5/16/2013 - The first season at Meadowbrook happened in a field with a temporary stage and 2,500 folding chairs, after Bob Harding suddenly entered the concert business when asked to host a performance by Beatles cover band 1964: The Tribute.
“But anyone who knew him knew he wouldn’t do just one show,” said his daughter-in-law, Bridget Harding. “If he did anything, it was going to be big.”
Johnny Cash and Chubby Checker rounded out the 1996 schedule, and things grew steadily from there. A permanent stage was added and covered seating was installed, with other improvements and upgrades made gradually through the years. Bob Harding succumbed to cancer in 2008; his son R.J. Harding is now in charge.
The 2013 season brings the biggest expansion yet, with roof construction, double the number of covered seats, a second entrance road, two new parking lots and expanded amenities.
There’s also a new name: Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook, for the financier of the $3 million project. With an increased capacity of 8,300 (6,000 permanent and 2,300 lawn seats), Meadowbrook can now lure bigger acts like season opener Motley Crüe, Kiss and John Mayer, all of whom will be playing there for the first time this year.
But star appeal didn’t drive the decision to expand, explained R.J. Harding as he stood on the stage after a recent press conference.
“It wasn’t about increasing capacity initially … the lawn seating was not as coveted, and I wanted more coveted seats. Now we have a perfect mix, and the lawn is selling out faster.”
The balance of musical genres is similar to previous years, though the number of shows — 27 booked so far — is the most since 2007. Country is represented by the Band Perry, co-headliners Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels, Trace Adkins, Darius Rucker, Rascal Flatts and a season-closing appearance by Brantley Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line.
Once again, The Zac Brown Band booked two shows, which sold out in an instant.
“It’s the biggest thing we’ll do this year and we’re looking to make them an annuity,” said Harding. “They like the whole vibe, the Winnipesaukee thing.”
He hopes to bring the country favorites back for three 2014 shows.
There’s a lot of rock and pop, from classics like Journey and an Allman Brothers/Steve Winwood double bill to harder stuff from local heroes Godsmack and the heavy metal Gigantour featuring Megadeth and Black Label Society. Americana is represented by Avett Brothers, with blues rock from Black Crowes, George Thorogood and Buddy Guy and Mayer, joined by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips.
Shock rockers Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson share the stage for what promises to be an interesting evening on June 20. Meadowbrook’s penultimate show is a surprising one — Ke$ha.
“That could be controversial, because she’s a little crazy,” said Harding. “That usually sells tickets. I remember when we booked Eminem in 2000 … people came in droves.”
Furthur, featuring Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, is a personal favorite for Harding.
“That was a huge booking for me, because I’ve been trying for years to get them — that’s my show for the season,” said Harding. “I’ve seen it before, and it really brings me back to the Dead’s good stuff in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
As a music fan who’s waited two to three hours to depart shows at other venues, Harding is enthusiastic about Meadowbrook’s traffic improvements.
“I wanted to be able to do a sold-out show and get people out in 30 to 45 minutes. We built an awesome road [and] we’ll move five times faster than we did in the old days.”
A family zone on the lawn, expanded food and beverage options and other moves trace back to his family’s hotel business roots.
“We want to make each patron feel like a guest, not just cattle coming in and out,” Harding said. “Every year we say, ‘What can we do this year?’ I don’t believe in standing still. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”