Volume 14, Issue 33 ~ August 17 - August 23, 2006

Battle of the Bandstands

Can Southern Maryland supply music fans to fill 10,000 seats?

by Margaret Tearman

Two towns. Two stages. Two venues. Twelve miles. Ten thousand seats.

Can Southern Maryland supply enough fans to fill both?

On the last weekend of August, that question may be answered when both stages hold concerts by top Nashville performers.

On Friday, August 25, the new stage at St. Leonard’s Volunteer Fire Department hosts the Country Gone Wild Tour, featuring newcomers Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean.

Just down the road two days later, on Sunday, August 27, Calvert Marine Museum’s veteran stage lights up with the third and last concert of the Museum’s summer Waterside Concert Series with one of country music’s biggest duos, Big & Rich.

That’s a lot of talent for one weekend in the southernmost reaches of Chesapeake Country, and a lot of tickets to sell. The big question: Are there enough music fans to fill close to 10,000 folding chairs?

Musical Chairs

Calvert Marine Museum has helped support itself with concerts for 20 years. Its Waterside Concert Series is a summer mainstay in Southern Maryland; over the years it has earned a stellar reputation among performers and fans alike. Some of the entertainment world’s biggest stars have appeared on the Waterside stage, including James Brown, Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Martina McBride, Montgomery Gentry and Bonnie Raitt.

Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it knows a good thing when it sees one. Just 12 miles up the road from Solomons, a new stage lights up Southern Maryland’s hot summer nights. To raise money to build a community center, St. Leonard’s Volunteer Fire Department has gone into the concert business.

Perhaps motivated by their neighbor’s success — organizers are reluctant to say so — St. Leonard’s VFD built a wooden stage almost identical to the Marine Museum’s Washington Gas Pavilion.

The stage, sitting at the edge of the field where the future community center is to be built, went up in just one weekend with donated labor and materials.

“We had been talking about putting on concerts for years, like bluegrass or jazz festivals,” says the department’s Daniel ‘DO’ Baker. “Then we just hit on this idea, and one thing led to another.”

St. Leonard’s stage might step on Calvert Marine Museum’s toes, but it doesn’t break any laws.

“St. Leonard VFD owns the property where they built the stage,” said Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw. The county has “no control” over the St. Leonard VFD concerts beyond ensuring that the stage was built to code and that food and beverage vendors are in compliance with the county health codes.

Since the premier 2005 Charlie Daniels Band concert, the firefighters have played host to Lone Star, Jo Dee Messina and, in July, Travis Tritt.

Is Two a Crowd?

Baker, the self-proclaimed chief of the St. Leonard VFD concert series, insists the two stages draw from different demographics and offer the community “different kinds of performers.” Baker uses the July concerts, a week apart, as his example. While Calvert Marine Museum offered up rock’s perennial jam band, The Allman Brothers Band, St. Leonard rolled out the red carpet for country’s Travis Tritt.

Two years earlier, Tritt played to a sell-out crowd at Calvert Marine Museum, which balances rock and country acts.

Both of the July concerts drew healthy crowds, but neither was a sell-out. The Allman Brothers concert sold “4,750 out of a possible 4,990,” according to museum spokeswoman Vanessa Gill.

“Tritt did very well,” said Baker, who refused to reveal final figures. The field surrounding the firefighters’ stage can accommodate close to 5,000 fans. They haven’t had that big a crowd yet.

As for those dueling concerts scheduled for the same August weekend?

“It’s not the best thing that could have happened that weekend,” said Baker. “But we are working on some new ideas.”

Tickets are still available for the August 25 concert featuring newcomers Lambert and Aldean.

Down the road, Calvert Marine Museum says tickets are selling well for its Big & Rich concert on August 27, but seats are still available.

“We are confident that Big & Rich will do very well, as we have already sold nearly 3,000 tickets to our members for this show,” Gill says. “Although both [Big & Rich and Lambert] are country performers, their draw is very different, and the country music crowd is very large in Southern Maryland.”

Lighthouse or Firehouse

It is unusual for a region to have two stages so similar and so close together. The Baltimore-Washington area offers no parallel.

Yet Calvert County (population 88,000) is now a music destination for Southern Maryland — St. Mary’s County is a stone’s throw away and even neighboring Anne Arundel County lacks a competing venue.

But it may be a two-sided ticket. Calvert Marine Museum — a non-profit community museum that is owned and operated by Calvert County and situated on county-owned land — depends on public funds for 40 percent of its annual operating budget as well as for any special exhibit or educational programs.

St. Leonard VFD is allotted county funds for firefighting and rescue equipment, but any “extras” have to be paid for independently.

Fundraising is a tough job, challenging to even the most established and experienced non-profits. If the firefighters do make concerts a permanent part of their firehouse fundraising efforts, as DO Baker promises, Calvert Marine Museum will face its first competition for concert dollars.

So far, the museum has been publicly tolerant of its new neighbor.

“I am a resident of St. Leonard, who would benefit from the use of this building, so I wish them speedy success,” Gill said. “I think our community will continue to come together and support both of these fundraising efforts successfully.”

Gill’s tolerance assumes the competition is only temporary.

“Regarding the St. Leonard concerts, it is my understanding that their stage is a temporary stage, and they are only trying to raise money to build a community center,” Gill said. “Once they have raised enough money to do that, they will be out of the concert business.”

The gloves may come off as both stages continue to lure the same finite universe of fans. Creative booking — and anticipating what the community wants — will likely determine whose house fills.

“Calvert Marine Museum used to be the only girl in town,” said DO Baker. “Now there’s two girls; they better get used to it because we’re here to stay.”

Waterfront or field? Firehouse or lighthouse? Or both? It all comes down to the fans, and only time will tell if there are enough of those fans in Southern Maryland to support both. 

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