Rock on

The 25th anniversary season of Comcast Center opens tonight. Artists like Jimmy Buffett and Tom Petty have been going since the very beginning. So has Globe music critic Sarah Rodman.

Aerosmith and other bands have entertained the crowds at the Comcast Center (formerly Great Woods and the Tweeter Center) for more than two decades. Aerosmith and other bands have entertained the crowds at the Comcast Center (formerly Great Woods and the Tweeter Center) for more than two decades. (Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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The pile of ticket stubs is 5 inches thick. And it’s not even a complete set. Over the course of 24 years a few of these little souvenirs have been lost, dropped, or sent through the wash. But all told, I’ve been to approximately 288 shows at what is now known as the Comcast Center in Mansfield. Some I attended as a teenager growing up in Metrowest or as a young adult living in Boston. Others I went to out of professional obligation. Fortunately, business and pleasure often mingled.

There have been multiple shows by artists you would expect, like Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor. There have been some by acts who played the very first year and are still going strong enough to be returning this summer, including Tom Petty. And there have been others — Liza Minnelli, Eddie Murphy, Lou Reed — that in retrospect seem nutty for the Mansfield shed. My stash of stubs is about to expand as the amphitheatre kicks off its 25th season tonight with country superstars Sugarland.

Given that the shed, owned and operated by Live Nation, has won a raft of concert industry awards — including four “top amphitheatre’’ trophies in the past six years from Billboard — it’s hard to believe that people doubted its potential for long-term success when the venue opened as the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in 1986. It’s also hard to believe that in 25 years it’s still such a drag to get out of the parking lot, but we’ll get to that.

Don Law, president of Live Nation New England, recalls vividly the criticism for building an amphitheatre so far outside Boston. “If you build it, they’re not going to come; it’s just too far away,’’ was the mantra he says he heard at the time when he opened the 15,000-seat venue with a mix of covered and lawn seating. (It expanded to 19,900 seats in 1994.) “We had a real struggle drawing in the first month, because people didn’t know where the heck we were.’’

But Great Woods — which became the Tweeter Center in 1999 and the Comcast Center in 2008 — was in the front wave of the amphitheatre revolution in the 1980s, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the concert industry publication Pollstar. “I think most of the major amphitheatres and the promoters that built them faced that exact same criticism,’’ Bongiovanni says. “Obviously people have proven that they will schlep out to Mansfield to see a show.’’

And schlep we have — from all across New England to see a variety of acts.

In the early years, shows by comedians like Bill Cosby and Victor Borge, jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan, world artists like the Gipsy Kings, and even a few dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, were routinely peppered into a concert schedule that sometimes numbered into the 60s. The Pittsburgh Symphony made Great Woods its summer home for five years. Those types of bookings eventually fell by the wayside, and the venue settled into a schedule of 25 to 40 pop-oriented shows.

This summer’s lineup showcases the now-familiar mix, which includes newer acts reaching their peak like soul-pop starlet Rihanna (Aug. 8), road warriors like the Dave Matthews Band (June 7 and 8), heritage acts like Buffett (June 17 and 19), multi-artist festivals like Ozzfest (Aug. 24) and Lilith Fair (July 30), and radio station celebrations like the annual Kiss Concert (May 22).

Looking at that schedule, riddled with familiar names, conjures a flood of memories. There was the time a burly, tattooed, and exceedingly chivalrous man grabbed me by the waist and ferried me to safety across a treacherous mosh pit crossing at the chaotic 1998 WBCN River Rave. There was the much less chivalrous guy who threw up on me at the ill-fated Van Halen show that same year when poor Gary Cherone, with a blown-out voice, was forced to cancel the show 20 minutes into the performance.

Great Woods was also the site of my first mind-blowing experience in terms of theatricality and stage craft as I sat transfixed as Peter Gabriel dodged ominous, attacking light fixtures during the high drama of “No Self Control’’ on the “So’’ tour in 1987. That year also marked the arrival of my first backstage pass, where I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. (Not much, apparently, judging by the picked-over deli tray and a jovially awkward conversation with the Thompson Twins.)

Strange in retrospect? The fact that in 1996 the world was in a place where Radiohead served as an opening act for Alanis Morissette.

Then there is the parking lot — the one from which it can take hours to escape. Yet that famously clogged lot has not served as a deterrent. A quarter of a century later, people are still heading to Mansfield. (To their credit, improvements have been made over the years, including a recent widening of Route 140 right outside the entrance-exit.)

If it’s any comfort, Bongiovanni says we are not alone: “A lot of outdoor amphitheatres have that same difficulty.’’

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