ADDENDUM (6/7/10): And here's a review of the first ticketed show there, Backstreet Boys.
By David Menconi
RALEIGH -- Following years of talk and a few frantic months of construction, downtown's new Raleigh Amphitheater opened to the public Friday afternoon. It was just barely ready to go by the appointed hour.
"Of course we're not ready," assistant Raleigh Convention Center director Doug Grissom joked a few minutes before the gates opened shortly after 5 p.m. "But we're opening anyway. The temporary things we've got will work until Monday."
Friday's debut was a low-key event, a free open-house preview that felt more like a cookout than a concert. Doug Van de Zande was among the first attendees inside, and he made a beeline for the beer stand.
"I got the first beer," he said happily.
The 5,500-capacity amphitheater represents Raleigh's latest attempt to boost downtown with an urban alternative to Cary's bucolic Booth Amphitheatre, and a more intimate setting than 20,000-capacity Walnut Creek. Friday's opening had seven local acts on the bill, beginning with gravel-voiced solo folk-blues player Th' Bullfrog Willard McGhee and ending with venerable alternative-pop band The Connells. The show revealed a venue that's still a work in progress with some kinks to work out.
Right up until the moment the gates opened, workers were bustling about setting up chairs and sweeping sawdust from the newly built (as in, that day) decks adjoining the bathroom trailers. The trailers and huge dirt pile behind the stage give the space a temporary feel that won't abate until there are more permanent structures on the site.
On the positive side, the venue already boasts a pretty solid sound setup. Even acoustic music carried all the way to the back of the venue, with nuances clearly audible. The amphitheater sits in a block bounded by Cabarrus, Lenoir, Dawson and McDowell streets, but traffic noise wasn't overly distracting except for the occasional passing train or ambulance siren.
"I like it so far," said Jonathan Lee as he listened to the twangy rock band Small Ponds play. "It sounds good. It's just weird to have something like this right in the middle of town, you know?"
Even when the uptempo guitar-pop band Sleep Control played, the volume was in the family-friendly range. Small children ran around playing on the grassy hillside at the back of the venue.
If the amphitheater's sound is in good shape, however, there are some issues with sightlines. The best view in the house is actually looking out from the stage, which gives a perfect view of the convention center's shimmer wall and the city skyline.
But viewed from the seats, the enormous stage feels out of scale to the surroundings. The roof is so high that it dwarfs the performers and makes them seem tiny. Also, tents over the soundboard and VIP area cut off the view from a lot of the fixed seats at the rear of the venue.
"Yeah, that's a problem," said Raleigh Convention Center director Roger Krupa. "We'll have to do something about that. But it still turned out all right."
The first ticketed show at the Raleigh Amphitheater happens Sunday. It's the Backstreet Boys, one of 12 shows on the scheduled booked by Live Nation. There will probably be another three to six more Live Nation shows there in 2010, along with live theater, a bluegrass festival and possibly ballet.
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