Mark Bennett: Getting Hauteans back in the concert-going groove

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Jun. 4—It's happened before. It could happen again.

Terre Haute can regain its niche as a hub for live music, with a new outdoors twist.

On Saturday night, three-time Grammy Award-winning rapper Nelly and opening act Locash will perform at The Mill, a new outdoor venue on the southwest side of the city. Four more concerts are scheduled at the site of the bygone International Paper plant — country singer Riley Green on June 17; classic rock chart-toppers Three Dog Night on July 4; the Summerland Tour featuring early-2000s rock bands Everclear, Living Colour, Hoobastank and Wheatus; and country singer Lee Brice on Sept. 4.

Four more concerts could be added for late summer and early fall.

"Hopefully, we can light that spark again," Tim Drake said of Terre Haute's significant live music legacy.

The town needs a broader musical scene for residents, but also for an increased flow of tourists through new amenities like the downtown convention center, eastside casino, riverfront improvements, growing outdoors outlets and the Nawtional Road Heritage Trail.

Drake serves as president of Lukebo Inc., a company formed in 2018 with his wife, brother-in-law Jason Lane and two other investors to operate The Mill.

In February, Vigo County commissioners approved a 45-year lease of the 64-acre, county-owned property to Lukebo to privately operate the music venue and improve the site. A lot has happened since then.

Preparations for The Mill's first season have included adding a concrete stage deck, a rooftop on lease from the Illinois State Fair, sound and lighting equipment, sod for the general-admission lawn seating, portable toilets, fencing, a tent for a beer bar, internet connections, and a "premium-experience" special-ticket area with a restroom trailer and bar area for 500, along with generators and power equipment.

"We've come a long way in two months," Drake said Wednesday afternoon.

One decisive detail, the weather, appears favorable, too. The National Weather Service predicts clear skies for Saturday, with a high temperature of 87. "Everything's looking good right now," Drake said.

The Mill's present capacity is 6,000 fans, capped at that level as a COVID-19 precaution, Drake explained. Premium-experience tickets for Saturday's Nelly concert and the June 17 Riley Green show are sold out, but general-admission seating remains available for all five scheduled concerts at The Mill, Drake said.

Together, the artists, proprietors and fans will etch a new era into Terre Haute's live music history. Certainly, Hulman Center's early decades fills a significant portion of that legacy. The roster of performers in those late-20th-century years is well remembered for its diversity, from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Aerosmith, Jethro Tull, Earth Wind and Fire, KISS, John Denver, Steve Martin — all in their primes — and many, many more.

In fact, after opening in 1973, Hulman Center hosted a stunning 95 concerts in its first five years.

Still, music happened before that. Indiana State University's Arena offered a string of stellar, diverse performers in the 1960s and early '70s through its Sycamore Showcase concert series. Progressive rockers Yes took the Arena stage in 1972, as did Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1969, the Temptations in 1971, Neil Diamond in 1967 and dozens of other pop music greats.

Sometimes, the music happened outside in the sunshine or under the stars, like a string of '60s and '70s acts at Fairbanks Park during the Banks of the Wabash Festival in the early 2000s.

Venerable Memorial Stadium took a few turns as a concert site. One notable Stadium show featured "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" tour on Aug. 29, 1965. The 12-act lineup gave many Hauteans their first chance to see recording artists from the British invasion unleashed a year earlier by The Beatles, as well as R&B, doo-wop and soul groups. Among the performers were Welshman Tom Jones, Brit duo Peter & Gordon, and American artists the Turtles ("So Happy Together"), the Shirelles (Rock and Roll Hall of Famers) and pop-soul singer Mel Carter ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me").

Tickets cost $2.25 for that Sunday night show.

The Wabash Valley Fairgrounds frequently hosts musical acts, usually during the Vigo County Fair in July. Grammy-nominated country star Trace Adkins will become the latest Vigo County Fair headliner on July 11. The Fairgrounds occasionally staged shows in other warm-weather months, and beyond the country genre.

A five-band rock concert unfolded at the Fairgrounds on May 30, 1976, just four days after Aerosmith played Hulman Center. The show kicked off at 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in the Action Track's infield. The lineup of heartland rockers REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Head East, Mahogany Rush and UFO played deep into the night.

Earlier in the spring of '76, Hulman Center hosted pop icons Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on a Friday night, and Southern rockers Marshall Tucker Band on Saturday. The back-to-back shows from different genres drew a total of 17,321 people.

Now in 2021, Tim Drake hopes to get the community and surrounding region accustomed to being concertgoers again. If so, "no matter who's playing, you can still go out and have a good time," he said. The Mill's opening round of performers is "very diverse," Drake said, with rap and alt-rock represented, along with Terre Haute's staples of country and classic rock.

The 36-year-old Drake, part owner of Show-Me's sports bar, also formerly worked for 317 Productions at the Noblesville outdoor concert venue now known as Ruoff Home Mortgage Home Music Center. That's also where Drake saw his first concert, featuring folk rocker Jack Johnson and Ben Harper. Today that venue, known to veteran concertgoers as Deer Creek, is the Indianapolis area's largest outdoor concert site, drawing visitors statewide.

Drake aims to steadily improve The Mill. That includes transforming the angular old Merchants Distillery building near Prairieton Road into a boutique distillery and brewery, turning the old International Paper plant's shipping center building into a small indoor venue, paired with a small outdoor music space for local bands, and bolstering parking, among other upgrades to utilize all 64 acres of the site near the Wabash River.

"We've got to be the reason you don't want to drive ... to Indianapolis," Drake said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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