WASHINGTON — It’s been a beacon of music in our rustic memories for five decades.
Now, Merriweather Post Pavilion celebrates its 50th anniversary in Columbia, Maryland.
“Merriweather’s been this place that everyone grew up going to,” I.M.P. co-founder Seth Hurwitz told WTOP. “It’s our Wrigley Field, our historic, wonderful [venue]. It’s this institution. It’s this place in the woods between D.C. and Baltimore. … It’s part of all of our fabric.”
After months of build up from John Legend to Paul Simon, the celebration culminates with a July 15 anniversary concert, featuring Jackson Browne, who recorded “The Load Out” there; Willie Nelson, who joined President Jimmy Carter on stage there twice; Father John Misty, who grew up nearby; and Grace Potter, who gave Richard Branson’s favorite performance there.
“Merriweather’s really been about singer-songwriters, so we wanted to make it that kind of day,” Hurwitz said. “Jackson Browne recorded ‘Running on Empty’ at Merriweather! … Willie Nelson has played here 16 times. … Then, we wanted someone who’s the future of artists, Father John Misty, and Grace Potter is a real firecracker, so we wanted her to host.”
Indeed, when Browne sang about “the road rushing under his wheels,” he was on Route 29, which has so many of us “looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields.”
Conceived in 1967, urban planner James Rouse created the suburb of Columbia, while famed architect Frank Gehry designed the community’s music venue, including its trapezoid roof.
“The suburbs were built out from cities as a place for people to move, get cheaper land and live in quiet places,” Hurwitz said. “Nowadays, I’ve sat down with developers who say, ‘How can we build a neighborhood organically?’ Well, you can’t, but [Rouse] had an idea of how to at least get the incubator going … to have a place to work, live and be entertained. … One of the things he had the vision for was an amphitheater in the middle of this community.”
Initially, the venue was meant as a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra to play in the 40-acre Symphony Woods. Likewise, the amphitheater was named after bigtime symphony donor Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heiress of Post Cereal. But while orchestras echoed through the woods for the inaugural year, everything was about to change.
After testing the waters with its first pop concert in 1968, featuring Tiny Tim and The Amboy Dukes, Merriweather decided to host its second non-symphony act, none other than Jimi Hendrix, who played “The Star-Spangled Banner” here the summer before Woodstock.
“They tried to ease the neighborhood into these rock shows, but found out quickly the money was in rock,” Hurwitz said. “Once that started filling the coffers, they went in that direction.”
Hendrix kicked the door open to The Doors, The Grateful Dead and The Who, which played with opening act Led Zeppelin in 1969, the only time the two bands ever shared a stage.
“We did Robert Plant with Alison Krauss not long ago, perhaps my favorite show,” Hurwitz said. “He was looking around and he said, ‘You know? I think we opened for The Who here.'”
Just weeks after the Who-Zeppelin concert, Janis Joplin’s concert was covered by Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who reviewed music before his Watergate coverage with Bob Woodward. A few years later, James Taylor came to town to play for five straight nights.
“You look at the old schedules and there’s The Carpenters one night and Pink Floyd the next. That is fantastic,” Hurwitz said. “And Miles Davis — all on the same calendar!”
Some of these artists have inspired physical changes to the layout. In 1970, the venue permanently expanded its number of pavilion seats with triangle sections to win a seven-show run by Tom Jones. In 2005, Hurwitz ripped out all the seats in the orchestra to land Green Day, whose frontman Billie Joe Armstrong required a mosh pit for general admission.
“Someone was trying to book Green Day away from us,” Hurwitz said. “They said, ‘Billie Joe doesn’t play anywhere there’s not general admission,’ and I said, ‘I’ll rip the seats out, how’s that?’ They said, ‘You’re not going to be able to do that in time,’ and I said, ‘Try me.’ Green Day’s manager Pat called, ‘You’re really going to do that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ … We have a picture of Billie Joe and me standing on stage looking at the freshly-minted G.A. pit.”
These layout changes continue to this day, with an ongoing $55 million backstage renovation.
“That really got to be almost like a shantytown back there,” Hurwitz joked. “We ripped everything out and basically put in a motel. It’s got a pool. It’s crazy back there! Bands are playing there and their jaws are dropping. They’re walking around and taking pictures.”
As for audiences, you’ll notice recent upgrades to the bathroom and concession areas.
“I know this isn’t sexy, but we redid the bathrooms. People care about that stuff! Even things like condiment stations. If you get a hot dog and you put stuff on it and it’s a mess, you feel like this sucks. It should be nice! We’re rethinking all of the food. Someone made a Facebook comment they didn’t like the chicken tenders. We should have the best chicken tenders!”
Still, sometimes the best approach is to leave certain elements alone.
“We don’t want to change the feel of the place,” Hurwitz said. “It has this magic and you don’t want to mess with that. People say things like, ‘I just love Merriweather.’ You just don’t want to mess with that. So the biggest thing you do is to not do anything. You leave it be and not bother people and not bother the aesthetic there and just let people enjoy it.”
Hurwitz knows his stuff, as his company I.M.P. runs the 9:30 Club and is about to launch The Anthem on D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront. Hurwitz took over Merriweather operations back in 2004 and just recently signed a new 40-year lease. Along the way, he’s guided it through the Virgin Free Fest, Vans Warped Tour, Summer Spirit Festival and M3 Rock Festival.
“These days, people will talk about how many times Phish played or Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift,” Hurwitz said of the newer artists. “The Gorillaz are going to sell out, The Chainsmokers are sold out. That’s who’s popular now. That’s who the legends are going to be someday.”
You never know which current artists will look legendary in hindsight, whether it’s Radiohead opening for Alanis Morissette or The Weeknd recently opening for Florence + The Machine.
“When you go to shows, you don’t know that it’s history being made,” Hurwitz said. “People all the time say, ‘Wow, I wish I could have seen this act or that act. I wish I could have been there.’ But it’s happening now as we speak. There’s acts playing every night that are going to be legendary someday. … God bless the people that get out the door and see live music, because they’re creating their own memories and their own history. … Enjoy the now.”
It just so happens “the now” includes the 50th anniversary concert. Perhaps it’s fitting that a few days later, legendary composer Hans Zimmer will conduct a live orchestra at Merriweather, returning Symphony Woods to its symphonic roots. Hell, Browne’s lyrics may still be echoing through the trees with “The Load Out,” recorded live at Merriweather in 1977:
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.
That crowd is Merriweather.
Click here for more on the 50th anniversary show. Listen to our full chat with Seth Hurwitz below: