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07 Jun 09 Bigger is Not Necessarily Better

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This is going to be long.

I attended the concert last night that marked the first official event of the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. According to the hype, this was going to be the best concert ever in the best facility money could buy. The audience was reminded all through the night that they would be witnesses to both the king and queen – George Strait and Reba McEntire – of country music. It just wouldn’t get any better than this.

It’s important to know several things about my feelings going into this article. First, I am a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, have been since 1965. I have a pavement brick outside the new stadium that proudly proclaims that fact. Second, I have always been a big supporter of Jerry Jones. While other people criticize his way of running every thing, I respond by saying that if I were in his shoes, I would likely act exactly the same way.

Therefore, it may surprise you to hear – it certainly surprised me – that I was sorely disappointed with almost the entire experience.

First, let me point out the positives of the day.

Traffic, which was supposed to be the big problem, was not a problem at all. The concert started at 5:30pm, but the gates were opening at 2pm. So we decided to go early, arriving at 3pm to avoid much of the late arrivals.  Many of the concert goers were already parked. There were no lines in the lots, and everything was very orderly. We used a special website to get the best directions to our pre-paid lot ($38 for parking, and you had to buy the pass when you bought the tickets).

The video screen is spectacular, living up to its hype. The audience could see the freckles on Reba’s arms and the scratches on the drum heads on the overhead shots.

The sound quality, especially for such a big arena, was outstanding, especially when the roof was closed.

Blake Shelton was incredible.

The men’s rooms have urinals for as far as the eye can see.

That pretty much covers the positives. Now it’s time, as Paul Harvey used to say, for the rest of the story.

After arriving at 3pm, we discovered that the gates were open to the parking lot, but the doors to the stadium would not open until 4pm. That did not appear to be a big problem, as we would sit in the shade of the facility, beside a reflecting pool, and enjoy the view of the mammoth structure. But security guards chased everyone out of the outdoor plaza, about 1,000 people, because – well, I’m not really sure why. Even though the ticket takers would be at the doors of the stadium, no one would be allowed to stand outside the doors in the plaza yet because the facility was not open yet. Everyone seemed confused, including the workers.

We decided to walk around the stadium because of a rumor that the plaza on the other side of the stadium had been open since 2pm.  On the way, we came upon the main Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop.  Unlike Texas Stadium, where the store was a separate building, this shop is now part of the stadium. It was open and it had air conditioning, so we went inside.  We had been in no longer than five minutes when a worker announced to everyone that we had to make our purchases and leave immediately.  Why? Because the place had to be empty before they opened to doors to the stadium. Why? Good question, and I am sure there must be a good answer. But we were told that once we left and entered the stadium, we could come back in.  (You may note a recurring theme of confusion.)

Being good soldiers, we bought four shirts and then stood in the hot sun for 45 minutes, waiting for the official taking of the tickets.  When the doors finally opened, I was thrilled to step inside the behemoth for the first time.  And it is an impressive facility. Our seats for the concert were on what was called the club level. That means the seats have cushions and the concession areas are glassed in and carpeted.  This is different from the area for my Cowboys tickets, where the seats are plastic and the floor is concrete.  So that gives me something to look forward to.

We had an hour before the show, so I used the majority of that time standing in line to buy two soft drinks, an order of sweet potato fries, and a bag of almonds.  Total cost: $22. Most of us were not burdened with added weight of large servings, or even straws and napkins, as those had yet to arrive at many of the concession stands.  The rather lengthy wait in line, 45 minutes, did provide entertainment, as I watched a lot of people stand around and wait for their orders. The cooks wore white chef’s hats, which apparently makes everything much more high scale. The cashiers were not familiar with what they were selling, so it was an adventure trying to determine whether you would actually get what you ordered.

We sat down in our seats, the 200 level club house, where concert tickets were $104 each. Quick math: I bought four tickets, plus the parking pass, which came to a total of $454, easily the most I have ever spent on a concert of any kind.  I did not spend half that to see Paul McCartney and the Eagles combined!

After we sat, we looked at the stage. And this was a huge disappointment. For $454, we had four seats that were so far away, you could not see the performers, even with the use of binoculars.  We were relegated to watching the big screen for the entire show. That view was spectacular, but had two problems. First, we had our necks turned up and over to see the screen, creating an obvious physical pain after several hours. Second, one of the best parts of a concert in my opinion is to watch the musicians. Because we were limited to the screen, we saw the musicians only in brief cutaway shots. My wife commented that next time, perhaps we should wait for the video to come out – it would be just as effective and much cheaper.

