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Hello, California!" Terri Clark calls to 5,000 people settling in an amphitheater overlooking pristine blue Clear Lake, preparing for an evening of country music. You may not know her, but Clark has been to the top of the charts. Her first self-titled CD -- released in 1995 -- launched three Top 10 country hits. She's had more since.
But Clark's October tour of California consisted of exactly two dates. The first was Hanford, population 38,900, where she played the Fox Theater, a mecca of sorts for country artists. The second date was this night in Kelseyville, population 9,100, at the Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, owned by San Francisco's Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 38. Clark is opening for LeAnn Rimes, the 17-year-old star with the big voice, the platinum sales, and the country music machinery behind her. Rimes' devoted fans, many of them preteens running around in packs with distant supervision from their parents, can choose among three teddy bears -- $20, $23, and $25 -- all of which are wearing LeAnn tees. As she hits the stage, Rimes is three weeks away from her fifth release, expected to sail up the charts in little more than the four hours or so it takes to wind up the highway to Konocti from San Francisco.
Konocti Harbor is unlike any other music venue in Northern California. It's a place where young country thrives and where graying rockers have found a green, green pasture. This year's shows have featured Lynyrd Skynyrd and Styx, James Brown, Clint Black, Pat Benatar, Ringo Starr, and Eddie Money. In 1999, Money needs seven tickets to paradise. He tows at least a few of his five kids to Konocti, and they enjoy the lake, the miniature golf course, and other attractions of the '50s-era spread set beneath a towering dormant volcano. Money, a one-time Berkeley resident who shot to fame in the '70s after catching the attention of Bill Graham, has been playing Konocti for 10 years, and says the adoring crowds allow him to flex his muscles. Unlike most shows, where he says he sticks strictly to winners like "Baby Hold On" and "Take Me Home Tonight," at Konocti the 50-year-old rocker plans to play four tunes from his new album.
"I do that special for them," he says. "We have a very steady crowd. We see a lot of the same fans. It's really great. It's kind of like Eddie Money Weekend."
Many weekends are like Eddie Money Weekend at Konocti; resort president and general manager Greg Bennett acknowledges he's going after the "baby boomer market." To say that Bennett has hit his target would be an understatement. Nine years ago, when he booked Leon Russell for Konocti's first concert, the showroom held 300 people. Two rounds of expansion have since increased its capacity to 1,000, and a couple of years ago the resort also opened the 5,000-seat amphitheater, a few minutes' walk or van ride from the nondescript, shoe-box-shaped buildings offering guests multiroom apartments with lakefront views and private hot tubs.
Bennett says performers "are used to a hard road. They hop on a bus after their gig, get to the next show." But not at Konocti. When Brooks & Dunn brought their 90-person entourage, Bennett says the resort put a bunch of them on Wave Runners and they stayed around for four days. Brooks & Dunn are also used to playing to tens of thousands. "How many amphitheaters do Brooks & Dunn or Tim McGraw play?" asks Bennett, with a hint of pride. "It's almost unheard of."
Steve Hauser, a senior agent at the William Morris Agency in Nashville, says Konocti is a favorite destination for the 30-some acts he books there a year, including Clark, Vince Gill, and Brooks & Dunn. "It's just different," he says. "Fans are on vacation. They're there to party and have a good time." Hauser says a Hanford-to-Kelseyville run like Clark's is not uncommon. Next stop, Medford or Portland, Oregon. "Greg Bennett's aggressive at buying the talent, and he pays pretty well," says Hauser. "We don't have to worry about the date canceling, so it's a good offer." Bay Area venues, with the exception of Santa Rosa's Luther Burbank Center or the Concord Pavilion, are generally not on the radar.
Bennett has seen country start to eat up his target demographic. "No question about it," he says. "Country is getting stronger and stronger in the music industry. And pretty much except for that exclusive group of five or six -- at the George Strait level -- everybody has played here."
Not every night is a big one. The New Year's Eve lineup features several low-flying acts from different genres, such as the Bay Area Big Band and the Jukebox Heroes. The morning before the LeAnn Rimes show is also the night after Robert Palmer. My breakfast at the Classic Rock Cafe is served on a laminated copy of Supertramp's Breakfast in America.
When I saw Palmer's audience from my $39 seats in the front row of the balcony, I realized it was just as well he wasn't hawking teddy bears. This crowd was there when Palmer first hit it big, in the Pliocene era of music videos with "Addicted to Love," if not further back to the Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley days of the mid-'70s. If they have kids, they're back at the room.
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