You'd be forgiven if you'd lost count of the number of show announcements flowing out of the Old Mill District's newly titled Hayden Homes Amphitheater this year. As of April 4, 39 shows were scheduled for Bend's biggest stage—ranging from comedy acts like Jim Gaffigan, to returning acts like My Morning Jacket, to legacy artists like Bonnie Raitt.
The season kicks off with ZZ Top on June 7, in what will be a monster opening month. From June 10 to June 26 alone, the venue will host the likes of Sarah McLachlan, HAIM, Barenaked Ladies, Norah Jones, Tenacious D, Chris Isaak and Lyle Lovett, Weird Al Yankovic and the Dirty Heads—and that's just the start of the season.
- Credit Matthew Lasala
What will no longer be on the schedule, however, is Foo Fighters, which canceled its tour after the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins at age 50 last month. Even minus that one major show, it's going to be a record-breaking summer of sound in Bend.
A record-breaking year
Last year, when the amphitheater was still dubbed "Les Schwab," Bend had already seen a record number of shows on that stage, with 25 acts that included John Legend and Dave Matthews. Its newly formed partnership with Live Nation, the world's largest music promoter, was the key.
"If you're the best at what you do in the music industry, you go and work for Live Nation," said Beau Eastes, marketing director for the Old Mill District and Hayden Homes Amphitheater. "To have that relationship with those people's been a game changer. I think the proof's in the pudding, as far as bringing numbers of acts and the different genres and the size of acts."
In order to accommodate the bigger acts that Live Nation would bring, the amphitheater underwent significant changes in 2021, including adding a far bigger stage and VIP "cabanas." This year, more changes are underway, though they'll be less visible to the average concertgoer. Crews are adding more underground power, grading and putting down a synthetic lawn, reconfiguring things for better ADA access and better sightlines and adding more reserved seating capacity, Eastes told the Source. The venue also announced more changes to its seating policy for this season, now banning blankets and outside chairs. Those who want one can rent a venue chair for $10. [Clarification: Blankets have been banned since 2018, Eastes told the Source, with both chairs and blankets now banned in order to make security screening smoother.)
Among the most visible changes will be a new entrance gate, located closer to the bridge to the shops at the Old Mill. All of this, Eastes said, is aimed at bringing an even better visitor experience to what is already a pretty stellar venue, in his opinion.
"The reason that it's so much fun to see a show... a lot of it is the venue being part of the Old Mill District as a whole," Eastes said. "There's plenty of parking that you can get in and out. There's multiple access points. And the river trail, right? It makes it super easy to walk or bike from just about anywhere in town down to the amphitheater."
Eastes compares Bend's biggest concert venue in the middle of town to other outdoor venues in the region (the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington, comes to mind), where getting in and out of the place is more of a hassle.
"Other venues where there's more of a single in and out, and you might sit in your car for 30, 45 minutes, trying to get in or out of this show. And that's not even talking about the natural beauty—you watch the sunset over the Cascades, having a beer and watching the river floaters," he said.
Big concerts can have a big economic impact, too. A survey commissioned by the Old Mill District in 2015 revealed that some 71% of people surveyed made a trip to Bend for a particular concert or event, spending an average of $138 per day in the local economy and staying an average of three to four nights. A single show can see visitors spending roughly $1.6 million in the local economy, Eastes said.
- Credit Erica Swantek
- One addition in 2021 were more VIP areas, including the Deschutes Deck.
The ancillary effect
During a typical summer, the Tower Theatre in downtown Bend tends to slow down its programming schedule—partly due to the fact that outdoor activities are what people are inclined to do in the summer in Bend.
"The biggest competition is the river and the sun," said Ray Solley, executive director of the Tower Theatre Foundation "That has been true since the [Tower] building was reopened in 2004 and it remains true this summer and it will be remain true for the next 10 summers."
Scheduling around a concert juggernaut is also a factor.
"The Hayden Homes schedule affects a lot of the rhythms of Central Oregon," Solley said. "We have always monitored that, have been aware of that, and by [amphitheater] shows starting little earlier, and going a little longer and October, it's really interesting to see how that affects things. I am of the opinion that a rising tide will float all of our boats, but also know that there's no reason to stage something really expensive and for multiple nights or do something that's up against it."
Put another way, "There's no sense in trying to bring in the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the same night Dave Matthews is playing," Solley said.
This summer, aiming to schedule around the major acts coming to Hayden Homes won't be a major factor, with the Tower's team focused on renovations that will see the stage dark much of the season.
"We are having a much needed and much delayed renovation of our backstage," Solley told the Source—a project that was supposed to start in April 2020 but was stymied due to the pandemic. Renovations include altering the basement and the stage-level green rooms and dressing rooms to make them more hospitable to performers. The Tower will host a few events that won't require use of the stage over the summer, expecting to be back with full programming by the time its busy season—typically the cooler months of the year—begins, Solley said.
