ST. PETERSBURG — With a thin mist spitting from the sky overhead, Dave Pirner sized up the baseball stadium-turned-soccer pitch before him and chuckled.
"Let’s get ready to rumble," said the Soul Asylum singer, kicking off a concert Wednesday night at Al Lang Stadium inSt. Petersburg. "Or not."
Hard to blame his bemusement. Al Lang, where Mickey Mantle once roamed the outfield and Joe Cole now patrols the midfield, wasn’t built for live music. Most baseball/soccer stadiums aren’t.
But when the Tampa Bay Rays unveiled designs Tuesday for an $892 million stadium in Ybor City, that was the first place my mind went. The team emphasized it wouldn’t be just a baseball park, but a "year-round community asset, with the potential for programming, events and creative partnerships."
Like boat shows? Graduations?Craft-beer festivals?
Or maybe concerts?
Baseball parks, unlike football stadiums, are a mixed bag when it comes to live music. The seating isn’t conducive to most stage setups (imagine watching a concert in centerfield from a seat behind home plate). And, of course, they tend to be occupied during the busy summer concert season.
But there remains an American romance to seeing a concert in a park designed for baseball. The history, novelty and prestige of such spaces appeals to artists like Pearl Jam, Billy Joel and Luke Bryan, who this summer will play parks like Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
Tampa Bay’s long tinkered with shows in local minor-league stadiums, from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in Clearwater to Sting and Linkin Park in Tampa. Even Tropicana Field has a storied concert history. Before the Rays arrived in 1998 — and long before they started hosting postgame shows in 2006 — the dome was arguably Tampa Bay’s premiere concert space, hosting acts like David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Eric Clapton, R.E.M. and Van Halen.
Al Lang Stadium, built in 1947, hasn’t been primarily a baseball park for a decade. But its evolution into a soccer field can’t hide its architectural roots in America’s pastime. That makes its push this summer to host more concerts a quirky — and, given the size of two recent concert crowds, welcome — development.
"The setup is beautiful," said Joe Santiago, general manager of the Mahaffey Theater, which, like Al Lang, is operated by St. Petersburg entertainment and business magnate (and Tampa Bay Rowdies owner) Bill Edwards. "The way that the stage sits, you can see a bunch of boats, you can see the water. It has worked out very nicely in that spot."
Al Lang also fills a void in the local concert market. Tampa Bay has long lacked a midsize (around 5,000 seats) outdoor venue, which cuts the area out of the running to attract certain tours. Edwards and promotions giant Live Nation, which is behind Al Lang’s four summer shows, "both looked at this venue as a great opportunity," Santiago said. "Finding shows that fit that attendance niche, we worked together to make a couple of great deals happen."
On Wednesday, some 4,700 fans filed in for 3 Doors Down, Collective Soul and Soul Asylum, the bands playing a temporary stage along what would be the leftfield line, beneath a banner blaring "Al Lang Live." Most permanent seats and facilities, save the westernmost bleachers in the back, were not in use. Almost everything set up for the show, from the reserved seats to the vendor tents to the portable toilets, was temporary.
Some fans spread blankets on the soft soccer turf, breathing in a cool bay breeze from the South Yacht Basin across the street. Kids rolled on the grass; adults sipped beer and chucked beach balls. The rain held off, and the show wrapped up around 10:30 p.m., no doubt a relief to all the neighboring condo residents peeking in from on high.
Such an experience would be tricky to replicate at the proposed Rays stadium in Ybor City. The $245 million translucent roof would ensure no shows get rained out, an invaluable blessing in Florida. Perhaps some enterprising artist will try to turn that roof into a giant, laser-lit planetarium.
But Live Nation might not want to book concerts at a venue so close in size and location to its own 20,000-seat MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, although that could open a door for a rival promoter like AEG to make inroads. The proposed Rays park will seat 28,216 people, with a total capacity of 30,842 counting standing room. Tropicana Field, with the upper seats closed, seats 31,042.
"That facility’s going to be state of the art, but I don’t think we’ll be competing with that new stadium," Santiago said. "The 4,000 to 5,000 niche is what we feel is the sweet spot. Those shows aren’t going to play in front of 30,000 seats."
Until 2023 at the earliest, we are left with one field of concert dreams, and that’s Al Lang. With Lauryn Hill and Counting Crows coming soon, and both tracking toward crowds of around 5,000, it’ll be hopping at least twice more this summer. And Santiago expects more shows to come, possibly later this year.
The other thing about Al Lang was that there was no roof blocking Wednesday’s incredible 360-degree sunset, which hung colors in the sky until Collective Soul wound down their set.
"Turn around and look," Collective Soul singer Ed Roland urged the eastern-facing crowd. "Look at the sky. Look."
It was indeed quite the view, and one few other venues offer. Score one for the stadium set. Concerts might belong here after all.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.