This week, I had my first Merriweather Post Pavilion experience, something that seems like it should be treated as a landmark for someone who can be still be regarded as a newcomer to Howard County, five years in. Ergo: a commemorative post. Look, I’m a little embarrassing that it took this long to get to the venue. I’m the type of guy who’s saved ticket stubs since my first “real” concert, The Beach Boys in 19921. I will always regret not hanging onto my circa 1986 Raffi tickets. I’ve seen a lot of bands in a lot of places, some storied, most not.
All of which to say is Merriweather Post was a must for me. With help from a friend2, my wife and I got tickets to the “Last Summer on Earth” tour, featuring Guster, Ben Folds Five, and Barenaked Ladies. We combined a new venue with (for us) nostalgia acts, bands I had last seen in high school or college.3
In HoCo circles, MPP has a far amount of cultural baggage, and how you feel about the venue (not to mention the attendant noise) probably acts as a pretty good canary for how you feel about downtown development or the Inner Arbor.
But first: the venue lived up to the hype. It did. I’ve been in my fair share of pavilions, and MPP avoids the corporate sterility that blanket most. It felt small, which is pretty impressive for a 15,000 seat outdoor venue. Navigation was easy, sound was superb. There were “only-here” touches, like the pinball machines and trees. We were able to drive in and out without the traffic nightmare that ensnares most comparable venues.4 Leaving, I felt even more embarrassed to have let four summers go by without a visit because so many excuses (traffic, price, inconvenience) that keep me out of most places nowadays simply didn’t apply.
And the show exceed expectations. I was really going for Ben Folds Five5 but Guster and, particularly, Barenaked Ladies exceeded expectations. Fun, entertaining, they played the hits, the new songs weren’t bad(!) and they had fun with the crowd.6
But back to that baggage: we went to Union Jack’s for a pre-show cocktail and strolled through Symphony Woods into Merriweather. On the way out, I couldn’t help but think about how many great things Downtown Columbia has, but that aren’t linked. Imagine if we could have had the same evening, but a) not had to sprint across four lanes of traffic a couple of times7 b) been able to go to a different place for an after-show cocktail and c) could have tied the lake, which we never even glimpsed, into the night? I mean, sure, we could have kept walking and ducked down into Clyde’s, but that would necessitate an uncertain haul through parking lots and garages, not a pleasant summer stroll.
A few days before the show, we visited National Harbor. There, we parked in a garage and walked down to the waterfront to a storefront to lunch to a museum to ice cream back to the waterfront and, finally, returned to the car, all on sidewalks, all without a cardiac arrest-inducing road crossing, all within a few blocks of each other. It was great. And what’s more, we drove 45 minutes for the experience and sat in DC traffic. And we’ll do it again.
Columbia has all those same pieces as National Harbor, 35 minutes closer to home. But we would never plan a full day trip there. Why? It lacks the connective tissue, the infrastructure that makes a place like National Harbor, or Reston Town Center, so attractive. Done right, and done well, the Inner Arbor plan will be a step towards achieving the level of connectivity needed to make Downtown Columbia a viable destination. But it will be just that- one step. In darker moments, walking under the shadow of a Lord & Taylor sign on a mall still the centerpiece of a lower-case d “downtown”, I’m doubtful that it can be done. Too much baggage, too many naysayers, too many cooks in the kitchen. But man, if it could be- if the forces for an “awesome Columbia” could put in the work, fight the good fight for the years it will take- that would give a world-class venue the home it deserves. And the next newcomers wouldn’t-couldn’t- wait five years to go.
- This cover art work causes me the most visceral, and culturally embarrassing, nostalgic reaction. I bet there’s a good German word to describe that feeling. ↩
- And putative fellow blogger ↩
- H.O.R.D.E . Festival FTW! ↩
- Was this helped by maybe parking at another establishment and walking in? No comment. ↩
- Robert Sledge, remarkably under-rated bassist: discuss. ↩
- Highlights: ad-libbed songs complaining about the absurdly muggy weather, pointing out two look-alikes in the crowd, and an ill-timed, too-soon George Zimmerman joke from the drummer. ↩
- My wife: “Where is this place? You can walk there from here? I thought it was far away!” ↩