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Rock Bottom 

Konocti Harbor can be Northern California's baby-boomer pop hell -- when it's not the area's best-kept secret

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
Hello, California!" Terri Clark calls to 5,000 people settling in an amphitheater overlooking pristine blue Clear Lake, preparing for an evening of country music. You may not know her, but Clark has been to the top of the charts. Her first self-titled CD -- released in 1995 -- launched three Top 10 country hits. She's had more since.

But Clark's October tour of California consisted of exactly two dates. The first was Hanford, population 38,900, where she played the Fox Theater, a mecca of sorts for country artists. The second date was this night in Kelseyville, population 9,100, at the Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, owned by San Francisco's Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 38. Clark is opening for LeAnn Rimes, the 17-year-old star with the big voice, the platinum sales, and the country music machinery behind her. Rimes' devoted fans, many of them preteens running around in packs with distant supervision from their parents, can choose among three teddy bears -- $20, $23, and $25 -- all of which are wearing LeAnn tees. As she hits the stage, Rimes is three weeks away from her fifth release, expected to sail up the charts in little more than the four hours or so it takes to wind up the highway to Konocti from San Francisco.

Konocti Harbor is unlike any other music venue in Northern California. It's a place where young country thrives and where graying rockers have found a green, green pasture. This year's shows have featured Lynyrd Skynyrd and Styx, James Brown, Clint Black, Pat Benatar, Ringo Starr, and Eddie Money. In 1999, Money needs seven tickets to paradise. He tows at least a few of his five kids to Konocti, and they enjoy the lake, the miniature golf course, and other attractions of the '50s-era spread set beneath a towering dormant volcano. Money, a one-time Berkeley resident who shot to fame in the '70s after catching the attention of Bill Graham, has been playing Konocti for 10 years, and says the adoring crowds allow him to flex his muscles. Unlike most shows, where he says he sticks strictly to winners like "Baby Hold On" and "Take Me Home Tonight," at Konocti the 50-year-old rocker plans to play four tunes from his new album.

"I do that special for them," he says. "We have a very steady crowd. We see a lot of the same fans. It's really great. It's kind of like Eddie Money Weekend."

Many weekends are like Eddie Money Weekend at Konocti; resort president and general manager Greg Bennett acknowledges he's going after the "baby boomer market." To say that Bennett has hit his target would be an understatement. Nine years ago, when he booked Leon Russell for Konocti's first concert, the showroom held 300 people. Two rounds of expansion have since increased its capacity to 1,000, and a couple of years ago the resort also opened the 5,000-seat amphitheater, a few minutes' walk or van ride from the nondescript, shoe-box-shaped buildings offering guests multiroom apartments with lakefront views and private hot tubs.

Bennett says performers "are used to a hard road. They hop on a bus after their gig, get to the next show." But not at Konocti. When Brooks & Dunn brought their 90-person entourage, Bennett says the resort put a bunch of them on Wave Runners and they stayed around for four days. Brooks & Dunn are also used to playing to tens of thousands. "How many amphitheaters do Brooks & Dunn or Tim McGraw play?" asks Bennett, with a hint of pride. "It's almost unheard of."

Steve Hauser, a senior agent at the William Morris Agency in Nashville, says Konocti is a favorite destination for the 30-some acts he books there a year, including Clark, Vince Gill, and Brooks & Dunn. "It's just different," he says. "Fans are on vacation. They're there to party and have a good time." Hauser says a Hanford-to-Kelseyville run like Clark's is not uncommon. Next stop, Medford or Portland, Oregon. "Greg Bennett's aggressive at buying the talent, and he pays pretty well," says Hauser. "We don't have to worry about the date canceling, so it's a good offer." Bay Area venues, with the exception of Santa Rosa's Luther Burbank Center or the Concord Pavilion, are generally not on the radar.

Bennett has seen country start to eat up his target demographic. "No question about it," he says. "Country is getting stronger and stronger in the music industry. And pretty much except for that exclusive group of five or six -- at the George Strait level -- everybody has played here."

