The Who and Led Zeppelin only shared the same stage once, in May 1969, and The Who’s crew had to ask Zeppelin to get off the stage so the band could squeeze in their own set. Former President Jimmy Carter sang “Georgia on My Mind” twice with Willie Nelson at the same venue. Janis Joplin performed three weeks before Woodstock at a show reviewed by Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post prior to his Watergate investigation fame. Helicopters were brought in to dry out a giant mudslide on the lawn of the venue hosting The Grateful Dead during a two-day show in 1983. What do these stories have in common? They all happened at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The iconic outdoor venue turned 50 this year, celebrating five decades as one of the DC area’s favorite spots to experience live music. Not only have dozens and dozens of legends graced Merriweather’s mainstage – from Lou Reed and David Bowie to Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix – the Columbia, Maryland venue nestled in Symphony Woods has been a mainstay of our local music community since the 70s. And since I.M.P.’s Seth Hurwitz (9:30 Club, Anthem) began operating the venue in 2003, Merriweather’s summer lineups have become among the most eclectic and alternative that the DC area has to offer.
Jimmy Buffett: 46
The Allman Brothers: 19
James Taylor: 18
The Beach Boys: 18
Barry Manilow: 17
On July 15, Merriweather will hold its 50th anniversary show with Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson and Family, Rockville native Father John Misty, and special guest host Grace Potter. The concert will be Potter’s first U.S. public appearance in nine months, and she says this is a really special way for her to return because she’ll be performing with “some of my favorite people on Earth.”
“It’s just such an amazing collective of people who really have carved their own paths,” she says. “It seems like everyone performing are troubadours who march to their own drum.”
When asked if any of the musicians will join forces onstage, Potter’s response is
“I think it’ll come together in that really classic Woodie Guthrie way, where if there’s a conversation that needs to be had onstage, it’ll be in the moment.”
The anniversary show marks Potter’s fifth performance at Merriweather, and her enthusiasm for the venue is evident.
“I got a phone call [to host the show] and I was like, ‘F–k yeah.’ People come out of the woodwork for Merriweather shows because it’s a special place. It’s worth making a pilgrimage for it.”
Potter is one of many musicians who feel like part of the I.M.P. family, through great experiences at Merriweather or 9:30 Club, or both. Hurwitz and his team have a stellar rep for creating a home away from home for visiting artists, and have worked to breathe new life into the venue for the past 14 years. Rolling Stone even named Merriweather one of the top five amphitheaters in the nation in 2013. A year later, a long-awaited renovation plan was launched; the five-year, $55 million project has included everything from a rotating stage and swanky backstage area for artists to new parking garages and concessions.
The renovation and I.M.P.’s operation of the venue are huge victories for the local community, who had to fight to keep Merriweather alive. Ian Kennedy, the executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, has a 15-year history with the venue that began with a grassroots campaign in 2003 to save Merriweather from closure by then-owners the Rouse Company and ended with the Howard Hughes Corporation transferring ownership to the commission at the end of 2016.
“They handed me a big fake key that said, ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion,’ and the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission officially became the owners of the venue,” Kennedy says. “We are now six months in to being landlords of this amazing venue, and occasionally we’re still pinching ourselves trying to see if this is really real.”
Kennedy, who’s been to nearly every Merriweather show since 2015, says it’s critical for the commission to see the renovations through, and to expand the venue’s artistic, cultural and community programming. His goal is for the commission to hold up a cultural and community-based mirror to what Hurwitz is doing with the music lineups. He says there’s a magic to keeping things cool, eclectic and maybe sometimes even a little weird.
10 Unexpected Pairings:
The Who and Led Zeppelin
Wilco and The Roots
Madonna and The Beastie Boys
Rage Against the Machine and the WuTang Clan
The Monkees and “Weird Al” Yankovic
Ziggy Marley and Queen Latifah
Fall Out Boy and 50 Cent
Tom Tom Club, The Ramones and Debbie Harry
Alanis Morissette and Radiohead
Tom Jones and Gladys Knight and The Pips
“Seth has [that magic] and I.M.P. has it, and I’m hoping to just bask in some of that reflective glow for a little bit and maybe it will rub off on me.”
