No Summertime Blues for Region’s Concertgoers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” as DuBose Heyward wrote in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” but summer concerts are the products of much time, money and thought.

When the mercury rises, outdoor entertainment heats up in the Mahoning Valley. Venues, bands, cities and promoters vie for the attention and dollars of a restive public.

For those who want to see and hear live the biggest national acts, the Covelli Centre in Youngstown and Packard Music Hall in Warren are two of the largest venues in the area. However, summer is one challenging season for indoor concert halls, says Eric Ryan, president of J.A.C. Management, which operates both.

“It’s always difficult for any arena, especially in the Midwest, which has a drastic change in climate between spring, summer, fall and winter,” Ryan says. Vacations, parks and outdoor festivals are among the plethora of entertainment options that compete for the public’s time. “It’s harder to get their attention,” he says.

Covelli and Packard face intense competition from other large venues in the region during the months of warm weather, Ryan says.

Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls and KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., “take away a lot of the major acts that we would be able to do,” he says. Both have a seating capacity of 23,000.

Outdoor amphitheaters can book large touring packages, allowing patrons to buy one ticket and see more than one artist. The “Country Megaticket” is one of the most popular of the package deals in the region, he says.

Tickets for that series start at $200 and cover admission for several concerts in one venue over the course of the summer. Both Blossom and KeyBank will host megaticket concerts this year.

“In the summertime, our philosophy is that if we get something that we feel is big enough to compete with outside markets, we try and book it,” Ryan says.

Over the past several summers, J.A.C. has booked at least one major artist at Covelli. Lionel Richie and Kiss sold out in 2016 and Rod Stewart packed the house in 2015. “It has to be a major artist to be able to financially sustain the show,” Ryan says.

The smaller Packard Music Hall booked Gladys Knight and the Pips, Andy Grammer and Vince Gill last summer and Loretta Lynn will perform there June 9.

A small number of music genres always prove popular with area concertgoers. “Classic rock always does well here,” Ryan says. “Country is doing well everywhere, but especially here. Prior to us coming here, there wasn’t a lot of country. But since we took over [Covelli] eight years ago, we’ve made a concerted effort to do more country – and it’s worked.”

With the opening scheduled next year of the riverfront park and amphitheater in downtown Youngstown, Ryan hopes to bring in a more diverse range of acts. “The landscape will change a bit when it’s built,” he says. “The reason for the amphitheater is to [offer] concerts outside, since that’s where people want to be. From a community standpoint, it’s going to be less expensive to operate, which should allow us to do anything that comes down the pike.”

Since the inception of the Party on the Plaza series in the former Federal Plaza pedestrian mall, outdoor music has been a summer mainstay in downtown. Party on the Plaza has ended, but live music played outdoors continues to draw crowds.

Last year, the city started the Downtown Shutdown. “It’s a kind of ode to the Party on the Plaza as it once was,” says Michael McGiffin, Youngstown coordinator of events and special projects.

The concept involves “shutting down the office a little early” and drawing downtown workers and patrons to shows at the Kress parking lot, he continues. The city hosted four last summer.

Between six and eight are planned for this summer, all free of charge. McGiffin hopes such events will boost business traffic. “The ultimate goal behind all of this is to stir up the micro-economic system within the downtown,” he says.

Youngstown also plans to host daylong festivals McGiffin says, such as Revive Music and Arts Festival, Youngstown Gospel Festival, Youngstown Wine and Jazz Festival and Federal Frenzy, a partnership between Youngstown State University and the city.

More changes are in the mix this year. JD’s Summer Songfest, which features Youngstown native JD during his tour, will relocate downtown this summer, McGiffin says. The concert has been held at the Quaker Steak & Lube in Austintown.

The Youngstown Wine and Jazz Festival, formerly known as the Youngstown Jazz Festival, started downtown in 2010. The inaugural show featured international performers David Benoit and Spyro Gyra.

By 2014, however, the festival had fallen on hard times – losing $23,000 with only about 700 people attending – necessitating a rebranding. The city has begun marketing the event to a wider audience. McGiffin hopes the new festival feels closer to Napa Valley than the Mahoning Valley.

