Simpson tour a sign of the new times


August 31, 2001



Next Friday, Sept. 7, a procession of teen-pop phenoms including Eden's rush and headliner Jessica Simpson (the other blonde diva after Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera) will perform in the parking lot of the Golf Mill Shopping Mall in Niles.

Artistically, the show may not be much to get excited about. On the surface, it might even look like another example of marketing's triumph over music. But it could actually signal a revolution in the way that live sounds are presented.


The interesting thing about this particular tour is that it carries its own venue as it crosses the country. Every night, it pulls into a different parking lot, erects a stage that's 100 feet wide by 50 feet deep by 50 feet tall, and surrounds it with three "walls" made out of 31 massive canvas tent canopies and a giant inflatable entryway. In about two hours, organizers create a concert arena that can hold 4,000 people where previously there had been a flat expanse of concrete, asphalt or grass. And the implications are considerable.

The major live-music story of the last three years has been the emergence of Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly SFX) as the dominant force in the industry. It achieved this position via a multi-billion-dollar buying spree that gave it control of the majority of indoor arenas and outdoor amphitheaters in the United States, including the Tweeter Center, Alpine Valley and the Allstate Arena in the Chicago area. This is one of the few markets in the country where Clear Channel competes with a locally based rival, Jam Entertainment. And guess who's behind Simpson's "inflatable venue" tour?

"This is what Lollapalooza should have been," says Jam co-founder Arny Granat. "It's your own touring thing--you can put it in a field, put it in a corn yard, put it in a parking lot, put it in a county fair fairground, whatever it may be. It allows us to work with whatever the act wants, and it's an investment for the future."

Jam's first experiment with a portable arena came last summer when it promoted a tour by the Christian rock group the Newsboys in partnership with Nashville's First Company Management, the firm that actually owns the "venue." That tour used an inflatable air dome, but it had some problems that the current roofless setup eliminates.

"From that we progressed to this concept," says First Company's Dave Wagner. "For so many years, kids have gone to the local arena, the local theater, sometimes the local stadium if it's a big act. But they've always gone to the same places and seen the same show, no matter who the artist is. We wanted to create something that could take the music to a place where the kids actually want to go."

In Simpson's case, that's the shopping mall, which is the perfect setting. Jam is also promoting Festival Con Dios, an 11-band Christian-rock bill that will use a similar portable venue when it comes to Benedictine University in Lisle on Sept. 16. But Granat notes that the concept could work for any genre in any location, bringing alternative rock to the lakefront (a la the recent Radiohead show in Grant Park) or techno to a rural field in Wisconsin. And he promises better sound and more comfortable, less sterile environment than many concrete arenas.

Even better, portable venues do not have exclusivity agreements with Ticketmaster. Artists could therefore sell tickets by any means they choose, and they could pass the savings on to the fans.

"With what's going on in the concert industry, we must explore any and all opportunities to exist within the structure of what's happening," Granat says. "With this, there are no boundaries. We can go anywhere in the country and do whatever we want.

"It's not like it hasn't been done before," Granat adds. "They used to do those big revivals in a tent. But this is 2001; a lot of bands want to create something different. Well, tell us what you need, and we'll build it! We will build it and they will come."

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As for Jessica, I wish her music was as exciting as the stage she's playing on.

Simpson's saccharine dance pop is distinguished from the rest by a slightly more chaste sensibility ("I know that I'm supposed to make him wait/Let him think I like the chase," she sings on her second album, "Irresistible"), as befits a girl from Dallas who began her career in the church choir and rose to fame via the Christian Youth Conference.

We spoke by phone as Simpson and the inflatable venue made their way toward Chicago.

Q. So you're doing this tour where you bring the arena with you. What's that like?

A. I love it because it's so intimate. I can sit at the end of the stage and just look out and see everybody. I feel like I can reach out to people, and my fans feel like I'm more special because I can talk to them, y'know?

Q. You've made two albums and established yourself as a presence on the pop scene, but to a lot of critics, you're still the "third blonde." That must be annoying.

A. I'm so over it, like I don't even care anymore. Britney and Christina can do their thing and they can be successful and do whatever they do. It's completely the media that compares us and puts us in the same category, and I've come to realize that. I do my thing and I have my fans and I'm proud of what I do. I don't concentrate on any of that other stuff because there's no point in driving yourself crazy. Whether it's singing in my church choir or singing to my babies, I will always be doing music, no matter what. It doesn't have to be professional; I just love music.

Q. Are there elements of the star-making machine that frighten you? It must be odd to see your face on thousands of posters.

A. It is really strange. It's a really weird feeling, and still haven't completely grasped the whole idea of it. I'm really oblivious to a lot of stuff that goes on around me! But I think that's important, because I keep normal people around me that really keep me sane, and I try not to get caught up in it. I mean, I might want a Gucci bag here and there, but other than that, I'm still your normal girl from Texas.

Q. You're an attractive woman, and you certainly don't hide that, but you're not thrusting your sexuality in everyone's face the way Britney does. Why?

A. If I'm going to go to the gym and work out really hard, I'm going to do it because I want to, not because my fans think I look good. Because my fans could think I look good, and I'll think I look fat, y'know what I mean? If I'm going to look good, I'm going to look good for myself so I feel good about myself.

Q. Well, as a woman with morals and a brain, do you worry about how the marketing of your music stresses your sexuality?

A. No. Seriously, I try not to worry, because there's many more things to worry about than just image. I am who I am and I'm honest about who I am in interviews. I'm honest about my morals and values, and at the end of the day, it should be about my music more than anything else. But I do concentrate on being a positive role model--that is very important to me.

Q. Where do you see yourself going on the next album?

A. Album number three I will write. I want to be very involved and I want it to reflect my heart. You've got to do what you've got to do to get into the business and get some status or whatever. But I think once you get there, you can do whatever you want, and that's going to be when I really get to share my heart with everybody.