San Diego’s Rady Shell set for new season: ‘It’s a fantastic venue,’ says Rock Hall of Famer Stewart Copeland
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Stewart Copeland happily began singing the praises of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park even before he first performed there last summer with the San Diego Symphony.
His concert was one of the first at the orchestra’s $85 million new outdoor home, which opened last August. The stunning bayside location, exceptional audio and lighting system, and elegant but eye-popping design qualified it for almost instant landmark status.
“It’s a fantastic venue. Venues like that are the reason we play music,” said Copeland, the drummer and founder of the band The Police.
Similar sentiments were voiced from the stage of The Shell — as it is more commonly known — by Gladys Knight, Yo-Yo Ma and other artists who performed there during last year’s opening season.
It is likely the only outdoor concert venue operated by any American orchestra at which members of the public can freely walk, jog, bike or skate around the entire site on a public promenade, day or night. What’s more, they can do so in close proximity to the stage and paying audiences while performances are taking place.
“You’ll find lots of people roller skating around the Shell, especially on Thursday nights,” said Paige Satter, the symphony’s director of facility administration. “Last year, Jason Mraz was leaving the rehearsal, grabbed his skates, and joined the group skating around.”
The story doesn’t end there. When Mraz performed “Be Where Your Feet Are” with the symphony at his subsequent concert at The Shell, he skated across the stage as he sang.
Shell-bound singer Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her performance in the 2007 film “Dreamgirls” and won new acclaim last year for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in the biopic “Respect.”
Legends and rising talents
With or without any ball-bearing-propelled performers, The Shell is now gearing up for its second summer season.
The lineup features Rock & Roll Hall of Famers (Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, The Beach Boys) and Broadway stars (Bernadette Peters, Megan Hilty, San Diego’s Christian Hoff). It also includes R&B and hip-hop greats (Common, Jennifer Hudson, Kool & The Gang) and younger artists (experimental future bass maverick Flume, the jazz-funk jam band Lettuce, Swedish electro-pop group Little Dragon), along with comedian Tom Segura and several jazz luminaries (Wynton Marsalis, Charles McPherson, Arturo O’Farrill).
But the biggest attraction, in this or any future season, may well be The Shell itself.
With the bay and Coronado to the west and the downtown skyline, marina and San Diego Convention Center to the east, the meticulously designed venue is striking from the ground, sea and air. So striking, in fact, that Apple featured footage of The Shell in last September’s global rollout of its iPhone 13.
That surely would not have happened with the temporary stage the symphony had previously erected each summer, from 2004 to 2019 — at the same bayside location — on a grassy, 3.4-acre site at downtown’s Embarcadero Marina Park South.
The Shell’s unveiling last August earned rave reviews from as far afield as The New York Times and several newspapers in Canada, where San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare leads the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The Times described The Shell as “dazzling” and San Diego’s “answer to the Hollywood Bowl.”
Make that a far more intimate — and decidedly not landlocked — Hollywood Bowl that also suggests what Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House might look like, if it was an outdoor venue. The median capacity for each concert at The Shell this summer will be 4,718, up from 3,500 last year. The venue can hold up to 10,000 people.
The Shell’s opening — delayed 13 months by the pandemic — allowed the symphony to not only use The Shell for last year’s summer season but also for its fall 2021 Jacobs Masterworks series. The latter could not be held in the orchestra’s indoor downtown home, Copley Symphony Hall, because it is undergoing renovations and will not reopen until next year.
Rafael Payare is shown conducting the San Diego Symphony at the Aug. 6, 2021 opening concert at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
‘A wonderful moment’
“San Diego had a wonderful moment with the opening of The Shell,” Payare said. “Now that we know what the venue is capable of, we can take it even farther. And the relationship between The Shell and the city will only get deeper.”
Remarkably, more than 99 percent of The Shell’s $85 million budget was covered by philanthropic donations. The venue, which is nestled on the bay on both sides and behind the stage, was designed and built with several goals in mind.
The first is to showcase the orchestra, which — under Payare’s expert direction — has achieved a new level of excellence.
The second is to enable the symphony to draw longtime listeners and new audiences alike by using its state-of-the-art new venue to offer an expanded and more diversified offering of concerts.
“Fifty-two percent of our 2021 attendees had never been to any of our concerts there before,” said Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer. “As popular as our outdoor summer pops concerts at the same park had been with a certain audience for 15 years, there was a large group of people who didn’t even know we existed until The Shell opened.”
Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples will perform Sept. 27 at The Shell. Raitt says she needed persuasion to move to the new venue from Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, where her performance history dates back to the mid 1980s.
(Paul Natkin / Getty Images)
Friendly rivalry with Humphreys
This year’s season opens June 24 with Payare and the symphony performing an optically enhanced concert billed as “Orchestral Technicolor.” It will be followed by Boyz II Men on June 25 and an all-star tribute to jazz giant Thelonious Monk on June 26. The season will conclude, 42 concerts later, with mariachi vocal legend Aida Cuevas on Oct. 2.
A bevy of other artists will be playing at The Shell this summer for the first time. They include such disparate acts as Sheryl Crow, Flying Lotus and Trombone Shorty. The lineup also includes Tower of Power, George Benson, Bonnie Raitt and a number of other acts who have previously appeared in San Diego — some of them a dozen times or more — at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay.
“I looked at a lot of pictures of The Shell before I agreed to forsake Humphreys, which has been so loyal to me over the years,” Raitt said. “And I had the people at The Shell assure me they wouldn’t be serving dinners when I perform.”
