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Agua Caliente Casino Resort bets on A-list artists

February 18, 2009|Randy Lewis

RANCHO MIRAGE — The operators behind the Agua Caliente Casino Resort are calling their splashy new 2,001-seat concert hall, the Show, nothing less than "the premier concert theater in Southern California."

It's a bold claim, especially considering that the $76-million venue, which feels like a more intimate version of L.A.'s Nokia Theatre, sits outside of Palm Springs.

Still, landing veteran rocker Billy Joel to christen the Show late last week was a significant get. Joel and his eight-piece band on Thursday delivered a full-fledged 95-minute performance complete with arena-quality staging and lighting effects for an invitation-only crowd -- mostly members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who own the resort, and their guests.

Joel came armed with a boatload of classic songs and enough one-liners to keep the audience happy and engaged. ("The last time I was in this neck of the woods," Joel quipped early in the show, "I was in rehab.")

It's rare but not unprecedented for Joel to show up at a casino venue; last spring, he played 10 dates at the 10,000-seat arena at the Mohegan Sun hotel and casino in Connecticut. And he's hardly the only A-list entertainer to display an affinity for playing casinos, which were not so long ago considered the last stop on a dying career.

An explosion in the number of casinos and the fact that touring continues to be an ever-growing source of income for artists has musicians and their managers singing a different tune.

"The old casino model would have one think that anyone who plays there is either on their way up or on their way down," says Steve Macfadyen, entertainment director for the Show, hired recently to handle concert bookings after years of doing the same for Northern California's Shoreline Amphitheater.

"That's completely changing," he said. "Once upon a time, you toured to support your record. Now, people tour to pay their bills. . . . Suddenly casinos are an extremely viable place to play."

The shift began in earnest, naturally, in Las Vegas, when the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino opened the Joint in 1995. Since then, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Norah Jones, Neil Young, the Killers, Snoop Dogg and dozens more members of pop music's upper echelon have played the 1,400-capacity facility.

The Joint is undergoing a $60-million expansion to triple its capacity to around 4,000. It is scheduled to reopen April 19 with Paul McCartney playing a post-Coachella show.

"It's not just Dolly Parton anymore," said Jim Guerinot, manager of several acts that in recent years have added casino venues to their touring itineraries, among them Gwen Stefani, Nine Inch Nails and Social Distortion. "It started with the Joint. Once bands got accustomed to playing there and the House of Blues Casino in Vegas, they realized there's a lot of them.

"Now you can do a whole shadow tour," Guerinot said of casinos in areas outside the standard tour stops in primary and secondary cities.

"If you play a casino 40 miles outside of San Diego, you might still play in San Diego without cannibalizing your audience," added Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry-tracking magazine Pollstar. "From the artists' perspective, it just increases the number of places they can play, and the casinos pay fairly well."

Casinos typically pay artists as much or more than conventional music venues because entertainment "is a loss leader to some extent," Bongiovanni said. "The primary motivation is to get people in to gamble."

It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for a casino to cough up $1 million for a special event with an act of Joel's stature.

The Show is something of a gamble for the Agua Caliente tribe, which is investing $350 million into a major expansion of the entire complex in hopes of boosting gaming revenue in the midst of a tanking economic climate. If they're hit hard by the current downturn, just how much they or other casino operators will be able to pay to draw top-drawer talent will come into question.

The head of a booking agency that represents several high-profile rock, pop and hard rock performers said, "They used to be very aggressive with their offers; they had lots of dates with lots of different acts. With the economy the way it is, people aren't spending money. . . . Gambling is an excess entertainment, and people are cutting out excess."

Macfadyen anticipates booking three or four marquee shows per month. To date, the Show has lined up concerts with Tony Bennett, Puddle of Mudd, Chicago, Melissa Etheridge, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins and Jay Leno shortly after he ends his 17-year reign as host of "The Tonight Show."

Tickets for Bennett's performance are at the high end of the price spectrum, running from $75 to $135, with Puddle of Mudd at the lower end, running $25 to $55. Others fall between.

"It's really, really tough out there," Macfadyen said. "So we're endeavoring to buy smart. I'm not competing openly in bidding wars with other properties just for the sake of getting a show. Now it's doubly important, I feel, to make sure that tickets are affordable so that people who come here can enjoy the rest of the property as well. You can't take away all their disposable income just in the ticket price. That model won't work. People won't come."


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