Other venue operators are curious to see what conversations emerge from the amphitheater's extended season and massive schedule.
Jim Gross is the president of Backyard Media, which over the past decade has produced four to nine concerts a season between the outdoor spaces at the Century Center and Oregon Spirit Distillers, sometimes bumping up against nearby residents concerned about noise and other impacts.
"The Bend City Council raised concerns about the number of shows, noise, safety, the impact on city infrastructure, and quality of life concerns on behalf of the City and concerned residents," Gross told the Source in an email. "If four to nine shows averaging less than 1,000 concert goers created the level of interest and engagement we experienced ... more than 40 much larger shows, within the city limits, averaging 4,000 or more concert goers, is likely an issue the City, concerned residents, and the Promoter(s) will be discussing." The capacity of Hayden Homes Amphitheater is listed at 8,000.
- Credit Matthew Lasala
The neighbor factor
Last year's advent of 25 shows after having a far quieter, pandemic-affected 2020 was undoubtedly a bit of a shock for nearby residents, Eastes of the Old Mill said.
Neighbors in the Southern Crossing neighborhood did lodge some complaints in 2021 due to the activity at the amphitheater.
"I did receive email and phone complaints about the noise levels last year," said Deby DeWeese, vice chair and land use chair for Bend's Southern Crossing Neighborhood Association. "Many people were shocked that the sound was so loud and reported that they used to be able to close their windows and not hear the concerts if they wanted, but now they can hear them even with their windows closed. Some people complained that it made their houses shake as it's so loud. They did not care that the sound levels are legal."
Decibel levels are continually taken inside and outside the venue, Eastes said, ensuring levels stay within the limits set by Bend city ordinance.
"We have a hard stop at 10. We're very conscious about being good neighbors," Eastes said of last year's complaints. "I think some of that— we hadn't had music in two years and all of a sudden, hey, we got concerts again and in August, I think it was something a little bit new."
DeWeese estimates that roughly half of the people she hears from believe the area has too many concerts, with the other half being happy about the increase.
A 2018 ranking from Seat Geek, a search engine for sports and concert tickets, ranked Las Vegas as the market with the most major concerts per capita, at 59 per 100,000 residents. Nashville ranked second at 15.4, with Hartford/New Haven, Connecticut, ranking third at 13.3 per 100,000 residents. That study only ranked the top 100 markets in the U.S., and thus did not factor in Bend, but with 39 (editor's note: two more were added just after this story went to press) amphitheater concerts happening this season and Bend's current population being roughly 100,000, market saturation does appear high for this season.
"Since the concerts have not happened yet, I'm not hearing much about noise, but I'm sure I will," DeWeese told the Source in a document sent by email. "The biggest complaint I'm hearing is about not being able to bring your own chair." While SCNA does field calls about these concerns, they typically refer people to the Old Mill for follow-up.
"Another complaint I've heard was that the local pre-sales are only available online and, thus, locals have to pay the fees, which many people think are ridiculously high," DeWeese said. Due to inflation, ticket prices are also going up significantly across the industry. In a recent quarterly financial report, Live Nation reported that average ticket prices for major festivals or amphitheaters have gone up by double digits from the last pre-pandemic year.
To avoid some fees and make tickets easier for locals to get, the Old Mill has created a local pre-sale option for shows, as well as making tickets available at the Old Mill itself.
"So, those locals have to wait until the next day to buy at the Ticket Mill to avoid fees and there has been some stress that this will make them miss out on sold-out shows," DeWeese said. "It's too soon to know what people will be happy about since the season has not started yet. People do seem happy about the venue now being no cash—though they hope that does not slow down sales. They also are eager to see what changes are being made to the venue since it has been blocked off for so long and people walking the Old Mill have had to go around it."
The summer of sound
By June 7, the construction that has blocked off the area in recent months will give way to the Texas rock gods of ZZ Top. The sun will set over the Cascades while the tunes play; people will drink beer and gaze at the views, floaters will cruise by, trying to catch a song, and locals will settle in for their summer of sound.
"You know, the reason that we're successful is because we've got this special place," Eastes said. "We can't afford to lose that, right? But I love that the community seems to be embracing it, and we're finally getting recognition for our music culture."
Solley at the Tower agrees on that cultural point.
"We love when we have big names in town. That makes it a lot easier for everybody to identify Bend as a hub of performing arts and culture," he said. At the same time, like the growing population of the region, finding the right balance is always a moving target.
"I think there will be a point at which everybody will realize in years to come, OK, the sweet spot for the amphitheater is this date. This numbers of shows. The sweet spot for the Tower is this certain kind of thing, certain ongoing experiences, certain staples that everybody wants to see."