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Critic Pans U2's Festival-Seating Plan

Pop Music * The owner of a crowd-management firm says the group's floor-level fans could be put at risk. Other experts disagree.

February 09, 2001|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

U2 is readying its return to U.S. arenas for one of the marquee concert tours of 2001, but much of the buzz preceding the March 24 opening night in Miami has been about seating and safety, not music.

The Irish band's tour, which visits Southern California in April, will have a general-admission policy for floor areas, a change from U2's traditional approach to U.S. shows. Tour promoters say that system is best suited for the novel, still-secret staging U2 has planned. But to one industry critic, the approach seems hazardous.

Paul Wertheimer, a self-fashioned champion of concert safety who runs a Chicago-based company called Crowd Management Strategies, warns that U2's decision to open up the floor may set the stage for chaos. "Festival seating is the most volatile setting, and according to our data, the most deadly and most injurious of all concert environments," Wertheimer said.

The danger comes not only when the music is playing, but in the minutes before the concert begins when fans jockey for prime positions, Wertheimer said, recalling an infamous U.S. concert tragedy--the death of 11 fans at a 1979 Cincinnati concert by the Who. Wertheimer was chief of staff for the task force analyzing that incident.

But now some in the concert industry privately grumble that Wertheimer inflates concert risks in his gadfly role and side career as an expert witness in injury lawsuits.

Wertheimer responds that his provocative stance has cost him more business as a consultant than it has earned him. He also says the people with questionable motivations are promoters who can use general admission to pack more fans in.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication, says general admission seating does pose extra challenges and risks. To Bongiovanni, though, the track record of U2 and the nature of its audience make their shows a fairly low-risk venture.

Concert safety has been a hot-button issue in recent years with the riots at Woodstock '99 and the trampling deaths at a Pearl Jam show in Denmark last year. Wertheimer says those sprawling outdoor shows are the most hazardous, but adds that arenas are not designed for general admission seating, leading to scores of injuries each year.

Arthur Fogel, a Toronto-based executive for SFX Entertainment, the U2 tour's promoter, says the shows will be safe and well-thought-out, and he calls Wertheimer's claims "absolutely irresponsible and unfounded."

Creed, Phish, Limp Bizkit and Eminem are among the artists that have used general admission seating in arenas without major incident, said Fogel, who also cited smaller but still substantial venues, such as the Hollywood Palladium, that use general admission for almost all shows.

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