Merriweather Is Rocking Out With Revamped Image

A citizens committee tours Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2004, when the facility's fate was unknown. An aggressive revival campaign is yielding results.
A citizens committee tours Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2004, when the facility's fate was unknown. An aggressive revival campaign is yielding results. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Just three years ago, the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia hung in the balance. Premier bands didn't want to perform there, and fans weren't drawn to the lineups. The new owners talked about converting the pavilion to a much smaller local venue.

But residents and music promoters worked aggressively to protect the 40-year-old amphitheater in Symphony Woods, launching the "Save Merriweather" campaign in hopes that it could someday be revitalized. Promoters say that season has arrived.

"We are finally at the point where people want to play Merriweather. We don't need to pitch it anymore. . . . It's not a tough sell," said Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of Bethesda-based I.M.P. Productions Inc., which manages the pavilion.

Able to accommodate 15,000 patrons in the pavilion and on the lawn, Merriweather has scheduled an array of popular musical acts for the 2007 season. Groups include the Fray, Wilco, Fall Out Boy, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Willie Nelson, as well as a special performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of Columbia's 40th-birthday celebration.

Next weekend, Merriweather is hosting the Capital Jazz Festival with performances by Anita Baker, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau and David Sanborn.

Over the years, Merriweather, which was purchased by General Growth Properties Inc. in 2004, has struggled to compete with such larger venues as Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, the Verizon Center in Washington and Wolf Trap in Vienna. Now, Hurwitz says, the Columbia institution is seeing consistent growth in attendance. In 2004, 225,000 people came through the gates. But that increased to about 250,000 in 2005 and 2006.

For the 2007 season, 25 shows are booked, compared with 26 last year, but more could be added to the schedule.

Hurwitz and his business partner Rich Heineke said they worked hard during the 2004 and 2005 seasons to turn around the image of the venue and make improvements for artists and concert-goers. They created an artist lounge backstage and constructed an improved concession area, known as the Backyard. They also built the 9:32 Club, an enclosed area with a bar and video screens showing the main stage. Local deejays and small bands sometimes perform there.

The 9:32 Club "emulates the feel and ambiance of the downtown venue," said Jean Parker, general manager of Merriweather, referring to the 9:30 club, a popular Northwest Washington venue also operated by I.M.P.

Merriweather also features sculptures by local artists throughout the grounds.

Seeking to attract new and varied patrons, I.M.P. has broadened its range of shows. On June 23, Thievery Corporation will perform with Bebel Gilberto and deejays Nickodemus, Thunderball and Ursula 1000. On July 14, alternative rock band the Decemberists will perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Hurwitz is hoping these shows will draw the crowd that frequents the 9:30 club.


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