"This is the last one?" friend Megan Harris learns of Thursday's Twilight Concert Series finale. "What a tragedy."
Inside, Hacky Sacks and Frisbees fly. Parents wearing black Chuck Taylors and sleeve tattoos chase their toddlers on the grass. Music fans insist arriving three hours before the headliner is worth it. "It is every time," Layton's Adam Cromer says. "I came to Modest Mouse. It was crazy but fun."
Crazy but fun and fine could define the concert series' 2010 segue from the Gallivan Center to Pioneer Park. No one was sure if the homeless and drugs wouldn't kill the vibe. If the venue wouldn't bomb.
Two months later, the concert numbers tilt every chart. Attendance doubled to 30,000 40,000-plus for Modest Mouse in week one. Food vendors saw seemingly endless lines. Cops say the eight gigs were mainly problem-free. And most pleasing for Salt Lake City merchants: Twilight kept their cash registers singing.
Restaurants hugging the park and along Broadway extended their hours to handle the crowds. Nearby bars, and many farther away, thrived each Thursday from late afternoon until last call. And overall street life defied downtown's sleepy reputation.
Nearly each week, a who's who of city power brokers attended the shows.
"It represents kind of a tipping point," says David Everitt, Mayor Ralph Becker's chief of staff. "I couldn't be happier."
Scott Beck, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, compares Twilight's impact to the LDS Church's $1.5 billion City Creek Center straddling Main Street.
"This will be as transformational as that is for this side of town," Beck says. He also argues the throngs topping 30,000 are impossible not to notice for conventioneers, including this week's bunch from Usana. "Six thousand people now think Salt Lake is a lot cooler than they thought."
Multiple carloads from Albuquerque, N.M., hit the road for Salt Lake City to see the July 8 Modest Mouse show. More road-tripped from Las Vegas on Aug. 19 for the hip-hop party highlighted by Chromeo. And a couple from Elko, Nev., were thrilled to get a good spot with their two young kids for She & Him. "I read online that they get like 20,000 people," Anne Johnson says, sipping a microbrew with her husband. "That's crazy."
Pedaling his two-wheeler from the Avenues for Modest Mouse, Becker couldn't believe the city's pulse the bloated bike lanes, sidewalk energy and phalanx of faces cramming bars and eateries.
"It was just like the Olympics," the mayor raves. "This is twice the size of a Jazz game. Think about what a Jazz game does for downtown."
"This one feels more like a Central Park show where there's trees," says Salt Lake City's Ashley Babbitt. "The stage is nice. It's less claustrophobic."
"There's a lot of space, a lot of grass," revels Cottonwood Heights' Nate Stireman. "There's more breathing room."
"It's pretty cool," says Tyler Burton, a transplant from Houston who is studying economics at the University of Utah. "It's kind of hot, but it's better than being in Texas."
"I hated Gallivan, it was too packed. If you want to watch the show here, you can watch the show. If you want to socialize, there's space," explains Rob Vaughan, manager of Lumpys Downtown, who has seen a bump in business.
Staging Twilight at Pioneer, rather than Gallivan, cost more, but packed a bigger payoff.
"People love being down here," says Casey Jarman, creator and director of the concert series. "They can see the show from so many different perspectives. It's an incredible success."
Besides the sightlines, shade and easier parking, the spacious park also offers shorter lines for beer and wine. Ironically, despite the doubled attendance, Jarman notes alcohol sales at Pioneer are the same or a hair "less" than last year's.
But the volume on everything else is cranked. A representative of the ATM vendor notes 20 percent more cash was dispensed easily eclipsing the payouts at Saturday's popular Farmers Market.
The massive crowds take their toll. The area in front of the stage is more dirt bog than green oasis. Cigarette smoke lingers despite a no-smoking law. And, after each show, the sea of empty beer cups makes it look like the park has broken out in pimples.
Craft vendors stashed in Pioneer's southwest corner complain they are too far from the action. "It's such a huge park," says Voize Clothing's Boris Tarnawiecki. "It's too spread out."
But most fans embrace the ambiance and say it goes a long way toward reclaiming a challenged neighborhood.
Downtown Alliance Executive Director Jason Mathis likes to stand on a chair to see 30,000 smiling faces framed by towering trees and stars. "This is what a real city feels like," he smiles. "It's so rewarding, it's so cool. The economics aren't hard to quantify."
During the Modest Mouse sound check, Jarman notes a band member peered across the park, then at the eight-week lineup and paused. The concert series, he said, rivals any music venture in the nation. "This just blows us away," Jarman remembers the musician saying. "And the fact that you do it for free is amazing."
