We will rock you
The Academy of Music and other upscale venues welcome acts they once feared.
"HOW do you get to the Academy of Music?" asked the shaggy-haired musician toting an electric guitar.
"You can't," was the unfunny reply we ruefully used to share. "Rock's not allowed in our hallowed hall."
That's how it was for decades.
But the times, as Bob Dylan sang, are finally a-changin'. Dylan himself returns to the Academy of Music for the first time since 1966 for a series of three electric shows Nov. 21 to 23.
Fellow "classic rockers" Neil Young and Jackson Browne play the gorgeous concert hall even sooner: baleful-voiced Young for two nights of career reflections on Oct. 8 and 9; then Browne, running on premium (and all eight cylinders) with a band and a new album on the 10th.
On Oct. 12, contemporary (read: young) pop troubadour Jason Mraz headlines the Academy, with Raining Jane opening.
Throughout the complex of Broad Street venues likewise under the producing/management aegis of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts - the Merriam Theater, Verizon Hall and Perelman Theater - there's a lot more opportunity and interest in "appropriate" pop and rock acts, said Frances Egler, director of the Broadway Philadelphia series and Co-Presentations at the Kimmel Center.
* Brandi Carlile plays the Perelman solo and unplugged Saturday.
* Latino funk, rock and rap superstars Calle 13 hit the 1,700-seat Merriam last Friday, opening act of the second Philly En Vivo concert series. Los Lobos makes a series appearance Nov. 2, celebrating the 25th anniversary of landmark Norteno (Mexican) rock classic "La Pistola Y El Corazon."
* "Geator with the Heater" Jerry Blavat, a lifelong fave of arts-complex benefactor Sidney Kimmel, returns to Verizon Hall with an "Early Days of Rock and Roll" lineup Jan 24.
The new year also will bring a unique collaboration at the Academy between the Indigo Girls and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, put together by the center's artistic director, Jay Wahl; a John Mellencamp show; and "whatever else we can fit into the already busy schedule with our co-presenters," said Egler, name-checking a growing crew of interested collaborators, such as Larry Magid Presents, Live Nation, AEG and BRE.
The Academy of Music's disdain for rock acts dates to Dylan's gigs on Feb. 24 and 25, 1966, when the previously solo folksinger sprang a semisurprise - a plugged-in second set backed by a rock group, mostly players later known as the Band, and quite possibly the loudest night of music yet heard in the hallowed hall.
But the breaking point came on April 5, 1970, when Joe Cocker hit the room with Mad Dogs and Englishmen - a circus-size assemblage of 40, including music director Leon Russell, "as well as small children, dogs and even a pony, I seem to recall," remembers veteran concert presenter Larry Goldfarb, who was in the audience.
But it wasn't the onstage zoo that freaked out Academy general manager Hugh "Huey" Walsh. It was the Cocker-roused crowd that rushed down the aisles, stood on seats and smoked (whatever) in the largely wooden hall, "acting as if they were still at the Tower Theater," recalled then-concert chronicler (now WHYY-FM "You Bet Your Garden" show host) Mike McGrath. "Some of us feared the ghost of Stravinsky would rain down revenge."
After the carpet was cleaned and a few broken seats repaired, Walsh unofficially banned rock shows from the venue, as WMGK-FM weekend host T. Morgan remembered in an online posting that also hails the concert as the best he ever saw.
The ban stuck for decades, with only the occasional piano pop act, oldies bill or rare disco show given a hall pass.
"It wasn't my show, so I can't actually testify to that ban," Goldfarb recalled. (Cocker's concert promoter, Larry Magid, declined to chat about the subject.)
"But I do know Huey was capable of doing that," added Goldfarb. "He seemed like a quiet man on the outside, but you knew he was boiling inside."
Back on the sked
Problem-free Academy of Music appearances in recent years by subdued rockers like the Decemberists, the National and Feist have warmed current Academy/Kimmel Center management to bring in more contemporary music attractions. So have recent, surprisingly strong showings at the Academy for the Celt-rock musical "Once" and Queenly "We Will Rock You," and an incident-free run of the slamming "Rock of Ages" next door at the Merriam.
But let's face facts.
Today's rock audience is largely the same as it was 40-plus years ago. Rising senior citizens are unlikely to stand on their chairs (what if I fall?) and gave up smoking (whatever) years ago.
The rowdiest moment at a recent King Crimson reunion show in a packed Verizon Hall came when one prog-rock purist objected loudly to the saxophone player riffing on a tune: "There are no horns in 'Red'!"
"We're looking to bring in attractions that appreciate a sit-down concert environment in a truly great space - and audiences who may have never been in the Academy of Music, Merriam or Kimmel Center before, who'll also appreciate how good the sound and sight lines and seats are, and might be persuaded to come back for a ballet or an opera or a chamber-music concert," said Egler, who joined the Kimmel team in June.
"It's taking those steps to mine the data from Ticket Philadelphia about who's been to the shows - Are they first timers? Where else do they go? - and converting them to repeat visitors."
Working with commercial concert promoters at a time when arts dollars are tight is "definitely the way to go," believes Goldfarb, who still keeps a hand in the biz booking the Tin Angel.
"I used to look at some of the cultural bookings the Academy or Kimmel Center would bring in . . . and think, 'How are they ever going to put 2,800 people in the seats?'
"Now they're sharing the financial load and the brain factoring with people who are down in the trenches every day, who know, 'This attraction is worth this much at this ticket price.' "