Alpine Valley Music Theatre is back in business after no-show season, but struggles remain

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Alpine Valley Music Theatre has been the host to legends.

The Rolling Stones, the Who and Metallica all played there in a single summer. It's one of the Deadheads' favorite venues, with the Grateful Dead doing 20 Alpine concerts in the '80s. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan played his final concert there before his death in a helicopter crash in 1990. When Pearl Jam celebrated its 20th anniversary with a two-day festival, it happened at Alpine Valley Music Theatre. 

And a panel of music industry professionals — including Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and Sharon Osbourne — selected Alpine as the sixth-best amphitheater in the nation for a 2013 Rolling Stone feature. 

So what did the East Troy venue do to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2017?


Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy reopens Friday for the first of two Dead & Company concerts. The East Troy amphitheater was closed for a season for the first time in its 40-year history last year.

For the first time in its history, Alpine Valley was closed for an entire season. Live Nation — the world's largest concert promoter, and operator of the 27,100-capacity venue — couldn't lock in a single act. 

"Last year was an anomaly," said Jon Reens, vice president of marketing for Midwest music for Live Nation. "We were not looking to close. It was not a focus of ours. It's just where we found ourselves."

Some renovations were made to the facility last year, and on Friday, Alpine reopens, for the first of a two-night Dead & Company residency, featuring members of the Grateful Dead and John Mayer. 

Brad Paisley and Hank Williams Jr. follow July 7, and Zac Brown Band plays two shows there Aug. 11 and 12. Sales have been robust, Reens said, but tickets are still available for all concerts.

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Alpine may be back in business, but with just five concerts, it isn't exactly hopping. And with intense competition for big concerts in the region not backing down — the Bucks' have the new arena opening late this summer, and Summerfest's rebuilt American Family Insurance Amphitheater could open by 2020 — the challenges will continue to be great. 

"I'm glad it's back, but I hope they do more with it. If you're not into Dead & Company or Brad Paisley, you're out of luck," said superfan Wayne Carle from Antioch, Ill., who went to several shows in the 1990s and early 2000s, largely hard rock concerts. "As soon as they put something up there I want to see I'm there, just because I miss the venue." 

Past its prime?  

The '80s were Alpine's prime, but it continued to have pretty full calendars each summer through the '90s and early 2000s, attracting Aerosmith, Rage Against the Machine, Ozzy Osbourne's "Ozzfest" and other rock tours.

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But following that Pearl Jam festival in 2011, Alpine — owned by an affiliate of Milwaukee-based Zilber Property Group — has largely booked a handful of rotating perennials generally catering to the jam band crowd: Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett, Phish, Zac Brown Band, and the three-year-old Dead & Company.

Besides that, the only other concerts since then at Alpine were a Kiss and Motley Crue double-bill in 2012, and a Kiss and Def Leppard double bill in 2014. A Wiz Khalifa hip-hop tour scheduled there for 2014 was canceled "due to unforeseen circumstances," a line frequently used when ticket sales are low.

From 2012 to 2016, Alpine had two to seven concerts a season. Show numbers aren't the only thing on the decline: Attendance and revenue have fallen for some Alpine favorites. 

Dave Matthews Band attracted nearly 71,000 people, and grossed $3.1 million, from two shows in 2010, according to concert trade publication Pollstar. Attendance and box office have fallen with each subsequent appearance, leveling off at 40,601 concert goers, and a $1.6 million gross, in 2016.

In 2016, the Walworth County Zoning Agency approved the conversion of a 25.5-acre lot at Alpine into a campsite, to accommodate up to 3,324 campers. It was something Live Nation had long coveted, with Mark Campana, co-president of North America concerts for Live Nation, telling the Journal Sentinel in 2014 it would be a "game-changer" that would increase the number of concerts booked annually. 

But camping was used only for the Dave Matthews Band shows in 2016 before the venue closed for the following summer. Camping will be considered for shows next year, Reens said. 

"We were focused on getting the building up and running," he said. 

Major-league competition 

All the while, large tours have several outdoor venues in less remote locations to choose from in the region. 

In the Chicago area there's the always busy, Live Nation-owned Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Ill., and Live Nation's Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island, which expanded to a 30,000-capacity venue in 2013.

Soldier Field hosts the biggest tours of the year each summer. And it's no coincidence that the year Alpine was closed, Wrigley Field had more concerts than ever before. Among the 10 headliners at the Cubs' ballpark last summer: recent Alpine headliners Buffett, Brown and Dead & Company. 

"It comes down to what are the goals for a tour," Reens said. "Is it right for the building? Is it right for the region? Is it right for the surrounding area, and what are the other factors in play in the region at that time? What are we counterprogramming against?"

The Brad Paisley show is counterprogramming against Summerfest, providing an alternative for country fans who aren't interested in seeing the Weeknd at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater that night. It's the first time Paisley will perform at Alpine, and Live Nation has been doing promos, like a six-ticket deal, to get people through the turnstiles.

"We were looking to do something different," Reens said. "We're trying to bring some new and different things up there. We are open to anything. It's got to make sense for us and the artists." 

Reens said the marketing team is also "hyper-focused on growing our social media footprint" to attract new customers, and bring back old fans. 

Alpine's upgrades for 2018 

And when those old fans return to Alpine, they'll notice a few changes. The expo building on top of the hill has a new roof and a large portion of the building's siding was replaced. One of the concession stands has a new deck, and there's a new food and beverage station in the lawn area. And 100 new credit card locations were installed throughout the property.

"Nobody wants to pay for a ticket and then wait in line for 40 minutes to buy lunch," Reens said. "We listened to some of the concerns that fans said they had in previous years, and tried to answer those the best we could. The fan experience is always top of mind."

Despite Alpine's closure, direct visitor spending in Walworth County still increased by nearly 3 percent last year to $544.2 million, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

Brenda Warrenburg, the manager of the Comfort Suites in Delavan, said there was a small decrease in occupancy last summer, and there is a slight increase for the nights Alpine is hosting a show this year.

Colleen Jax, the owner of Country View Campground in Mukwonago, said its 150 campsites have been booked for a few weeks around those Dead & Company concerts.

"Alpine Valley is a huge help for the community and East Troy businesses," she said. 

'A big sense of community there' 

One Alpine fan excited to return is Mark Tuffey from Muskego. He's seen shows there since the '80s and has caught every Jimmy Buffett Alpine appearance since the '90s. His Buffett group has expanded to about 30 people in recent years. 

When he heard Alpine wouldn't have any shows in 2017, "we were kind of crushed," Tuffey said. "There's a big sense of community there. Everyone is really friendly. You're not just jumping in an Uber to go downtown to the Bradley Center or the amphitheater. You have to make a concerted effort to get to East Troy, so you are going to have a nice time." 

Unfortunately for Tuffey, Buffett is skipping Alpine again — in favor of Wrigley Field. 

Tuffey's Buffett group will see Zac Brown Band instead Aug. 11.

"My concern is can Alpine Valley attract enough artists to keep going," Tuffey said. "At some point, Jimmy Buffett and the Dead and Dave Matthews will stop touring. So who's left?" 

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