Despite the pre-show problems, we were ready for the first performer, Julianne Hough. My wife is a big Dancing with the Stars fan, and this was the person she really wanted to see. One problem, Julianne was a no-show. We later found out she had vocal strain and could not perform. Of course, we found that out after the show, because no announcement was made during the show. She was replaced, however, with Lee Ann Womack. I have seen her many times before, most recently during a CD release party at Billy Bob’s. But her low-key showmanship that works so well in an intimate environment does not translate well on a stage at the far end of Cowboys Stadium.

Womack acted like someone who had only recently found out that she would be the first person ever to perform on the biggest stage in the biggest auditorium of the biggest city in Texas.  She said, “This time yesterday, I was lying on the beach when I got a call. They told me someone had gotten sick, and they wanted me to perform.”  That was the closest anyone at the facility ever referenced Julianne Hough. Oh well.

The absolute best part of the evening was next. Blake Shelton was the one performer who actually seemed genuinely excited to be there. He came out with a beer can in hand and announced, “This is not the first beer I have had today!” He then went into a 45-minute set that highlighted outstanding vocals, great backup music, a great vocal mix, and incredible songs. I would like to see him in a smaller venue, where I could actually see him.

Between acts, I ran up to the men’s room. Of course, by now the women’s rooms had long lines, which meant the ladies who had the highest levels of alcohol in their systems were deciding that joining the guys in the men’s room was preferable to standing in their own lines. I always find this charming, if not alarming.

Next was Queen Reba. This was the first Reba viewing for my two friends, and they really enjoyed her. I must admit, I have seen her many times before and even met her twice. Her show did not do much for me, though she is still one of the best musical story tellers around. Her cover of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” makes you feel like she really did pull the trigger. And “Fancy” is still a show stopper.  But for much of her performance, the sound mix was simply atrocious. I don’t know whether the sound engineers switched from artist to artist, or whether her sound check did not go well.  But it was very difficult to hear her vocals over the instrumentation.

Finally, it was time for George Strait.  I had never seen him before, so I was looking forward to this. I have always liked his songs, but appearances on television never seemed that exciting to me. So I was anxious to see what it was that makes him so popular. Surely, the biggest stage of them all in his home state would help me see why he has become a country music god.

He came out on stage with a group of talented veteran musicians, and they all stood there and performed. And they stood there and performed. And they stood there and performed. This may be Texas music sacrilegious, but I don’t get it. The songs are good, written by some of the best songwriters around. The voice is strong. But for my money – and remember, by now we are pushing $500 with two more soft drinks – Blake Shelton was much better.

For me, the absolute worst part of the evening was the showcase of the Jerry Jones ego. In an elaborately set up scenario, Strait acted like he just remembered that “this place has a roof that opens up.” He enticed the entire audience to chant and ask Jerry to turn the key to open the roof. How do I know this was staged? Well, as the roof opened, the screen showed a shot, with a super that read “First time for roof to open.” I guess they figured we wouldn’t have known, otherwise.

I truly believe opening the roof would have been a good idea, IF THIS HAD NOT BEEN THE HOTTEST DAY IN DALLAS SO FAR THIS YEAR. One of the few redeeming qualities of the evening – air conditioning – was now gone. 

George was still going strong, in a manner of speaking, with his show. For me, it was now hot and humid. My neck hurt from staring at the big screen. His sound mix was not much better than Reba’s. He and his band looked like ants in the distance. I was bored. I was sitting at what was proclaimed to be the zenith of entertainment, and I wanted to go home.

So we walked out on George Strait. As we started to leave, I hung my head, thinking I must have done something wrong to make this night be so bad. It had to be my fault. I just didn’t know what it was. And I knew we would stick out like sore thumbs, leaving in the middle of the show.

But guess what. We were among what appeared to be about 5,000 who felt the same way I did. The traffic was heavier leaving than arriving, and the show was still going on!  That actually made me feel better, knowing others apparently felt the same way I did.

Rather than make this simply a gripe session, I would make the following recommendations to Jerry to improve his castle for concerts. First, and most importantly, have the concerts performed in the round. The folks at the Astrodome learned long ago that this type of setup works best for large arenas. Instead of the stage at one end, it is equidistant for everyone. Second, make sure your concession stands are fully equipped, and the workers knowledgeable in what they are doing. Wearing a chef’s hat does not make someone an instant Emeril. Third, make sure the rest rooms have full complements of paper products (I won’t go into detail). Fourth, don’t chase people out of the plaza. Fifth, make sure your camera operators learn the definition of the word “focus.”  Sixth, don’t open the roof just to show that you have the power to do so. Think about your audience. Remember, you may have spent $1 billion for your baby, but we are the ones who will be paying for it in the long run.  We would simply like to have a little enjoyment in return.

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