Yet, if there is a competition for talent between The Shell and Humphreys, it is a friendly one.
Singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo’s sold-out May concert at The Shell — which drew a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd of 8,500 — was booked by Goldenvoice/AEG Presents. That’s the same company that has exclusively booked the Humphreys series for the past 16 years.
Goldenvoice/AEG also booked comedian Sebastian Maniscalco’s sold-out 2021 concert at The Shell, which offers outside promoters the largest year-round outdoor concert venue in the county. The largest outdoor venue overall — the nearly 20,000-capacity North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in Chula Vista — is open seasonally.
“I love The Shell,” said Goldenvoice/AEG Presents Senior Vice President John Wojas. “It’s a beautiful venue and it was the perfect place for us to book Olivia Rodrigo and Sebastian Maniscalco. I look forward to doing more shows there.”
Lea Slusher, the symphony’s vice president for artistic administration and audience development, is equally enthusiastic about Humphreys.
“I go to shows there all the time and John Wojas has been a great partner for us at The Shell,” Slusher said.
“The reality is that John and I might be bidding on the same artists. Ultimately, it’s up to each artist to decide where they want to play. It’s pretty open and John and I talk when we can. …
“I was looking at some of the shows John has booked at Humphreys for this season and thinking: ‘This would be a great artist to have at The Shell next year.’ We’re not looking to steal anyone away. We just focus on the artists and make an offer. If they want to play The Shell, they will. If they have a pre-existing relationship with Humphreys, or another venue, that’s also a reality.”
Wojas agreed, noting: “In any given year, at least six regular Humphreys acts will be lured away to play at a casino here or another area venue. Then, we get the acts back the next year.”
There can be other factors that draw an artist to The Shell.
The July 7 concert there by Tower of Power will mark the first concert with an orchestra in the brassy Oakland-bred funk group’s 54-year career. The jam band Lettuce, which opens that show, will also be performing with the symphony. So will the Beach Boys at their “60 Years of Summer” concert on Aug. 6.
Also notable are some of the orchestra-free concerts that feature multiple acts at The Shell, including the Aug. 16 double-bill of The Psychedelic Furs and X and the Aug. 27 performance by George Benson, War and The Commodores.
“One of our main goals last summer,” Slusher said, “is that we wanted every artist we could get to play The Shell — with or without the orchestra — so that the artists would think: ‘I want to come back here.’ We want our audiences to react the same way.”
The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park 2022 summer season
When: June 24 through Oct. 2
Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown
Tickets: Prices vary from concert to concert
Phone: (619) 235-0804
Did you know?
Many morning and afternoon rehearsals at The Shell by the orchestra and its guest artists are free and open to the public. You can view the rehearsal schedule online: theshell.org/rady-shell-community/open-rehearsals-at-the-rady-shell/
Taking it all in
As at many outdoor venues, the closer concertgoers sit to the stage at The Shell the more they can immerse themselves in the performances.
But The Shell and its bayside setting are so striking that sitting in the general admission terrace section — located at the elevated rear of the venue — is doubly enticing for the visual and sonic panorama it offers. This writer is not alone in drawing that conclusion.
“The top of the terrace is one of my favorite places to watch rehearsals and performances,” said Paige Satter, the symphony’s director of facility administration. “The Shell’s acoustic design is amazing, and the light touch of sound enhancement makes this spot — in my opinion — a great place to listen to music. You also get an amazing view of the stage, downtown, Coronado and beautiful sunsets. And it’s fun to watch families bring blankets and let kids run around.”
Trombone Shorty, who will play at The Shell in September, is shown here performing with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band pat the 2020 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Musical pearls at The Shell
Here are five especially promising concerts in The Shell’s upcoming summer season. Three are presented by the symphony and two are being presented by outside promoters.
June 26: “Straight, No Chaser: The Music of Thelonious Monk” — Alto sax master Charles McPherson, trumpet dynamo Gilbert Castellanos and pianist Gerald Clayton head the all-star quintet that will celebrate the music of one of America’s most enduring jazz icons, Thelonious Monk.
July 31: Leon Bridges, with Little Dragon — This Texas-bred singer, songwriter and band leader has gradually expanded his neo-soul template to embrace contemporary stylings. And by addressing current events and matters of the heart with a voice equally imbued with pain and passion, he extends the rich musical traditions on which his songs are built.
Aug. 14: Trombone Shorty, with Tank and the Bangas, Big Freedia, Cyril Neville, The Soul Rebels, George Porter Jr. & Dumpstaphunk — The average high temperature in New Orleans in August is 92 degrees and the humidity level can be off the charts. Thanks to this six-band lineup of Big Easy favorites, you can enjoy the musical sizzle in a far more temperate climate.
Aug. 15: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss — Back touring together for the first time in 14 years, former Led Zeppelin singer Plant and bluegrass queen Krauss are unlikely but wonderfully empathetic collaborators. Their deep dive into American roots music sounds weathered and fresh, timeless and timely, all at once.
Sept. 17: “Fandango at the Wall,” featuring Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra — Since taking place in 2018 as a free, outdoor concert on the Mexican side of the border wall that separates San Diego from Tijuana, “Fandango at the Wall” has seen new life as a double-album, a book and CD package entitled “Fandango at the Wall: Creating Harmony Between the United States and Mexico,” and a 2020 film documentary executive produced by Quincy Jones and Carlos Santana. Its return performance here in concert form has been postponed several times over the past two years because of the pandemic. For fans of Latin jazz and socially stirring music of any kind, this fandango should be hard to match.