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Music critic Sean Daly reveals 'Best seats in the house' for 5 Tampa Bay concert venues

Maybe it was when you were stuck in the cheapies at a killer Springsteen gig, or cursing some dude's monstrous melonhead blocking Beyoncé, when you started dreaming about it: that mythical "best seat" in the house.

That one special vantage point that blends sound, sight lines, food access and lickety-split bathroom breaks. A glorious resting place where you're not always standing up to let some beer-soaked buffoon pass by. Some cozy nook where you're not stuck staring at the back of Dandruff Dome instead of Neil Diamond's sparkly sequins.

Yes, a "best seat" does exist, and I know exactly where it is. And it's never front row center, by the way.

Blending my experience as a guy who reviews concerts for a living, plus insight from various in-the-know mucketies, we came up with one, just one, magical seat at each of the area's top five show venues. All sorts of factors came into play, not just legroom and snack access. Because certain joints have different configurations for various forms of entertainment — opera, sports, orchestra, etc. — we kept it to concert "best seats" only.

Listen up, Nosebleed Nation: The following dream seats are where you want to be.

RUTH ECKERD HALL

1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 791-7400

Capacity: 2,180

The Best Seat: Row D, Seat 28

The Debate: A little cranky backstory for you: When I review shows at REH, the venue usually puts me in Row M, Seat 53 — an end seat on the house-left side of the building. (Come say hi!) I have to bust a move to make deadline when I see a show, and I don't want to fight my way down a row of angry legs, precarious drinks and overstuffed purses. Not fun for you, not fun for me. The one bad thing about an aisle seat at REH? If it's a particularly thirsty crowd — say, at the Jane's Addiction wild-o-rama last month — I'm getting up, sitting down, getting up, sitting down to let a parade of double-fisted morons stumble by.

So I craved a "best seat" where I never had to stand up. With public relations manager Katie Pedretty by my side, and input from chief programming officer Bobby Rossi, we discovered the unique awesomeness of Row D, Seat 28. It's on the house-left main-entrance side. It's an end seat (no one on your left), but there's no one really in front of you, either. It's a pricier seat, but hey, perfection is worth the cash.

Best Part of the Best Seat: Besides the legroom and "private" feel to the seat — oh, and the fact you're so close to the stage you could reach out and squeeze Eddie Money's thigh — music nerds have a cool vantage point of sidestage shenanigans, perhaps a pre-show, feel-the-love band huddle. At a John Mellencamp gig I saw at REH, seats with sidestage views got to see the Hoosier smooch new girlfriend Meg Ryan between songs. Row D, Seat 28 also benefits from front-fill speakers to blow your hair back, plus close proximity to both the bars and bathrooms.

upcoming shows:  Boston, Friday, $125  Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, July 1, $153  Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, July 24, $90

DAVID A. STRAZ JR. CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827

Capacity: 2,610 (Morsani Hall)

Best Seat: Mezzanine 2, Row AA, Seat 001

The Debate: With the brutally honest help of Maureen Shallcross, the Straz's senior director of operations, and Paul Bilyeu, public relations director, the search for the best seat in dramatically cavernous Morsani Hall boiled down to two locations. Row A, which is actually several rows back during concerts, is wider than the other rows, basically because it's the front row when there's an orchestra pit setup for musicals and such. If you want to try Row A, go with Seat 24, which is just off-center and will allow a clean view of the stage. "You get the energy of being close to the stage and artist," Shallcross says.

But alas, that's not our best seat at the Straz. After much debate and scientific seat-hopping, we found the promised land one level up, in Mezzanine 2, Row AA, Seat 001. "You're 30 feet from the bar," says Shallcross of the intimate overhanging section. "You're closer to the restroom. Good sound, good sight lines. You have less people coming through the door. You have no one in front of you. And the people watching is great."

If you're still not convinced, let it be known that this is also the preferred watching spot of my colleague John Fleming, the Times' performing arts critic.

Best Part of the Best Seat: Did you know about the seldom-used "north doors" entrance at the Straz? If you have your ticket before the show, you can avoid the inevitable bottleneck at the main entrance and sneak around the other side of the venue. If you're in Mezzanine 2, it's almost like your own private entrance. "When you leave, you can be out of the building and on the highway in five minutes," Bilyeu says.

Upcoming Shows:  Il Volo, Sept. 15, $89.50  Idina Menzel, Dec. 1, $69.50

TAMPA BAY TIMES FORUM

401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 301-6500

Capacity: 21,500 (concerts)

Best Seat: Section 117, Row M, Seat 17

The Debate: The big "best seat" question at the Times Forum is not unlike the rap wars of the '90s: east vs. west, baby.

