Perry Stern
June 14, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Imagine a baseball season with only a few heavy hitters signed and the winningest pitchers off playing golf. Sure, fans will still trek out to the ballpark — what better reason to get out of the house and sit under the stars on a beautiful summer’s evening? — but there may not be much chatter around the breakfast table the next day about what a great game it was. And didn’t the bleachers seem a little quiet?

That’s how this summer’s concert season is shaping up. In a recession year that’s already seen a decline in ticket sales, most of the all-stars who can pack ’em in (and charge top dollar) are sitting this one out. Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Janet Jackson are staying home because they toured last year, while, by chance or design, Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Michael Jackson are spending their summers in the recording studio. Rumored reunions of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles — guaranteed blockbusters if and when they happen — never materialized. R.E.M., who, with a top-five album, would have cleaned up, have chosen to take some time off; they’re unwilling to go back to the mind-numbing schedule after a year and a half on the road for their last album, Green. Money, it seems, isn’t everything.

Still, there will be events worth catching. A few big names will be out there, among them Whitney Houston and future hall-of-famers Guns N’ Roses, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis Costello. There’ll be hot rookies up from the minors, like Nelson and Slaughter; there’ll be plenty of veterans on the road, among them ’70s relics Chicago, Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Brothers Doobie and Allman. There’s even a team calling itself the Lollapalooza tour taking the field with one of the most offbeat lineups in years. Get ready to watch ’em play.

Hot Tix For a Cool Season

What’s the biggest concert commotion this summer? The most sparks may fly from the incendiary pairing of Guns N’ Roses with those rough and boisterous hard rockers Skid Row as their opening act; dates are scheduled through 8/3, with more to be announced. But that’s not all. Whitney Houston, whose tour spans the summer, has already garnered critical raves for her rousing, gospel-tinged performances. Canny, sharp-edged songsmith Elvis Costello’s current tour runs through 6/22. Retro-vaudevillian David Lee Roth, touring through 7/24, features giant satyrlike figures that spray real Jack Daniels on the audience. (Try explaining that to Mom and Dad when you get home.) And Morrissey, that classy, disaffected fop, recently launched his first solo tour of America and will venture to endure it until 7/13.

Those are the early shows. In July, multi-Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt returns with the added come-on of heartthrob hitmaker Chris Isaak. Long-absent Huey Lewis and the News take off starting 7/2.

Come August, Rod Stewart dons his tartan duds for yet another assault on America, the Pet Shop Boys resume the campily theatrical tour they started this spring, and Tom Petty heads out to boost a new album. Still unconfirmed are theater engagements by Prince, offering a teasing taste of an arena tour likely for fall — when we may also see blockbuster shows from Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Paula Abdul.

All Wrapped Up & Ready To Go

There’ll be radio-ready rock on the road from MTV poster boys Nelson (traveling with Enuff Z’Nuff in June and July); the steamy Divinyls (through 7/16); Poison with Slaughter and BulletBoys (till 7/9); Joe Jackson (7/5-8/8); and Damn Yankees with Bad Company (till 9/13). A more serious touring rock group will be Los Lobos, working all summer even with no new album out.

But with few biggies on the circuit, packaging several acts has become the way to give more bang for the buck. Major multiact metal shows include the Clash of the Titans tour, with coheadliners Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (through 7/14), and Operation Rock & Roll, featuring Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Motörhead, and Metal Church (7/9-8/18). Black- and dance-music stars also know there’s safety in numbers. Superstars Bell Biv DeVoe have signed up for two tours that briefly overlap. One is the annual Budweiser Superfest, which also features various combinations of L.L. Cool J, Ralph Tresvant, Pebbles, Keith Sweat, Digital Underground, and Babyface (6/14-7/7); the other has them headlining the Club MTV ’91 tour, with Tony! Toni! Toné!, C+C Music Factory, Gerardo, and Tara Kemp (7/3-8/20). Black and dance artists bucking the package trend include Big Daddy Kane (7/10-8/18), Natalie Cole (till 8/23), and Freddie Jackson, with En Vogue (through 6/24).

One country package matches neotraditionalist Clint Black with his hero Merle Haggard, along with Lorrie Morgan, Carlene Carter, and Matraca Berg (through 10/13). But country acts are also going solo: the Judds (on their farewell tour, through 6/30), Travis Tritt (through July); the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Emmylou Harris (through 7/27); the Kentucky HeadHunters (6/8-9/28); and Highway 101 (through 7/27).

Then, of course, we’ll see blasts from the past: Yes, with all eight members (7/5-8/8), Chicago (6/20-7/21), Lynyrd Skynyrd (till 9/1), the Allman Brothers (8/9-9/6), and the Doobie Brothers (through 8/9).

One From Column A, One From Column B…

The most ambitious show of the season is the aptly titled Lollapalooza tour (7/19-8/22), which recalls ’60s music festivals that provided not only a wide range of genres but a sense of community and political consciousness. Inspired by England’s annual Reading Festival and the Woodstock-esque circuit that flourishes each summer in Europe, Perry Farrell, lead singer of Jane’s Addiction, decided to launch something similar in America. While most package tours team up like-minded acts, the Lollapalooza tour offers dazzling variety, a smorgasbord of intriguing music. Much of it lies just outside the mainstream, including Jane’s Addiction’s brainy metal, veteran punks Siouxsie and the Banshees, funk-rockers Living Colour, industrial dancemasters Nine Inch Nails, and gangster-rap hero Ice-T, with the anarchist Butthole Surfers and the Rollins Band thrown in.

The tour is billed not just as a concert but as an ”all-day arts-entertainment-information festival” and hopes to include a dozen tents to disseminate social and political information. Farrell insists that there won’t be a liberal agenda. Army recruiters and the National Rifle Association have been invited, as well as supporters of the Brady bill for handgun control, Greenpeace, and Rock the Vote. There will also be an ”Art Tent” displaying works by 8 to 10 local artists at each tour stop, as well as, tentatively scheduled, a selection of photos by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid.

As if that weren’t enough, another throw-musical-styles-in-a-blender tour offers, starting 7/12, the alternative rock of the Sisters of Mercy, revived post-punk champs Gang of Four, and the group often considered the world’s leading rappers, Public Enemy.

Hard Times in Concertland

Summer is big-bucks time in the concert business. Typically 60 percent of the year’s tickets are sold during June, July, and August, a fact that explains the proliferation of outdoor amphitheaters and sheds. But the 1991 summer season, according to Marc Geiger of Triad Artists, the premier booking agent on the alternative-music scene, promises to be ”the all-time limpest.”

”There’s just no buzz out there,” says Joe Owens, vice president of marketing for BCL, the Toronto-based promoters who had a lock on most of the really big American tours of the past few years (Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, David Bowie) but have been effectively shut out of the U.S. for the summer. ”We haven’t vacated the U.S.,” Owens shrugs, ”the acts have vacated us.” With 1991 attendance figures down noticeably from last year, some of the big names may not want to risk embarrassing themselves with mediocre turnouts.

So the key concern among promoters, bookers, and venue owners this season seems to be economic survival. To combat the slump, promoters are trying new ways to draw crowds. Although there was a 20 percent increase in average ticket prices last year from 1989, this year there have been no hikes at all, and there’s even talk of making prices lower (as Steve Winwood and Damn Yankees actually did earlier this year). Many amphitheaters are now charging less for lawn seating than for their reserved seats, and some venues are experimenting with ”frequent buyer” programs, offering discounts and free tickets to regular attenders. Ultimately, the big winners in this high-stakes game should be the concertgoing public.

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