An hour or two before sunset, the cooler caravan heads to the early-bird special in Overton Park. They tote blankets, folding chairs, and small children. Their destination is one of the summer concerts at the Levitt Shell.
In its fifth post-renovation season, the Shell is on course to set an attendance record, with 30 free summer concerts. There are six of them in July, concluding with the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter’s 40th anniversary concert on July 13th — the same night Robert Plant will play the Memphis Botanic Garden, where lawn tickets are $45, and the St. Jude Benefit Show, “Stage Dive To Save Lives,” is at Minglewood Hall. More than 63,000 people have come to Shell concerts this year, compared to 46,275 at this time last year, said executive director Anne Pitts.
“It’s word of mouth over the last couple of years,” she said. “People are coming to the Shell not even knowing who is playing, just for the experience and time spent with family and friends. It’s become more of a lifestyle as opposed to a music venue.”
The numbers are a calculated guess. Volunteers divide the field into quadrants and count their area several times. The all-time record was set this year when 5,800 people came to see the season opener with the North Mississippi Allstars.
Pitts says that could be broken at the season-ender, when the Allstars return with Bobby Rush, Al Kapone, the Hi Rhythm Section, and several other groups. After that, Indie Memphis will present six concert films from July 18th to August 24th featuring the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Doors, Queen, and the first public showing of a new film about Big Star.
“We have built up a reputation for the kind of production we have,” Pitts said. “Artists are familiar with the show and venue, and a lot of them are calling us now. We are not able to pay as much as another venue they might play at and tend get a little bit of a deal, or grab an artist when they’re between other cities.”
Last Saturday, the Memphis Dawls performed a nostalgic USO-style show with the Memphis Doctors Band before more than 4,000 people. It was the biggest Memphis crowd ever for the three 2001 Cordova High School graduates who regularly play for “the door” before 50 to 100 people at Otherlands and other small venues. “We go for it no matter how big the crowd is, but that huge crowd on the lawn was really exciting. That was our record-breaker,” said Jana Misener, cellist and part-time barista. The next day, the Dawls had 100 more “likes” on Facebook. Built in 1936 and threatened with destruction the 1960s and 1970s, the Shell, like the park, now has an embarrassment of riches — a marketing machine, dozens of corporate sponsors plus event-night donations, the namesake Levitt Foundation that supplies 16 percent of the operating budget, and a 2008 renovation that, among other things, replaced concrete benches with grass.
“Our Levitt Shell has become the flagship because it worked so well,” said Lee Askew of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects. “It’s a perfect little bowl. The dark side, if there is one, is that it becomes so successful that it gridlocks the park when there are two or more blockbuster events in the park at the same time.” Pitts said it’s a nice problem to have but still a problem that will require cooperation between the Overton Park Conservancy, Brooks Museum, the zoo, the Memphis College of Art, and the neighbors.
“The concerts have been great for neighbors being able to walk to them,” said Rob Clark, president of the Evergreen Historic District Association, west of the park. He said complaints involve parking, the lack of crosswalks, and litter — mainly on Tuesdays, which is free day at the zoo. There has been talk for years of building a parking garage, but “I don’t know where they would put it,” said Clark, who met with zoo officials this week. “With growth and popularity, you have to manage the negative that comes with it,” he said. “If Sears Crosstown is developed, we would see a whole bunch more traffic.”
Askew, whose house borders the west side of the park, is confident the various interests will get it right eventually. “When I moved here in 1985, people were changing their oil in the park,” he said. “The park is at an all-time high-water mark.”