“We’re going to have local wineries and vineyards on site,” he says. “The goal is to make it feel like you’re not in Ohio for the day.”

Festivals can draw large crowds, but if not done properly, can also cause problems. The decision to close off downtown for a festival is always the product of careful planning, McGiffin says.

“Closing [the downtown] down can be a good thing, if it happens every once in a while,” he states. “If you do it every weekend, it’s not necessarily a good thing for our brick-and-mortar stores.”

Downtown festivals can boost the profile of local bands as well. The Vindys, one of Youngstown’s most popular groups, are festival veterans, including a performance at last year’s Federal Frenzy.

“The crowds are normally very receptive to what we do,” says guitarist John Anthony. “We really can’t get enough of them.”

Festivals are among the better-paying local gigs, Anthony says. With a new CD due out in April, the Vindys hope to play downtown again this summer.

If you cruise through downtown Warren on a Saturday in summer, chances are you’ll notice River Rock at the Amp. The popular summer concert series held there rocks the riverside every week at the Warren Community Amphitheater.

River Rock features mostly tribute bands and the occasional regional act, says Ken Haidaris, president of Sunrise Entertainment, which produces the concerts.

“The more popular the real band, the more it translates to the tribute band,” he says.

Tickets for tribute bands are usually less than $10, but prices go up for regional acts. When Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes played at the amphitheater in 2013, tickets ranged in price from $20 to $100.

“We do have regional acts, but our price point is a little lower on our tickets,” Haidaris says. “So we try and watch our costs.”

But when it comes whether a profit is shown, “the weather is everything,” Haidaris says. And it’s not just rain. Heat can also affect attendance, he says. “When it’s hot, people sometimes come out later than usual. Eighty degrees, sunny and no humidity – that’s the perfect night.”

The sounds of music are sure to again drift from the Maag Outdoor Art Pavilion in Boardman Park this summer, as they have more than 35 years.

“We have everything: polka, jazz, contemporary, concerts bands. It’s a wide variety of music,” says executive director Dan Slagle. “We work with the musicians’ union. They make a donation to defer the cost and we try to bring in bands from the musicians’ hall.”

Concerts are held at 7 p.m. every Thursday from June through August. The typical audience ranges from 400 to 500, but attendance has topped 800 for especially popular acts such as polka master Del Sinchak.

The series is so popular that many concertgoers have begun planning for this summer’s lineup, which hasn’t been released yet. “We have people coming into the office right now looking for the schedule,” he says.

Firestone Park in Columbiana hosted seven weeks of music in 2016 and is busy planning this year’s schedule. “It could be country-western, an individual singer, oldies,” says Greg Gustafson. “We try to change it up a bit.” Gustafson is co-chairman of the concert series.

The House Band, a Youngstown-based act that has opened for groups such as Kool and The Gang and 10,000 Maniacs, is one of the most popular recurring artists.

“Most of the groups are fairly reasonable, knowing that we don’t make a profit,” he says. “Some reduce their rate and help us out a bit.”

Nearby businesses sponsor the concerts and food and refreshments are usually available.

“We do it primarily to show the people in our community and surrounding communities what Columbiana has to offer,” Gustafson says.

Summer concerts are held Monday through Friday every week in downtown Sharon, Pa. From late May through the end of August, the city features regional musicians at noon every Wednesday for the Brown Bag Lunch Concerts in Columbia Theater Park.

Concertgoers can expect anything from steel bands to polka. “It’s really usually a diverse schedule,” says John Evans of the Sharon City Arts Commission.

Most bands aren’t busy that time of week, Evans says, so finding great acts is easier. What helps draw crowds are downtown restaurants that offer a $5 brown bag lunch that music lovers can eat during the show. Sponsorship levels for the show itself range from bronze to gold.

Usually 12 to 14 shows are held a season. “It’s growing every year,” Evans says. “We have retirees, businesspeople that bring clients down to listen. So it’s a very community-oriented event.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.