd to Alan Jackson to Miles Davis to R.E.M.
Since 2003, the venue has been operated by Seth Hurwitz and I.M.P., the owners of Washington D.C.'s legendary 9:30 Club and the forthcoming 6,000-capacity venue Anthem, as well bookers at the Lincoln Theatre. Currently, Merriweather is undergoing a five-year, $55 million renovation that includes a new backstage complex, rotating stage, new concessions, a green-tiled band shell called the Chrysalis Amphitheater, and more.
The golden anniversary will be celebrated with—what else?—a concert on July 15 that includes singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, country legend Willie Nelson, and human meme/indie folker Father John Misty. I caught up with Hurwitz over email to discuss the venue's longevity, competing with Live Nation, and his favorite parts about running Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Brandon Weigel)
City Paper: You recently told Billboard that running Merriweather "is like a baseball fan being handed Wrigley Field." What was the first show you saw there? What about that experience and the experience of subsequent shows there struck you?
Seth Hurwitz: I don't remember which was first. I was a kid. I remember seeing The Tubes, Blondie and Rockpile, George Benson, Devo, Elvis Costello.
CP: What's the best show you've seen there?
SH: That's easy: Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
CP: When I.M.P. took over in 2003, Merriweather was seen as struggling to book big acts. This was in part because many were being booked at Nissan Pavilion (now Jiffy Lube Live). Both venues were operated by Clear Channel. What was your philosophy for turning it around?
SH: Well the first thing was to get rid of all the ugly things I saw. I remember there was this big sign that said "BATHROOMS & BEER." I mean, I know the two are inseparable, but I'm not sure we need to demonstrate that.
You know, in music, as in many things in life, it's what you don't play that's as important as what you do. So the first thing was to stop booking a lot of the crap that had been filling up the schedule. I guess you could say that was getting rid of the ugly things as well.
Then next, and most important thing as always: Teach all the people working there that we're here to have fun. SMILE GODDAMMIT!!!
Seriously, everyone . . . relax. It's just a rock concert.
CP: Merriweather is in the midst of a $55 million renovation that includes a rotating stage, a pool and new backstage area for performers, and a number of amenities for fans. What does that offer you in terms of competing with the larger sheds run by Live Nation?
SH: We can't beat the tour deals. They are designed to force people to play places they wouldn't otherwise play. Or they would just get those shows anyway and wouldn't need to make those deals.
So we have to make sure that if we are competing against another venue on a merits only basis, then we are better. And those we win every time. This just helps make it even easier.
CP: I'm particularly interested in the Chrysalis Amphitheater. What kind of flexibility does that give you for booking? Could you, say, book bands that might fit better at 9:30 Club and have them do an outdoor night show because it's a smaller stage?
SH: You know, some bands just want to play outside in the summer. And they're not Merriweather XL big. But they like who we are and where we are. And now we have a truly alternative space that is genuinely in the woods. So it's something cool and different to do. Everybody likes cool and different. Well . . . we do, anyway.
CP: You haven't been shy about taking on Live Nation in the past. Do you think there will ever be a breakthrough to level the playing field for independent promoters such as yourself?
SH: I have no idea what's going to happen. All I can do is navigate, myself, based on where I think things are headed. What other people do is beyond my control. Although to answer your question, sort of. I don't really see any other independent promoters exactly like me.
CP: Columbia continues to grow up around the venue, which has in fact threatened Merriweather's very existence at points in its history. Do you ever worry the feelings of seclusion and engaging with nature will be lost as the area develops?
SH: Perhaps the journey heading in might be different but, once you're inside, I think the place is as magical as ever, if not more. In fact, the contrast might even make that better.
CP: What is your vision for Merriweather going forward?
SH: I am trying on some new contact lenses this week.
CP: There's talk about how there are fewer and fewer acts that can fill stadiums. Do you ever worry about that with sheds?
SH: Well the amazing thing about Merriweather is that we don't have to fill it for it to look full. And if you make deals that require selling out, then you will be out of business very soon. So selling out shows is not a priority, believe it or not. I'm not denying that sell-outs are great, but that's not what I measure success by. If a show is making money, people are smiling, it's nice out, and the music is wonderful . . . well . . . that's success. And if the O's are winning, well then life doesn't get much better.
CP: Not many music venues have the history Merriweather does. What has given it staying power?
SH: It's unique. And it's old. And we're nice to people. And it's fun. And we book cool shows. And serve good food and drinks at reasonable prices. I don't know, I can only speak for what we do now. If we didn't treat people right, I don't think it would last. I suppose somebody might fuck it up in the future, but we're here now, and we don't take anything for granted. We want to be the best venue for acts to play, and for people to go to. So we get up every day and ask ourselves how we can be better.
CP: The "About Us" section on Merriweather's site posits what the backstage walls would tell us if they could talk about the Who and Led Zeppelin hanging backstage. They can't, of course. But maybe you can give us a more recent perspective. What's your best story from behind the scenes?
SH: Well, speaking of the aforementioned, when Robert Plant was here with Alison Krauss, he stood in the hallway (which we were all surprised about how cool he was to hang out and not be sequestered in his dressing room, given his rock star royalty pedigree) and said, "Wow, I remember when we opened up for The Who here."
I just stand around and watch it all come and go. I am very lucky to be a part of it. I still can't believe it.
MERRIWEATHER BY THE NUMBERS
Played the Most Times
Jimmy Buffett (46)
The Allman Brothers Band (19)
James Taylor (18)
The Beach Boys (18)
Barry Manilow (17)
Number of Times a Sitting President Has Performed
Two: Jimmy Carter twice joined Willie Nelson to sing 'Georgia'
Ranking in Rolling Stone's 2013 List of the Best Amphitheaters
Year the Pavilion Was Expanded by Two Loge Sections
1970, to accommodate a seven-night run by Tom Jones
Year They Ripped Out Seats In the Orchestra Pit to Win a Show Requiring a Mosh Pit
2005, for Green Day's "American Idiot" tour