Can the Santa Monica Pier become a great concert venue?
A stiff breeze blew across the Santa Monica Pier on a recent afternoon, kicking up sand and sea spray as visitors munched fried food and watched a man paint names on a grain of rice.
But sheltered inside a seafood joint, Mitchell Frank and Martin Fleischmann didn’t seem concerned with the weather — perhaps because they were busy describing winds of change.
“What we’re trying to do is create a destination for locals on the pier,” said Fleischmann, a veteran Los Angeles concert promoter. “Tourists are here all day long, but otherwise it’s underutilized.”
Added Frank, another promoter hired by the nonprofit group that oversees the pier, “The mandate was to bring content here.”
Content — in the form of musical performances — isn’t unheard of on the pier, which last month wrapped its 29th annual Twilight Concert series with a free show by the reggae star Jimmy Cliff. The gig drew 30,000 people, according to some estimates.
But this year the promoters expanded the menu with a slate of ticketed festivals, including All Bands on Deck! (with indie acts such as Poolside and Yacht) and September’s Beach Ball (featuring Aloe Blacc and Sly & Robbie).
This weekend the pier is to host Way Over Yonder, an inaugural two-day roots-music event connected to the venerable Newport Folk Festival with performances Saturday and Sunday by Neko Case, Conor Oberst and Calexico. And Oct. 19 will bring the comedy-based Festival Supreme, assembled by Jack Black and his mock-rock band Tenacious D.
The shows are part of what pier official Jay Farrand called “a larger effort to get people to take a second look at the pier — to think of it not just as somewhere you take Grandma from Kansas.”
But for Frank and Fleischmann — whose respective companies, Spaceland and Rum & Humble, put on concerts at the Echo and the Hollywood Bowl, among other spots — the activity also reflects their desire to establish a new home for music on the Westside, where a dearth of large and mid-sized venues intensified with the closing this summer of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
“People here need a place where they can gather in large numbers for music,” said Fleischmann, who pointed to high rents and restrictive permitting as reasons the Westside generally lacks such spaces.
The century-old Santa Monica Pier, an instantly identifiable — but historically significant — landmark, makes for a complex solution to that problem.
Jay Sweet, who supervises the Newport Folk Festival, said the pier appealed to him for Way Over Yonder because it’s an “iconic place that’s not a traditional music venue” — similar to Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island, where Newport has taken place since 1959.
“There’s an overall vibe there,” said Cliff’s manager, Ernie Gonzalez, who added that the pier attracts an audience more diverse than at other venues. “I went to a show recently at the Greek Theatre with an artist who’s been around for as long as Jimmy,” he said. “And it was kind of the obvious demographic. But at the pier it was all across the board.”
Yet there are also structural limitations — the stage for Way Over Yonder had to be designed according to load-bearing considerations — and the long-established reluctance of arty Eastsiders to travel west.
Brandon Lavoie, who until recently worked as a talent buyer at Santa Monica’s Central Social Aid and Pleasure Club, remembered “literally going to the Echo on Monday night and begging the opening band to come play a headlining slot on Friday.”
Still, Frank and Fleischmann say that turnout at this summer’s Twilight shows — along with strong advance ticket sales for Way Over Yonder — suggest that the pier is meeting a need, one they hope to cultivate with even more concerts in 2014.
Farrand said he hasn’t yet decided how many gigs is the right number for a location that, unlike a club or theater, caters to a varied clientele. “We have natural visitors to the restaurants and the amusement park, and we don’t want to alienate them,” he said.
But so far he’s happy with his new partners’ work. “Mitchell and Martin really see the potential of the space,” Farrand said. “They’re totally on board for next year in my book.”
Way Over Yonder
Featuring Neko Case, Conor Oberst, Calexico, Brett Dennen, First Aid Kit
When: Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: Santa Monica Pier
Tickets: $60 to $200
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