New & Improved

The ups and downs of Cleveland's dueling outdoor venues.

Ohio Chautauqua On the north quad of Baldwin-Wallace Road and Beech Street in Berea Thursday through Sunday, June 20 through 23, performances begin at 6:50 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2:20 and 6:20 p.m. on Sunday. Free. 440-826-2322.
The sound was good. Almost too good. Hearing a crystalline version of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," as interpreted by former LFO singer Rich Cronin in the renovated Nautica Pavilion, was about as enjoyable as a Gilbert Gottfried karaoke jam. We won't gripe about Nautica's beefed-up sound system come August, when Slayer rolls in, but on this recent opening night, clarity was no friend of ours.

We felt the same about the folks at the House of Blues, the owners of Nautica, last summer, when they announced plans to give the venue a facelift. After all, it was already one of the best in town. With a great view of the Cleveland skyline, gnarly drawbridges towering overhead, and plenty of open sky, Nautica was, hands down, the city's most scenic venue and hard to beat for summer concertgoing.

So why mess with a great thing? And why cover it all up with a tensile roof that, from the right angle, resembles a huge brassiere?

But the utility of said roof was demonstrated almost immediately after the gates opened, when a slight drizzle began. In the past, this may have dampened our spirits -- literally -- but tonight the rain stayed out of our Budweiser, and all was right with the world. And though the canopy does eliminate the pleasure of seeing a concert under the stars, it doesn't do much to obscure Nautica's view of downtown Cleveland, still the best part of the place.

Elsewhere, it looked as if the $5 million spent on improvements mainly went toward adding an abundance of costly box suites, skyboxes, and a V.I.P. area. The tail end of the venue's floor has been cordoned off for tabled seating, two large box-seating areas have been wedged in between the three bleacher sections, and the general admission area has been greatly reduced, leaving only the upper tiers of the bleachers.

Yeah, profiteering was in the air -- along with wafts of pungent Bonne Bell spritzer -- but with enhanced sound, a bigger stage, and a surprisingly intimate feel for a venue that holds 5,000, Nautica remains one of our favorite places to see a show.

But the real question is how it compares to the freshly minted Tower City Amphitheater, Nautica's spacious, similarly sized rival, which kicked off its debut season in May.

Whereas Nautica opens into a view of the Cuyahoga, the backdrop of the Tower City stage is a pile of gravel and a tree. Moreover, the stage is a bit smaller, which could constrain some performers.

Still, the amphitheater's sound is clear and crisp, there's more general admission space, and the lack of fixed seating could make it more suitable for larger rock shows, where the floor can be cleared for the biggest mosh pit in town.

And now for the most important comparison: beer prices. Pretty equal here, though Nautica offers a bit more value. A 16-ounce plastic bottle of Bud Light goes for $5 at Tower City, while you get four more ounces for a quarter less at Nautica. Nevertheless, we had to pawn our entire collection of rare Jim Nabors vinyl to raise the kind of scratch needed to get a good buzz on at these pricey joints.

Speaking of a good buzz, that's what the third installment of the Hess Fest had generated among the metal underground, as longhairs across the country looked forward to the fest going national this year. One of the best events for metalheads and punk rockers alike -- we'll take it over Ozzfest any day -- Hessfest has boasted the likes of Fu Manchu, Converge, and Candiria and was all set to hit the road and become a touring attraction this year, with such notables as High on Fire and Clutch in tow, along with a selection of Derek Hess's art. But then, as Hess manager Marty Geramita put it in a recent posting on Hess's website, "Hessfest 2002 went from 100 mph to 0 mph in just about two hours."

"Basically what happened was, Poison the Well pulled off [and] went on the Kittie tour. And when they pulled off, Clutch got cold feet, so they kind of pulled off," Geramita says. "It's one thing if we have one hole to fill, but two holes is a little much, so we decided to kind of put it off, regroup, and do it in the fall."

Damn. We haven't been this disappointed since MTV canceled Headbanger's Ball. Oh, well. Unlike Rikki Rachtman, at least the Fest still has a future.

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