Kennedy reiterates the sense of family at the venue, and credits the I.M.P. team with welcoming artists and concertgoers with open arms; in particular, general manager Jean Parker and vice president Brad Canfield. Parker, who started working at Merriweather in 1977, says her favorite part of the job is watching each concert come together, from start to finish.
“There are a lot of jobs where people can feel like a cog in a never-ending wheel, but being able to see the life cycle of a concert or event is something that always, still to this day, impresses me,” she says.
Parker is also fascinated by watching the same bands transition over the years, and uses Rockville natives O.A.R. as a prime example.
“We’ve played O.A.R. almost annually for over a decade now, and I remember in the beginning, that crowd was fairly raucous, with younger kids pregaming. Now, those same fans are 10 years older and they’re married with kids, so the atmosphere is just completely different.”
O.A.R. has played Merriweather 15 times, and frontman Marc Roberge says it’s easy to remember each performance. He and his bandmates had always had their hopes set on playing the venue after years of seeing shows there while growing up. He recalls their first performance on Merriweather’s side stage during a Bob Dylan show.
“We told everybody we were opening for Bob Dylan,” he says, laughing. “We weren’t technically opening for Dylan. We weren’t allowed within 100 yards of the guy. But that day, all of our friends came out and I’ll never forget it. We had a good little handful of people dancing around, and I remember looking down the hill and thinking, ‘One day, we’ll be down there.’”
Roberge speaks passionately about Merriweather’s originality as a venue, and how he feels cut off from the world and in the moment when he’s onstage there.
“I don’t feel like anyone is trying to sell me anything. The only thing I’m buying is the music, and that’s something that Merriweather has always had. That’s what separates a place like Merriweather from a lot of the corporate venues around the country: care. And I think you know that [as a musician] when you arrive.”
Merriweather Fun Facts
- The only time The Who and Led Zeppelin played on the same stage was at MPP in 1969.
- Carl Bernstein reviewed Janis Joplin’s July 1969 performance at MPP for the Washington Post.
- President Jimmy Carter took the stage twice to sing “Georgia on my Mind” with Willie Nelson.
- Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at MPP the summer before he played it at Woodstock.
- Animal Collective named its 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, and played at the venue for the first time in 2011.
- MPP ripped out all of the seats in the orchestra for a mosh pit to win Green Day’s American Idiot tour in 2005. The mosh pit lives on today.
- Jackson Browne recorded Running on Empty live at the venue.
- The venue’s first pop concert was odd novelty act Tiny Tim with psychedelic rock band Vanilla Fudge. The second “pop” act was Jimi Hendrix, and his set had to be cut short due to a lightning storm.
- MPP permanently expanded the number of seats in the pavilion in 1970 in order to win a seven-show run of Tom Jones.
- The venue was designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry.
It seems that everyone I spoke to has at least one favorite Merriweather memory. For Potter, it’s getting stuck in the elevator at a nearby hotel with a group of Phish heads and a pizza delivery guy after the band’s performance at Merriweather, and how it took a grand total of 15 minutes before they all devoured the poor delivery guy’s pizza. For Roberge, it’s “opening” for Dylan and putting a live feed of Baltimore native Michael Phelps in the Rio Olympics on the big screen during his set, and hearing the audience erupt into the loudest cheers he’s ever experienced at the venue.
Kennedy can’t choose between playing guitar and singing on Merriweather’s mainstage during high school graduation and seeing his favorite artist, Brandi Carlile, on his birthday last year. And for me, it’s a tie between hearing “Just Like Heaven” echo ethereally through the Symphony Woods during The Cure’s encore and watching Jack White interact with a spider crawling up his arm during a guitar solo at a White Stripes show. Whether you’ve been once or dozens of times as an artist or a music lover, Merriweather makes a lasting impression, one that keeps the live music experience a powerful, integral part of what makes the DC area community one to be proud of.
Catch Merriweather’s 50th Anniversary Concert on July 15. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and the show starts at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $55.
Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD; 410-715-5550; www.merriweathermusic.com