Not every night is a big one. The New Year's Eve lineup features several low-flying acts from different genres, such as the Bay Area Big Band and the Jukebox Heroes. The morning before the LeAnn Rimes show is also the night after Robert Palmer. My breakfast at the Classic Rock Cafe is served on a laminated copy of Supertramp's Breakfast in America.

When I saw Palmer's audience from my $39 seats in the front row of the balcony, I realized it was just as well he wasn't hawking teddy bears. This crowd was there when Palmer first hit it big, in the Pliocene era of music videos with "Addicted to Love," if not further back to the Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley days of the mid-'70s. If they have kids, they're back at the room.

At show time, the MC strolls across the stage, where a state-of-the-art lighting system offers a sparkly, Disney-esque imitation of a starry night, and welcomes everybody to a showroom "rated the Number 1 in America by Performance Magazine." He announces the presence of VIPs -- including the owner of nearby Lakeport Furniture and "The Con Man," a syndicated country radio jock from Denver.

Palmer prowls the stage in a sharp black suit, handling the crowd with an absolute minimum of intimacy and sincerity. From the get-go the sound of Palmer's success -- a unique alloy of relentless, bottom-heavy rhythms and robotic, keening guitar and synth - is clearly intact. Though he's 50, Palmer's robust voice is as assured as ever. About halfway into a 100-minute set, he begins to roll out the hits, and the first major outbreak of dancing occurs. "Every Kinda People," "Simply Irresistible," "Bad Case of Loving You," and, inevitably, "Addicted to Love."

Palmer hasn't flashed a sexy dance move or a nimble leg kick; he's had no audience interaction to speak of. But the women are dancing all over the room, risking their lives as they do the swim at the edge of the balcony. The crowd is roaring. Palmer looks like a spry Al Gore, but, then again, he didn't mean to turn you on.

The Sunday show is the last outdoor concert of the summer season. Tip-off time is 6:30. An oversized football bleacher towers over 25 rows of folding chairs lined up in front of the stage, a slender finger of Clear Lake and the oak-studded hills beyond. Teens with Terri Clark shirts or handmade "I [Heart] You, LeAnn" signs are everywhere. Teddy bears are moving fast.

Clark, slender and dressed in black from hat to boots to hollowbody guitar, has a clear and powerful voice with just a hint of country. Her songs are typical, if solid, modern country fare: winsome, ironic, independent. She cavalierly strums her acoustic guitar and takes a dig at the industry. "Nowadays people are putting steel guitar on pop songs and calling them country, so I thought I'd do the same," she says by way of introduction to one number. She also reminisces about her massage at the spa earlier in the day. Well before her finale -- a medley of her hit "When Boy Meets Girl" and her popular remake of Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" -- Clark pauses between tunes. Fireflies are buzzing the stage, forcing her to start and stop. "If I can keep from swallowing a bug," she says, "I'll be fine."

Clark's ease is in contrast to Rimes, whose set is even more heavily choreographed than Palmer's. Rimes races through three costume changes, posing every now and then atop one of the black risers where members of the band are stationed. Her patter is pretty much limited to thanking fans for making one tune or another an all-time record-breaker on the Billboard charts. Occasionally, she stretches out a hand for a audience member or interrupts her routine to answer a fan's shriek: "I love you too, sweetie," she says.

But Rimes' voice has awesome grace and power. Lots of people sing along, quietly and off key, when she stills herself for her mega-hit "Blue." She also does several country classics, many of which are on her new CD, Cryin' Time: Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues," and a startling version of Patsy Cline's evergreen "Crazy." Rimes lingers over the last syllables of each line, breathing all the desolate, desperate romance of the tune to life, and without the saccharine strings that weigh down the radio version. Bridging the generations, she has apparently out-Patsy'd Patsy, and she's not even old enough to buy a cocktail in a plastic cup from the vendor at the side of the stage.

About The Author

Bill Kisliuk


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