Manager of event marketing Jessica Eckley and vice president of event booking Elmer Straub both agreed that an ideal seat at the arena, especially when considering both food and potty availability, is on the side, with the stage at the venue's southern end. But therein lies the question: Which side is the best side?

Consider this: Ninety percent of concertgoers at the Times Forum enter from the west, with its sprawling patio and enhanced promenade party deck. The best section on the west side is 130. But because so many people enter there, bathrooms and concessions are routinely slammed. "A lot of people will find their seats, then return to where they first walked in," says Straub.

Section 130's mirror opposite on the east side is Section 117. You have to walk a little farther, but it's worth it. For best seat, we're thinking Section 117, Row M, Seat 17 — on the aisle, so you don't have to deal with the tight legroom; those cup holders, while certainly a benevolent addition, are brutal on the knees.

By the way, I'm all for the thrill of floor seats. When the Rolling Stones last played the Times Forum, Mick and Keef made sure press had a fifth-row view. When you're that close, however, the sound can be sketchy, because you're often under the sound waves. Plus people up front and on the floor get too intense, all hopped up on a sense of entitlement that comes with paying big money for a view up Mick's nose. I'm just as happy a few feet off the floor and out of the fray.

Best Part of the Best Seat: Section 117 splits the difference between a men's and women's room, which typically don't get as much traffic as over on the west side. Plus you get an Outback Steakhouse stand and a BBQ Nachos kiosk. The chicken 'chos there are the top concert snack in Tampa Bay. Discuss!

Upcoming Shows:  Coldplay, Thursday, $96.75  Def Leppard & Poison, Saturday, $140.35

MAHAFFEY THEATER

400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 892-5798

Capacity: 2,030

Best Seat: Box 17, Seat 4

The Debate: I've reviewed a few shows at the downtown St. Petersburg venue. I was seated in the back for Don Henley (liked it), up close for Cee Lo Green (loved it). But my flat-out favorite seat — and, as it turns out, the "best seat" pick by general manager Joe Santiago — is Box 17, Seat 4, on house-left side. I sat in the box for a 2009 David Cook show (remember the American Idol scruff?); I loved how the red velvet chair was "nonpermanent"; in other words, the sucker wasn't bolted down. You could scoot in, out, put your feet up. "It's semiprivate, and there's no one behind you or in front of you," adds Santiago. There's this, too: In the box, you totally feel like a royal, lording over your minions. Let the show commence!

Best Part of the Best Seat: "As the sound travels out in a fan," says Santiago, "you're actually in the perfect location." The only seat that's cooler at the Mahaffey is in the Vegas-style VIP room for members.

Upcoming Shows:  Ledisi and Eric Benet, Aug. 4, $43.45  Chris Isaak, Sept. 16, $49.50

1-800-ASK-GARY AMPHITHEATRE

4802 N U.S. 301, Tampa. (813) 740-2446

Capacity: 20,000

Best Seat: Section 5, Row B, Seat 15

The Debate: I've visited a ton of "sheds" across the country — that is, outdoor venues with both pavilion seating and lawn — and the Tampa amp might have the top sound of all of them. I'm not being a homer, either. I can't speak for the crazies on the lawn (I stopped jockeying for grass seats when I was 25), but the sound is remarkably clear for such a big venue. When I originally asked David Harb, the amp's manager and a Live Nation boss in Florida, for the best seat, he surprisingly suggested the front row of Section 14, which is an outer part of the pavilion seating. "No one in front of you, plus the sound is great," Harb says. Good one, good one . . .

Then he changed his mind, picking the more showoffy Section 5, Row B, Seat 15 — right beyond the orchestra pit, perfect sight lines, catching all that fat sound. I've sat there before; that sucker is tough to beat.

Best Part of the Best Seat: This section is often where my review tickets are — which is why the amp is one of my fave places to see a show. The pit gets sweaty, but in Section 5 you're up high enough to catch some of those summer breezes that mercifully cross through the amphitheater. Seat 5 is right on the aisle, so you can be at a food stand or a bathroom in minutes — and maybe even back to your seat before the song is over. It's not going to be easy heading back to the cheapies after sitting in this seat.

Upcoming Shows:  One Direction, Friday, $79.50  Dave Matthews Band, July 18, $89.70  Kiss & Motley Crue, July 28, $185

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

Music critic Sean Daly reveals 'Best seats in the house' for 5 Tampa Bay concert venues 06/23/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 23, 2012 7:42pm]

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