When it comes to pop music and tabloid titillation, March 2009 is going to be a serious circus in the bay area.
Three major concert events were announced Tuesday, the juiciest being the arrival of midriffed trouble-magnet Britney Spears on March 8. Spears, whose appropriately titled comeback album Circus was released Tuesday, will roll her potential train wreck into the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.
Three days earlier, the Times Forum will host two hit-making heavyweights with their own shaggy history of rebellion: Billy Joel and Elton John, whose joint Face 2 Face tour arrives on March 5. The piano men have toured together before; one previous jaunt was famously marred by Joel's boozy behavior.
But wait, there's one more reason for US Weekly to camp out for a while: Country newbie Taylor Swift, whose new album Fearless is a No. 1 smash, will headline the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City on March 1. The 18-year-old's pouty puss has been in the tabs lately for her breakup with Disney boy-toy Joe Jonas. Other bold-facers at the annual festival, which runs Feb. 26 through March 8, include Jessica Simpson, George Jones, Kellie Pickler, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Dancing With the Stars' hoofer-turned-hoedown princess Julianne Hough.
Music-wise, Tuesday's news was gossip heaven, putting Tampa Bay in the heart of the pop, and paparazzi, universe. Money-wise, however, the shows could be tough sells in these recessionary times.
The biggest gamble is Spears, 27, whose popularity (read: notoriety) stems almost exclusively from celeb-based tabloids, TV shows and Web sites that delight in her custody battles, horrific driving and icky dating record. With tickets to Britney's show ranging from $36.75 to $125, it's debatable whether fans will pay for something (e.g. a half-naked poplet making a spectacle of herself) they normally get for free.
Spears' Circus tour will hit 27 cities, starting March 3 in New Orleans. Her Tampa show, just her fourth stop, will be presented in the round, with the stage situated in the middle of the Times Forum. (Get it? She's a ringleader.) According to Elmer Straub, a vice president at the venue, this setup will allow officials to adjust seating capacity based on advance sales. Straub says they're expecting a sellout, which would put attendance around 18,500.
"You never can predict these things,'' said Oren Koules, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which owns the lease on the Times Forum. But, he said of Spears: "America loves a comeback.''
A noted Hollywood player as well as a sports and arena magnate, Koules compares Spears to Charlie Sheen, whose sitcom Two and a Half Men Koules produces. A famous ne'er-do-well, Sheen fought through a litany of drug and legal woes before righting his rep and repolishing his star.
"Charlie's had his problems, and he's had his comeback,'' Koules said, after a press conference the Times Forum called to tout the Joel-John concert. "I think she's doing great,'' he said of Spears. "She's got it all together." Again, he repeated: "America loves a comeback.''
With an older, well-heeled fan base, Elton John and Billy Joel could be the safer sell. They last played Tampa together, for two shows, in 2002. Tickets to their upcoming local date range from $51.50 to $177.
At 61, John is on a roll. Billy Elliot, a musical for which he composed the score, opened on Broadway in November to generally strong reviews. Joel, 59, stopped recording pop albums in 1993, but he remains a steady concert draw, including recent sold-out nights at Shea Stadium in New York.
The Times Forum is confident both shows will sell well. "All our numbers have been up this year,'' says Koules, citing a Pollstar industry study that said the Times Forum was the second-busiest arena in the country.
The Strawberry Festival, which struts major clout in luring the hottest newcomers and biggest stars in country music, will provide the most bang for your buck. The priciest ticket at the fest is Swift's show, at $45, but other headliner tickets go for as little as $10.
The festival's closing day is on March 8, which might as well be called the Tampa Bay Battle of the Blonds. As Britney plays at the Forum, the Strawberry jam hosts Simpson and Hough. Those three share a lot of fans — and a whole lot of pages in the National Enquirer.
Pop music critic Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Performing arts critic John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.