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The Gardens Effect: The 10 Best Meijer Gardens Shows Ever... and why fans keep coming back






When The B-52s and Alexis opened Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s 10th summer concert series last week amid the worst weather in the outdoor amphitheater’s storied history, it tested, and proved, the mettle of this intimate
venue.

Most fans just couldn’t stay away.

Sure, a few hundred no-shows balked at the raindrops and unseasonable chill, but the lion’s share of ticketholders jubilantly bopped and partied to The B-52s like it was their “own private Idaho.”

Call it the “Gardens Effect” -- an addictive vibe enhanced by floral beauty and driven by picnickers hungry to get up close and personal with proven, respected artists.

It means the bulk of tickets sold every year go to Meijer Gardens members, many of whom attend several concerts every summer. In fact, all of the tickets to the B-52s -- along with those to a half-dozen other shows -- were snatched up by
members before they could even be offered to the public.

Maybe that’s why Meijer Gardens, after renovating the 1,900-capacity amphitheater last year, has dramatically boosted the number of concerts booked the past two summers. Whether the amphitheater can sustain enough fan interest to fill all of its lawn seats for a record 25 shows -- some with pricey tickets -- remains to be seen, especially when West Michiganders have to squeeze so many summer entertainment options into tight budgets.

Still, I have a notion most shows will fare reasonably well, thanks to return business sparked by the Gardens Effect.

I guess I should know: I’ve attended and reviewed more than 100 concerts at the amphitheater since it opened with Art Garfunkel’s super-mellow show in 2003.

Since that time, I’ve observed the series’ evolution with admiration as promoter Chris Mautz (and for a couple of years, Kevin Brady) tactfully stretched the genres and age-appeal of acts to include jam bands, classic rock artists, indie-rock and
alt-country stars, jazz pioneers, bluegrass phenoms, blues and soul legends and, this year, even a reggae icon (Jimmy Cliff on June 13) to build a broader audience.

It’s a formula and a business model that’s worked remarkably well, mostly because it focuses on putting exceptional musical talent in an intimate setting, whether it’s a legend like Emmylou Harris or a fast-rising newcomer like The Head
& The Heart.

Sure, occasional detractors complain about lawn chair restrictions or having to scramble for decent seats after getting stuck in long lines at the gate.

Once in a while, they even grumble about performances, whether hammering The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson for being too old, go figure, or most famously, sniping at singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant for being frustratingly distracted by the crowd in the sun-splashed amphitheater.

I myself would love to see edgier acts on the bill – Steve Earle, Robert Plant, Wilco, Norah Jones – but I’m sure we’ll see some of those artists as the series continues to mature.

All things considered, some of the most compelling concerts I’ve witnessed over the past decade have taken place in this amphitheater, from the unexpected revelry of Los Lobos fans dancing gleefully in the pouring rain to the resplendently colorful throng of teens and 20-somethings gyrating to the fog-enveloped, prog-jam spectacle of Umphrey’s McGee.

So, as the 10th season unfurls, here’s my list of the Top 10 Meijer Gardens concerts of all time (with apologies to Jonny Lang, John Prine, Over the Rhine, The Wallflowers, Bright Eyes/The Mountain Goats and Lyle Lovett & His Large Band
who easily could have made the list):

1. Los Lobos/Los Lonely Boys, 2008: The first time these two bluesy, Mexican-American bands co-headlined, they created one of the most magical nights of music I’ve ever seen, with scintillating musicianship and an electric
atmosphere that had fans dancing on stage.

2. David Byrne & the Tosca Strings, 2004: This show in the series’ second year opened my eyes to the possibilities of unexpected musical pleasures and sparks-producing partnerships. Hearing a re-tooled version of The Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” alone was something I’ll not soon forget.

3. Elvis Costello & the Imposters, 2011: The more I think about this show, the better it gets. Poor keyboardist Steve Nieve had to leave halfway through after falling ill, but Costello and crew sauntered on magnificently to attack scads of his hits. And the audience-involving “Spectacular Singing Songbook” roulette wheel turned things into a rollicking game show.
(Costello insisted on adding the wheel after arriving here. Good thing.)

4. Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal, 2009: Promoters and fans had long clamored to land Raitt and her legendary slide-blues display. That they finally succeeded and got Taj Mahal to boot made this season-ending show special indeed.

5. Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, 2003/2011: You could pick just about any Bela Fleck show for its eye-popping musicianship. But when he plays with the Flecktones (especially bassist Victor Wooten), sparks really fly.

6. Buddy Guy, 2010: With three appearances at Meijer Gardens over the years, I couldn’t leave Buddy off this list. His second show, with opener J.J. Grey & Mofro, stands out not only due to his vibrant, unparalleled guitar work, but because I got a chance to chat with him back stage. Sweet.

7. Levon Helm, 2010: This concert takes on even greater significance with the recent passing of The Band’s legendary drummer. Helm and his band energized the small crowd with horn-infused boogie-woogie blues and faves from The Band catalog, and did so with unbridled joy.

8. Robert Randolph & the Family Band, 2007: It’s a shame if you missed this hair-raising, inspiring pedal steel guitarist. His soulful rock, blues, funk, gospel and country stew will make you move your rump. Really.

9. Umphrey’s McGee, 2010: Speaking of rump-moving, the Meijer Gardens debut of this Chicago-area prog-rock/jam/funk outfit was a people- watchers’ delight thanks to a buoyant, young audience.

10. CAKE, 2008; Avett Brothers, 2009: A tie involving two of the most surprising shows in amphitheater annals. CAKE’s ultra-fun series-opening concert was rife with humor and multi-instrumental charm. The Avett Brothers, an upwardly mobile folk-rock trio mostly unknown to West Michigan at the time, uncorking a string-breaking, raucous, genre-bending
display, with healthy helpings of vocal beauty.

This summer, several more candidates could wind up on my “best of” list: Al Green (June 18), Gov’t Mule (June 28), Fiona Apple (July 9), Andrew Bird (July 15), The Head & the Heart (Aug. 2), Grace Potter & the Nocturnals (Aug. 16),
Bonnie Raitt/Mavis Staples (Aug. 17).

Frankly, I can hardly wait to find out.

After 13 years as a music critic and entertainment writer for The Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com, John Sinkevics now maintains his own Spin on Music website at www.localspins.com, commenting on West Michigan’s music scene. He also hosts “Local Spins Live,” spotlighting area musicians, at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW).

PHOTOS: 

First photo: Fans dance to the B-52's during their concert at the Meijer Gardens last Friday.

Second and third photos: The B-52's have many fans who demonstrate their enthusiasm and make photos to share with friends.

Fourth photo: Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson of the B-52's perform to a large crowd, inspite of incliment weather.

Fifth photo: Alexis performs as the opening act for the B-52's.

Photography by ADAM BIRD
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