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Behind the scenes with the Rays postgame concert series

With 18 post-game concerts under its belt, Tropicana Field is gaining some serious cred in the music world. But what does it take turn a baseball stadium into Tampa Bay's largest mosh pit? Now in its third season of post-game shows, the Trop invited tbt* to go behind the scenes. — Dalia Colón dcolon@tampabay.com

The stars

The way most people act when they meet Evan Longoria is how Longoria acted when he met Chris Daughtry.

It's the Rays' custom to present each post-game performer with a personalized jersey, and when the singer came through two weeks ago, Longo eagerly volunteered for the job. Shortly before first pitch against the Kansas City Royals, the third baseman doled out jerseys to the American Idol castoff and his bandmates, who currently have the No. 1 rock album in the country. Even for a Major Leaguer, the list of musicians who have performed at the Trop over the past two seasons is impressive: Flo Rida, Ludacris, Trace Adkins, LL Cool J, MC Hammer, Gilberto Santa Rosa ...

The lineup is deliberately eclectic, as organizers to hope to entice a diverse group of new fans to Tropicana Field. For instance, last summer Bradenton rockers We the Kings baited thousands of first-time visitors into the stadium.

"I would say 40 percent of the people who were here had never been to Rays game," said Brian Killingsworth, the team's senior director of marketing and promotions. "That's kind of the whole strategy in a nutshell."

The concert series began modestly in 2007, with a lineup of four retro acts performing on the back of a flatbed truck. "It's come a long way," Killingsworth said. "To think that we went from Sha Na Na to Daughtry ... "

Thankfully, no one has canceled. "I don't even want to think about that," said Kevin Stone, entertainment manager at Ruth Eckerd Hall, which produces the concerts as part of Ruth Eckerd Hall on the Road.

As the Rays' record improved, so did Tropicana Field's reputation as a legit performance space. In addition to personalized jerseys, musicians can still do meet-and-greets with fans and are treated to a suite for watching the game.

But one factor organizers can't control is what happens during the actual game. Last season the Rays were undefeated on concert nights, leaving post-game performers in the hands of a high-energy crowd. But the winning streak came to an end last month when the Oakland Athletics routed the Rays 7-2. The loss was immediately followed by a Smash Mouth concert.

"We didn't know what to do. We'd never lost before on a concert (night). You lose a little bit of that energy," Killingsworth said. "A few people left, but it wasn't tremendously different."

Win or lose, the concerts can never be rained out — an assurance the musicians appreciate.

"People complain about the dome, but ... we're able to use it as an advantage for us," Killingsworth said.

Added Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall's director of entertainment: "The investment in these artists is great. To do a game and to have a concert rained out or have lightning effect it, that would be a real letdown. But the show always goes on at the Trop."

The stage

Besides the jerseys, posh suite and good-weather guarantee, the Trop's customized stage has also help attract talent. Last year's platform was barely big enough for MC Hammer and his entourage to typewriter-dance across it. This year the front of the stage has been expanded by 8 feet, allowing the Trop to book acts who demand a larger performance space.

John Clark of Labelle designed the stage. "Whatever you build has to happen quick," Clark said. After the final out of the game, Clark's crew has only 10 minutes to set up the stage. "We want to minimize the manpower. A Super Bowl brings out 400 people. We don't have that luxury."

What he has instead are 10 stagehands and a stage that's now 7 feet wider than the garage that's supposed to house it. So this year Clark rigged the stage with hinges, making it fold up like a ping-pong table. (Putting it together in pieces would take too long.) When the game ends, the garage door roars open and the Rays Hummer tows the stage, which is on wheels, onto the outfield.

From the stands crew members look like worker ants, toiling quickly, lest fans grow impatient and leave.

"There's no room for error," said lighting engineer Pete Smith. "We don't want everybody standing around watching."

The sound

Entertainment director Rossi has heard the gripes: The sound at post-game concerts is too loud, not loud enough, too reverb-y, lyrics get muffled. Still, he said, "We're proud of all the sound." The best seats, staffers agree, are between the dugouts; they're in front of the sound console with a direct view of the JumboTron.

Pulling off even decent sound in the Trop is like trying to get a hit off Nolan Ryan. Traditional concert spaces have padded walls to absorb echoes. Traditional stadiums have open-air roofs, from which echoes can escape. Tropicana Field has neither — just concrete walls and a domed top, turning the sound into an acoustic SuperBall with nowhere to go.

But the biggest obstacle is time. With only 10 minutes to set up for a show, the sound crew does as much as possible ahead of time. For a 4 p.m. game, equipment load-in starts at 5 a.m., soundcheck happens at 9 a.m., and everything must be stowed in the garage by noon to make way for batting practice. During a concert, the first few songs are trial and error as engineers try to return levels in the arena — now full of bodies — to exactly where they were that morning.

"It's a baseball stadium that we're turning into a concert (venue) after," Rossi said. "It's not Carnegie Hall or Ruth Eckerd Hall acoustics, just like we can't play a baseball game in the middle of Ruth Eckerd."

Rays Summer Concert Series

Game tickets start at $13 and include concert admission. There are three post-game shows remaining this season, all starting at 7:08 p.m. Get more info at raysbaseball.com.

Saturday: B-52s (versus Toronto Blue Jays)

Aug. 22: Big and Rich (versus Texas Rangers)

Sept. 5: Beach Boys (versus Detroit Tigers)

Behind the scenes with the Rays postgame concert series 08/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 5:30am]

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