This week, Yonder Mountain String Band will, I hope with minimal difficulty, load in at the Jessye Norman Amphitheater to headline an impressive lineup of bluegrass-inspired acts presented by the always eager Friends with Benefits organization.
As with other Friends shows, it features nationally recognized touring acts, an admirable charitable component and some excellent early word-of-mouth. And if the forecast is correct, the weather should be cool and clear – perfect for an outdoor show.
It should be a success.
It should be an excellent evening out.
It should be a lot of things.
What it will not be is the shot in the arm required to bring the amphitheater back to prominence as a local venue.
There are a lot of things about the amphitheater that are fantastic. The setting is superb. The location is outstanding. The 1,800 capacity is perfect for attracting a wide variety of acts. It has a lot working in its favor – but not enough.
For the Norman amphitheater to become the gem Augusta wants and deserves, there are issues – some simple and others more significant – that must be addressed.
In terms of attracting artists, its lack of dressing and greenrooms is an issue. Yes, there is a hotel a short cart ride away, but in terms of keeping talent conveniently backstage, tents are the only option. That represents an added expense for promoters and might not be the compromise some artists seek.
Gate control is also an issue. Though the hotel and Riverwalk Augusta access can be limited, anyone with a boat and anchor can float in for free. The water has also proved to be quite the conductor for sound, eliciting complaints up and down the river and strictly enforced curfews.
The lack of any real stage elevation or built-in rigging is another issue. Shows such as the Avett Brothers and Corey Smith have had to bring in their own light scaffolds, making load-in – an already notoriously difficult proposition at the venue – even more challenging.
How difficult is load-in? It’s a significant issue without easy answers. Jessye Norman champions will often cite the navigability of the riverwalk as eliminating any issues, but that thoroughfare is narrow and tough on which to back up a truck of any real bulk. I know, for instance, that the Charlie Daniels crew spent more than a few minutes wondering whether its semi was going to become a permanent fixture when the country legend played the amphitheater.
Audiences can have it tough, too. Restrooms at the foot of the facility’s sweeping staircases make wheelchair access difficult. The metal benches – though a maintenance dream – are also relatively uncomfortable after an extended sitting session. And then there is the rain. Like a lot of outdoor event venues, the amphitheater is a washout in the rain.
What are the answers?
Some are simple – cushion rentals at events would be welcome and represent another revenue stream.
A facility building, to include an artist area and public restrooms, would add a lot of value to the venue, as would a downpour-proof awning system extending over the seats. The stage can be raised. Lights rigs can be installed. Those are problems, given some admittedly significant investments, that can be fixed.
Others are tougher.
Load-in – unless the riverwalk is cut or widened – will always be a problem, and the river is the venue’s blessing and curse.
North Augusta homeowners and Marriott guests not looking for evening entertainment will suffer, and there really is no way to bid floating freeloaders “anchors aweigh.”
Here’s the thing: When the right act rolls in on the right night – and the Yonder Mountain show seems to be shaping up for just such an alignment – there is no place in town more inspiring or beautiful to see a show. But without significant alterations and improvements to the venue, I’m afraid that will remain the exception rather than the rule.