Amp’ing It Up
Story and Photos by Mark Cubbedge
Brad Paisley put up the show date, March 10, 2018, several times on the massive TV screen that served as the backdrop to his considerable stage inside the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
His intent, no doubt, was to create a photo op for the sold-out crowd. The bigger picture, quite literally, is that this date may well have been the watershed moment that vaulted what is affectionately known as “The Amp” into the playground historically reserved for arena experiences…without attendees having to slog through an arena experience.
“Over the last couple of years, our reputation has been out of control,” said Ryan Murphy, general manager of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. “We are one of the major venues when a tour manager is mapping out the plan. They say ‘Let’s talk about the Southeast — we’re going to Atlanta, etc. and when we hit Florida we are going to St. Augustine, Miami and Tampa.’ We are such a small town, yet we are such a major venue.”
What’s notable is that Paisley’s dates following the show at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre (capacity 4,000) included the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville, Kentucky (17,500), Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee (18,500) and the Verizon Arena in Little Rock, Arkansas (18,000).
What Paisley’s team and the St. Augustine Amphitheatre staff did was take the time to figure out how to innovate the open-air space and create a fully-immersive concert experience.
“Brad’s management started hearing more and more about St. Augustine and started pushing it,” Murphy said. “We’re so personable and down to earth with the artists. They feel like they can come here and be themselves. “
Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Daniels, who played before a capacity crowd the night before Paisley, was very direct in his assessment of the venue.
“I haven’t played a show like that in years,” the 81-year-old icon said to Murphy as he came off stage. “One of the greatest shows, cities and venues I have ever played in.”
That kind of personal endorsement is one that can’t be bought. And it’s the kind of experience that makes artists want to find ways to perform in St. Augustine. The adaptation of Paisley’s arena show to fit the Amphitheatre’s layout was the first of its kind there, and the result set a new gold standard for the experience.
“We have come to expect that Ryan Murphy and his team will outdo themselves each year,” said Richard Goldman, president and chief executive officer of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “They have found a way to leverage the attractiveness of St. Augustine as a unique destination with its genuinely welcoming nature toward performers, to create an intimate showplace that quality acts want to play — even if they can’t get the bigger numbers an arena might generate. Sure, it’s a business, but in the Amphitheatre, performers can better connect with audiences and have some fun before and after the show, and that counts for a lot.”
Need evidence beyond Paisley’s triple Jumbotron-style monitors that allowed for live, multi-story video feeds of concert goers enjoying the show mixed in with pre-recorded pieces? Beyond the brilliantly engineered lighting display (it shot in from above, beside, in front of and cross-venue ) for an amazing theatrical layer that added significance to monologue and guitar solos alike?
Then look no further than the bisected, semi-circle catwalk stage that transformed an ordinary pit into a hive of intimate activity. Ask the lady who was so close to Paisley with her iPhone that he reached down with one hand, picked up her phone and took a selfie with it. He also probably increased her heart rate when her face appeared on the massive stage screen and he began to joke with her about checking out her apps and shopping habits.
And then there was the young boy sitting stageside who may have had his life transformed that night. Paisley, much to everyone’s surprise, took the guitar he had been playing from around his neck, grabbed a Sharpie and signed the guitar before walking over to the young fan and giving it to him. Paisley told the star-struck child to learn how to play the guitar (and that if he didn’t have a girlfriend now, he would soon). Thanks to the massive video screens everyone in the venue had a clear picture of what it must look like when a child unexpectedly encounters Santa Claus.
It’s no secret the Amphitheatre books artists bigger than their breeches. Stevie Nicks (the voice of Fleetwood Mac) chose to stop in St. Augustine in 2012 on super-short notice because legendary crooner Tony Bennett recommended the venue to her.
“It’s the No. 1 thing we have going for us,” Murphy said. It also doesn’t hurt when the staff takes a hands-on approach to the experience, taking artists and their families to the beach, the Alligator Farm or out for a round of golf.
“It is such a small world,” Murphy said of the music business. “Artists know all the venues and they talk to each other about the good times they’ve had, the bad times they’ve had, the shady promoters.”
In addition to Nicks, acts like Robert Plant (the voice of Led Zeppelin), Jack Johnson, and Bob Dylan have made a point to visit St. Augustine in recent years. And it’s not because they have nowhere else to play. There’s a love affair in full bloom between artists and the venue, and the momentum continues to build despite increased competition in the area.
“We are limited to how we can grow and that is a good thing,” said Murphy.
Murphy said there is never a shortage of enthusiastic fans who want to make “recommendations” on which acts the Amphitheatre should book. Many of the bands on that laundry list are ones who can play to tens of thousands of people nightly.
“Jimmy Buffet,” Murphy says is one of the names he hears often. “Every time someone makes a suggestion I have to explain that he can play to audiences 10 times our size. And every time I say that, a Brad Paisley pops up. It does not matter how big the artist is, there is a good chance we can get them.”
The bottom line is Paisley could have played much larger venues in Florida. He is an artist of that caliber and he chose to put his boot down in the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. That imprint set the stage for both the artists and the venue in terms of how the musical landscape and entertainment experience can look and feel.
“I sense a greater pride in the kinds of acts now being drawn to St. Augustine,” Goldman said. “How great the latest show was is frequently the subject of talk in the kitchen at our office and I expect that is happening in offices all over St. Johns County.”