JENNINGS: 'Free Bird' leads to ticket sales for Artpark concerts

 It wasn't quite up to the 2011 show's numbers, but a large crowd was on hand for the 2015 Lynyrd Skynyrd Tuesday night show at Artpark.

Tuesday July 26, 2011 is a date that will live in infamy for some local residents of the Village of Lewiston, and it represented a watershed moment in the history of free concerts in Western New York.

Lynyrd Skynyrd headlined what turned out to be one of the two largest attended shows in Artpark’s history. Some sources claim the ZZ Top show the following week was the largest but there is no definitive way to know with certainty.

Crowd estimates at the time put attendance for the consecutive shows at 30,000-plus, but those numbers were proven faulty after Artpark started charging an admission fee for every attendee in 2012.

In 2013, George Osborne, was the executive director of Artpark and he sat down for an extensive interview about the history of Artpark where we discussed the Tuesday series and the 2011 Skynyrd show.

“We didn’t envision the Tuesday series getting this big. We picked Tuesday because it was a night of the week nobody else was offering a free concert,” Osborne noted.

“One of the challenges was being able to grow and get along with the village residents and governance. We constantly battled complaints about the sound, the traffic and people leaving the venue inebriated and leaving trash around.”

2011 was a banner year for the Tuesday’s in the Park series, but no one could have anticipated the massive crowd that the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert drew on a beautiful summer night in late July. Thousands of fans were in attendance, but thousands more never even made it in the venue.

Even with press credentials in hand, I was initially denied entry and had to wait for an Artpark official to contact security to get in to cover the show.

Traffic was backed up on the New York State Thruway and up Route 104, and inside the venue walkways were jammed. Osborne noted, “It had gotten to the point where it was unsafe.”

The traffic jam after the show was even worse, and it took hours for some fans to exit the venue.

“The year we did Skynyrd and ZZ Top back-to-back, it was overwhelming for the village, but it was perfect time for us to renovate the venue and limit the sizes of the crowd so there wasn’t monstrous traffic jams.”

By charging an admission, the venue was able to communicate to fans when an event was sold out, which limited the amount of fans showing up at the venue to secure tickets. Subsequent Skynyrd shows sold out, but the crowds were manageable.

“Once we saw what 10,000 people looked like in the venue, the crowd estimates of 30,000 were obviously too high. We had no place to put that many people in the there,” Osborne said.

After the Skynyrd show Osborne said, “We didn’t have to make our decisions on the amount of beer fans will drink. We were able to broaden our choices of bands,” because they no longer had to rely on concession sales from free concert attendees.

For the fans that were lucky enough to get in, Skynyrd put on an amazing show, and the evening marked the beginning of the end of free major concerts in the region. Many other series followed Artpark’s lead and started charging admission.

One final note related to Artpark, longtime Artpark communications director Maria Hays left Artpark for a new career opportunity. Maria has been my main point of contact at Artpark for over a decade. Maria and all the staff at Artpark over the years have made covering the venue a true labor of love.

Over the last decade Maria has gotten married and has two wonderful children, and we have shared many happy memories and she has been a tremendously supportive of me and my family through some difficult times.

I have no doubt that Maria will excel in her next position and will be able to spend valuable time with her young children. I know I speak for all of us in the media when I say thank you for all you have done for us Maria, and we wish you nothing but the very best. We will miss seeing you at Artpark.


Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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