Live music is an integral part of life in Texas.
Nearly everywhere you go, whether it’s a bar with your buddies or a restaurant with your family, there’s probably a singer-songwriter performing covers or original material.
Not to mention the surfeit of clubs, theaters, arenas and stadiums — indoors and out — where music can be heard year-round.
Yet most of these concerts are happening in Fort Worth or Dallas, leaving Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers, the Dallas Cowboys and the thrill rides at Six Flags, as something of a musical afterthought.
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Music fans know now, after almost a decade, that to overlook Arlington as a musical destination is to run the risk of missing out on what might be the best-kept secret in North Texas show-going: the Levitt Pavilion.
Situated in downtown Arlington, a stone’s throw from City Hall and just a couple blocks from another important venue, the Arlington Music Hall, Levitt Pavilion opened in 2008 with what’s described as “a special mini-season” of 16 concerts, far fewer than the more than 50 concerts a season Levitt Pavilion has averaged since then.
Over the past seven years, the nonprofit Levitt Pavilion has built a reputation as one of the most diverse stages in North Texas, playing host to an eclectic assortment of local, regional and national talent — all with free admission.
As Cathy O’Neal, who has been Levitt Pavilion’s communications director since its inception seven years ago, explains, Levitt Pavilion’s existence sprang less from a desire to bring more live music to North Texas than from the necessity for civic engagement.
“Really, it was all about what can we do to bring people to downtown Arlington,” O’Neal says. “[Even] in the late ’70s and ’80s, it was, ‘What can we do to bring people downtown?’ so it had been happening for decades, and we could never find the right thing.”
The California connection
Inspiration arrived via Maggie Campbell, who served as president and CEO of the Downtown Arlington Management Corporation from 2006 to 2009 (and is now based in Santa Barbara, Calif.).
Prior to arriving in Arlington, Campbell had spent six years in Pasadena, Calif., where she played a role in helping get its Levitt Pavilion off the ground.
“She said, ‘I know the perfect thing to do,’ and contacted the Levitt Foundation,” O’Neal says of the nonprofit formed to support arts and culture. “They came out, took a look and said, ‘Oh, gosh, Arlington would be an awesome spot for our first Texas pavilion.’ The [now former] mayor [Robert Cluck] and the city council [members Kathryn Wilemon and Lana Wolff] went out to Pasadena in 2007.”
With city government and private citizens on board, a group of Arlington residents, spearheaded by Kristin Vandergriff, raised $1.2 million in fewer than 12 months to fund the construction of Levitt Pavilion, the first of the nonprofit’s locations to be built from the ground up, rather than renovating an existing structure.
In spring 2008, when O’Neal and the Levitt Pavilion’s executive director, Patti Diou, came on board, the Levitt Pavilion was on track to open for its first concert that fall, on Oct. 11, when 1,800 people gathered to watch Brave Combo perform.
That first, abbreviated season of 16 concerts nevertheless attracted 15,500 patrons to downtown Arlington. (The pavilion, per a mandate from then-Mayor Cluck, opened just months ahead of then-Cowboys Stadium’s grand unveiling.)
“It really was all about bringing people downtown to jump-start that revitalization,” O’Neal says. “It worked like a charm — restaurants pop up every year and there’s more stuff happening every year.”
The Arlington venue, with a capacity of around 3,500, remains, to date, the only Texas-based Levitt Pavilion, but it may soon have company in the Lone Star State.
The national nonprofit organization has a total of eight venues across the country, and Houston may be getting a Levitt Pavilion of its own — O’Neal says fundraising is underway, and it could open within the next year to 18 months.
“That will be great for us because we can route bands through Houston,” O’Neal says. “The closest pavilion we have to route with [now] is Memphis.”
As the Levitt Pavilions website explains, its mission isn’t so much staking a claim in the world of concert staging and promotion, as it is enriching communities.
“We’re passionate about reinvigorating America’s public spaces through creative placemaking and creating opportunities for everyone to experience the performing arts,” reads a statement on Levitt Pavilions’ website. “The need for more third places — those informal gathering spots outside the realms of home and the workplace — has become increasingly clear in today’s world and guides us in our community-driven efforts.”
“What we see over and over again and what I think makes it so rewarding is looking out on that lawn and seeing entire families, you see business leaders, low-income people [and] elected officials sitting together and enjoying music,” O’Neal says. “That’s what we’re all about. We’re just making live music and art accessible.”
To that end, Levitt Pavilion’s concert series lineups — there are summer and fall concert series, separated by a few weeks, and usually totaling more than 60 free concerts over any given year — are almost shockingly diverse, far moreso than many for-profit venues in North Texas.
A quick glance at the upcoming shows at Levitt Pavilion reveal everything from gospel to country to rock to pop to children’s music — a refreshingly genre-blind booking mentality made manifest.
“Our mission from the beginning has been to put multicultural performances on — we want a little bit of everything, so it’s always something that appeals,” O’Neal says.
“We try to bring a really good mix. We introduce people to a lot of stuff they wouldn’t have ordinarily heard, because they can come to it for free and if they don’t like it, they can go home — they didn’t spend any money on it.”
Scouting for talent
However, the audiences aren’t just spectators, O’Neal says, noting that she keeps a running list of suggested acts on her iPhone — “We take our audience suggestions very seriously,” she says — and combines that with the legwork of Diou and Richard Treat, the pavilion’s production manager, who attend several music conferences each year, including South by Southwest. This helps keep the concert calendar brimming with talent.
(Seriously, the Levitt team never stops scouting: O’Neal says one of last year’s bands, Austin’s Whiskey Shivers, came to her attention via an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series, Parts Unknown.)
“We go out and see artists,” O’Neal says. “We always pay attention to who’s playing at the Kessler [Theater] and House of Blues and Granada [Theater], because those are comparable to our capacity and budget. We pay attention to who’s hot in DFW.com, who’s hot in the [Dallas] Observer and Fort Worth Weekly, and that’s kind of how we do it.”
The summer series continues through July 12 — this weekend, Spoonfed Tribe, the Dirty River Boys and the Quebe Sisters are scheduled to perform — and after a brief break, music will resume at the Levitt Pavilion on Sept. 4.
As it does each year, the Levitt Pavilion will hold one ticketed event in the fall, as a fundraiser to help keep the music going with a high-profile headliner: Kenny Loggins will anchor this year’s benefit concert, set for Oct. 3 (tickets are on sale now, via the Levitt Pavilion website).
Almost a decade in, and the Levitt Pavilion is showing no signs of slowing down: 127,000 people attended last year’s musical events, from 45 states and eight countries.
“People bring friends from another city or another state and they’re so jealous: ‘We want one of these,’” O’Neal says.
Live music, it would seem, is an integral part of life beyond our state’s borders as well.
“It has so exceeded our expectations,” O’Neal says. “Patti [Diou] and I are arts people ... so that first season we were like, ‘How many people do you think will come?’ ‘I don’t know what to expect — 250?’ ‘What if 500 people come?’ And now if there are not 2,000 butts on that lawn, we are bitter: ‘Where is everybody?!’
“It has far, far exceeded our expectations and far exceeded the projections of the Levitt Foundation. We’re thrilled. I keep waiting for us to hit a plateau. I thought we were going to hit it the year before last, [but] we just keep going.”
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713