Rock and -- Roll Tape!

At the Rock Hall's MTV series, the bands don't go on till the cameras do.

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Godsmack's Sully Erna lays it on the Rock Hall crowd. - Walter  Novak
Godsmack's Sully Erna lays it on the Rock Hall crowd.
"We want you to go crazy for about a minute," yells David Spero. "Here they are -- Godsmack. Go nuts!" The members of Godsmack are actually still in their dressing room, but this show is being taped for MTV, so reality is virtual. It's more important that the crowd appear pumped for the pre-show footage. As the last of 10 Rock Hall performances on MTV this summer, the Godsmack show is as much a taping as a concert. Crowd response is everything. When Saliva played last month, the reaction was so tepid, the band had to play its set over, because MTV wasn't satisfied with the audience's enthusiasm.

"When you're dealing with TV, there's problems," Spero, the Rock Hall's vice president of education and programming, admits after a glitch-free show, which featured a set by openers Three Doors Down. "We tell the band that if we have a technical problem, we're just gonna keep going, and when you're done with your set, the encore will be the songs we need to redo. The audience certainly doesn't mind, because the songs we want them to redo are the hits. If they're seeing Staind do 'It's Been Awhile' two times, they're twice as happy."

So when Spero elicits applause by gesticulating wildly, it's to the crowd's benefit to "go nuts." And it does. Patrons mug for the rotating camera hovering over the lobby floor and throw up the devil-horn signs with their hands. But the mayhem doesn't carry over. After the minute of madness, the crowd settles down, as a cartoon clip of the Godsmack guys drinking shots, smoking dope, and playing video games shows on a large video screen. "It's the same show they played at Blossom," sniffs one fan, who also saw Godsmack at the outdoor shed two days prior to the September 5 Rock Hall show.

When the band finally arrives and opens its 75-minute set with "Voodoo," singer Sully Erna does his best to generate enthusiasm. "Talk to me, Cleveland," he bellows, his tattooed arms flexing through a cut-off denim shirt. Goateed and pierced, Erna makes a credible post-grunge frontman. In songs such as "Whatever" and "Keep Away," the devout Wiccan screams about the inner demons he can't quite exorcise. Eventually a mosh pit (a rare sight at the Rock Hall) starts to twirl. "I feel like I can connect with you animals," he yells, pointing to the shirtless guys in the middle of the pit. As Godsmack finishes its set with an Erna stage dive, half the crowd waits to see if there's an encore. But no amount of applause can bring the band back out. MTV's cameras are off, and that means the show is over.

As derivative as Godsmack might be, it's a treat to see the band -- which usually plays arenas and outdoor amphitheaters -- in the smaller confines of the Rock Hall, which has a capacity of about 1,400. By collaborating with MTV and AT&T Wireless, the Rock Hall beefed up this summer's concert series with chart-topping artists Alicia Keys, Staind, and Linkin Park. Even if the artistic ability of some of the acts is questionable, all the MTV/AT&T-sponsored shows sold out. The ratings for the program, which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and includes an interview segment, went up every week.

"When we went to MTV, one of the things that I really, really stressed was that we didn't just want to have a live concert at the Rock Hall," says Spero. "Being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we have a history and a future. The bands are the future, but they're connected with the past. Whether it's taking the guys from Godsmack to see John Bonham's drum set or taking Saliva to see Elvis stuff because they're Memphis boys, we can connect."

Spero says reports of some artists (notably Staind) creating problems for the staff were blown out of proportion.

"I've been on the road for the last 20 years with the Eagles and Beatles -- Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh. It was interesting to be with these bands that are just hitting," Spero says. "For some of them, they haven't had an opportunity to understand what they're doing. They haven't had the moment to reflect upon their Top 10 record. For the most part, they haven't had a chance to get an attitude."

In the episodes MTV has already aired, sophisticated camera work makes even generic bands Tantric and American Hi-Fi look exciting. The taped shows have brought exposure not only to the Rock Hall, but also to Cleveland, which seems to get the national spotlight only when the subject is Drew Carey or the Tribe. Spero says that, while nothing is definite, the Rock Hall is already negotiating with MTV for next year's series. Though Spero's background is in classic rock, he understands the significance of trying to make the Rock Hall appeal to a younger crowd -- even if it means letting the lobby degenerate into a sweaty mosh pit.

"There's a shot from the Staind concert where the people in the first rows are so passionate, they're just crying, and tears are cascading down their faces while they're singing these songs," Spero says. "There's this one girl whom we kept getting a shot of, and tears are coming down her knuckles as she's singing. [MTV's cameras] made that stuff work and showed the passion and commitment these fans have toward their groups."

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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