Music News & Reviews

Rupp Arena broadens scope as concert venue

Pearl Jam, from left: Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, frontman Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Matt Cameron.
Pearl Jam, from left: Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, frontman Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Matt Cameron.

In recent years, it has become tough for devout concertgoers to not view Rupp Arena as something of a punching bag.

Admittedly, the venue will always be known as the rather spacious home of University of Kentucky basketball, hence the name. But upon its opening 40 years ago next fall, Rupp quickly gained a reputation as a favored performance destination for scores of legendary names from multiple genres. The extensive list of acts that played there include The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, AC/DC, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Willie Nelson, Kiss, Rod Stewart and, in what was probably his only Central Kentucky appearance (and quite possibly his only one in the state), the recently departed David Bowie.

But that was then. Rupp essentially allowed itself over the past decade to be branded as a country music palace when the Wildcats weren’t in town. A rotating lineup of Nashville headliners played the venue on an every-other-year basis. Once the KFC Yum Center opened in Louisville, even those acts were siphoned off. So it became routine to rag on the arena for being so stylistically jaded in terms of what little live music it presented.

A few signs of rejuvenation surfaced in 2015, with shows by The Eagles (in what turned out to be one of Glenn Frey’s final performances) and two decidedly non-Nashville double bills: Motley Crue with Alice Cooper, and The Avett Brothers with Jason Isbell.

This weekend marks perhaps the most serious break from the non-country concert drought. That might seem an unintentionally ironic thing to boast of, considering Nashville hitmaker Brantley Gilbert headlines there Friday night while the Janet Jackson show that was supposed to be Saturday was postponed due to illness, and the rescheduled Kentucky date ended up at the Yum Center, June 8. (To be fair to Rupp, that is because the arena will be closed for renovations this summer, when Jackson was set to return.)

But Friday marks a turnaround because tickets go on sale for two major spring concerts scheduled over a three-night period: James Taylor on April 24 and Pearl Jam on April 26.

This is a major development for the arena. Neither artist has been a Lexington regular.

Taylor has never performed at Rupp as a headliner, and Pearl Jam has played there only once, in 2003. To some, both might seem old hat acts, known far more for their histories than for any current chart-topping popularity. And, yes, Taylor made recent rounds of Louisville and Cincinnati before making his way here. But both acts are new entries to a Rupp calendar that is making an honest attempt to rework its reputation as country-leaning concert venue.

Understand, please, that a reliance on country isn’t entirely a negative. Lexington has proven a healthy market for Nashville acts. If they draw strong attendance — and they invariably do — then Rupp’s sagging reputation as an attraction for major touring artists can’t help but benefit. It’s just that for much of the past decade, country has had such a stranglehold on the arena’s concert availability that it had become an almost accepted practice to view the venue as a country hangout, while one major non-Nashville artist after another bypassed Lexington for Louisville and/or Cincinnati.

Hosting Taylor and Pearl Jam in April doesn’t change that image completely, but it represents a positive step in restoring at least some of Rupp’s former prominence as a concert home for all audiences and artists.

Tickets for Taylor on April 24 (8 p.m.; $67.50, $87.50) go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday through Ticketmaster (800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com) and the Lexington Center ticket office (859-233-3535). Tickets for Pearl Jam on April 26 (8 p.m., $71) go on sale at noon Friday, also through TicketMaster and Lexington Center.

Blues for a Monday

Who doesn’t get blue on a Monday? Well, the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour sure will on Feb. 1. For its weekly broadcast taping at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third Street, the program will make an event out of the start-of-the-work-week blues by honoring the Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi artist who pioneered the sound of electric blues music: Muddy Waters.

Performing a tribute will be three alumni members of Waters’ various touring groups: multi-instrumentalist Paul Oscher (who predominantly played harmonica with Waters from 1967 to 1972), and guitarists Bob Margolin and John Primer. Margolin performed with Waters from 1973 to 1980, and Primer was with the blues legend until the latter’s death in 1983.

As with all WoodSongs tapings, Monday’s session (6:45 p.m., $20), reservations are recommended by calling 859-252-8888. For more information, go to Woodsongs.com.

Walter Tunis has covered music for the Lexington Herald-Leader for 35 years.

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