Do you love your summertime pier concerts? Yeah, me too. Been going the whole 29 years. Not too sure at this point what the 30th year will look like, though. Hope there is one.

People in power are getting nervous. For good reasons. It may mean the Twilight Dance/Concert Series will never be the same. But I’m encouraged by the comments of some of those who will be making important decisions.

I reported last week that at this summer’s final show, starring reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, the entrance to the pier was closed off by order of the fire marshal. Everyone I spoke to thought it was one of the biggest crowds ever for a Twilight show.

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A crowd awaits Surfer Blood during the first week of the Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Concert Series. Several shows this season drew large crowds, forcing public safety officials to shut down access. (Photo by Brandon Wise)

After being turned back at the Ocean-Colorado entrance, I headed south to approach from the beach, and once there climbed the wooden steps to land on the pier parking area.

It was jammed, like I’d never seen. Usually there’s a small crowd that chooses to watch the show from the side, where you can get pretty close if the concert area in front of the stage is too packed. (That was the area that got closed off right away.)

This time it was crammed with people who had no choice. I’m betting many of them, like me, did not consider the beach an option. You can’t really see (except now on video screen — feh!), and while the sound is pretty good it’s not what it is in front of the stage, on the pier. That’s where a music fan really wants to be.

I was shocked, when I finally got a peek at the sealed off concert area, to see how much empty space there was. Hundreds more people could have been let into that coveted area where you could actually see and hear, and it still would have looked less crowded than many concerts I’ve seen there.

But that’s my opinion, and it is not shared by our fire department’s deputy chief, Bruce Davis, who said it was at or past capacity. He took my questions the next day, apparently did a lot checking, and got back to me pretty promptly.

“We had to close the pier for several concerts this year,” he told me, “but this one was by far the biggest, which we anticipated. And we had to make that call very early in the evening. In fact, that number was exceeded before we could close the area in front of the stage.”

And the area right up against the stage? The worst, he said, “too many sardines in the can.” Looked about the same as always to me.

Davis said the decision to close off the concert area was dictated by a number, based on the square footage of the area involved. But the rest of the pier area was accessible from the beach, and that’s why the real sardine situation developed in the pier parking area.

I stand by my observation of how many more people could have been let in to enjoy that much-anticipated show. Which could mean a couple of things. It could mean the number being used by the fire marshal is too low. So a lot of folks got cheated that night. Or, it could mean that all those other shows, by less popular artists, were all dangerously overcrowded, and we’re lucky we’ve had no problems.

Davis and I were close to being on the same page, but Pier Manager Rod Merl’s words were what I really wanted hear.

“I’m here every day, not just for the concerts,” he said. “I walk the pier over and over, and I’m always aware of the history, the liveliness of the pier experience, which I think must be emphasized when we decide how to present these concerts.

“I’m on the mechanical end, and of course many organizations and individuals have to work hard and work together to keep this long-standing music tradition going. It seems to be really important to so many Santa Monicans I talk to,” he continued.

“Public safety, of course, but primarily this is a pier event. A being in front of the musicians pier event, for as many as possible — I think that’s very important.”

He echoed what Davis told me, that there will be meetings in the next few weeks, of pier people, promoters, police and fire, vendors and others, to discuss what transpired this summer, discern the lessons, and come up with a plan to keep things going, for everyone’s maximum benefit.

As a person who loves live music, I’m on the side of wanting to see capacities as high as safely possible. I witnessed too many great clubs in Hollywood die a quick death when the fire marshals came in with a ridiculously low capacity limit.

First responders, on the other hand, want to be able to do their job if called upon, to be able to wade into a crowd and treat and possibly remove someone having an emergency situation. And all sorts of other possible scenarios. So they prefer to have capacities set lower. I sympathize with their position, and to some degree I support it. Like everything, we need balance.

But the troubling factor is simply the growing size of the crowds, especially on the beach; getting massive, but so far, passive. It’s not because the shows are better, or bigger names; they aren’t. I think that this seems to be taking on a life beyond the performances themselves (Chief Davis and Merl agreed), that more and more people from the whole Los Angeles area are coming to our pier on summer Thursday nights to party, regardless of who’s playing that night.

Will that ruin it for everyone? I dearly hope we can preserve this priceless musical jewel for another 30 years, without chipping away too much at the facets that have made it so cherished and valuable.

 

 

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at therealmrmusic@gmail.com

 

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