Even so, the city's $8 million Gallivan makeover will be done in April. Planned partly with Twilight in mind, the work promises better sightlines, an armada of real restrooms, and more space, albeit capped around 18,000. Plenty of regulars would like to see the series return to its old, if modified, digs, but a decision won't be made until winter.
"We may go out and grab another drink," Salt Lake City's Patrick Burns says after the Dum Dum Girls set. "But not Squatters, because I hear there's like a three-hour wait."
"We pick some place around here Gracie's," says Salt Laker J.D. Listello. "We've been to Poplar Pub a couple times. Cheers to You one time."
"Kristauf's, is cool, Lumpys," predicts capital resident Natalie Boulton. "There's the Urban Lounge. Take a taxi up, it's a lot of fun."
Fanning across downtown each Thursday, young people leaving Pioneer ride cruisers, car-pool, hop TRAX or walk. With the concerts over by 10 p.m., it's clear the party is just starting.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, crowds spilled onto the patios at the Tin Angel Cafe, Gracie's, Sandbar, Squatters and Redrock, while plenty more clogged Poplar Pub and Lumpys.
Other places, like the high-end Metropolitan restaurant got creative drawing crowds with $2 tacos, $4 margaritas and a DJ. "It's been basically like free marketing for us," says bartender Esther Imotan. "It's been really, really good."
At Bruges Waffles & Frites, hipsters lasso their road bikes to trees to take advantage of the cinnamon and creme treats.
"The main thing is, it brings this whole neighborhood alive," says Bruges owner Pierre Vandamme, who keeps his bustling shop open four extra hours on Thursdays. "I met the organizer and told him, 'You have to bring it back next year.' "
Tin Angel, which catered the shows each week for the bands, also had to extend its patio as a sort-of beer garden. Some patrons never bothered to fight the crowds content to enjoy the music from across the street.
While eateries celebrate, neighboring Bingham Cyclery dreads the Pioneer crowds. They are so big, assistant manager Jared Doherty says, it keeps people from coming to the bike shop.
Still, that seems to be the exception. Especially, Mathis says, for businesses savvy enough to cater to young consumers. The Downtown Alliance is contemplating an economic survey to gauge the cash infusion that Twilight fosters.
"It's been awesome," cheers Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana manager Lauren Weaver. "I'm kind of sad to see it ending."
"They should keep it here," Salt Lake City's Katie Ellis says. "Definitely."
"It needs to stay," says Layton's Tom Graham. "It felt like they cramped the old shows into a little space. This one's way more spread out."
"Gallivan was way better. It was better when they had smaller bands, too," argues Salt Lake City's Jason Price. "It kind of sucks that it got big."
"I'm waiting for Gallivan to open," says Salt Lake City's Rickie Mehl. "I'll come back if they start charging $5 and limit how many people come in. This was a total sh show. You couldn't pee, you couldn't get a beer. Unfortunately the free-show thing has become a hot commodity."
So, should the free concert series charge a fee? Jarman says he would love to collect enough cash to properly pay production people and security. It easily could generate $1 million a summer, he says. As it stands, the series basically breaks even on its city subsidy, primarily with alcohol sales.
But Jarman says he has committed to the concept of free concerts. "It's not a fundraiser," he scoffs. "It's something we try to give back to the city of Salt Lake."
He is less certain about the venue. Jarman, who sees attributes in both spots, doesn't want a tug of war between Gallivan and Pioneer. City officials say if it bolts for good, they can find enough programming to keep the plaza vibrant.
A meeting to discuss the series' fate is scheduled for October.
"A lot of people want to see it back here," says Jarman, praising this summer's support from the Pioneer neighborhood. "We have to respect that."
The concert director hints that Twilight "doesn't have to be an indie-rock series," but insists he likes the trajectory and the young audience. "It can get bigger, and it can get better."
"We're a big proponent of having it here," convention chief Beck says. "You can't put 40,000 at Gallivan. You can't put 25,000 there."
Becker says feedback for Pioneer has been "overwhelmingly positive," which matches his experience from the first show. On his bike ride home, the mayor saw a line of bikes 50 deep at (where else?) the Twilight Lounge. Next door, grabbing some grub at Crown Burger, he warned the staff to get ready.
"People are coming," he remembers saying.
For two months, people came, blanketed downtown and spent. If the service industry has any complaint, it's that the concert series is too short. Until next July at a site unknown the party's over.
The power of music
The 2010 Twilight Concert Series averaged nearly 30,000 people in its first year at Pioneer Park, doubling the attendance from the Gallivan Center. The crowds and debit cards put a charge into downtown bars and restaurants from early July until late August. Now, city leaders must decide whether to keep the gigs and energy at Pioneer or return the series in 2011 to a revamped Gallivan.