The legendary Cal Expo Amphitheater staged its last show in September 1998 after a magical 15-year run that featured some of the biggest names in the business, including Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and 25 shows with the Grateful Dead.
When the 14,000-capacity outdoor venue closed and was torn down because of noise concerns, nothing replaced it in Sacramento, and that part of the city’s rich musical history seemed gone forever.
Well, not so fast.
Constructed in 2014 to be the home of the United Soccer League’s Sacramento Republic FC, Bonney Field resides on the same piece of real estate, as the old Bill Graham-operated amphitheater (Graham was a famed rock concert promoter from the 1960s until his death in 1991). With noise problems addressed, the venue seems poised to make a run at creating its own musical legacy.
“Bonney Field was always meant to be more than just a soccer stadium and I’m very excited for the opportunities we have here,” says Bonney Field General Manager Eric Blockie, whose company, Spectra by Comcast Spectacor, has secured a long-term contract to operate the facility. “I think we’re in for a great ride.”
One of the area’s biggest annual multi-act festivals, City of Trees, is set to draw up to 12,000 fans to Bonney Field on Sept. 10 when bands such as Weezer, and Panic! at the Disco take the stage. Pop violinist/singer/dancer Lindsey Stirling has been added as a half-house show (6,000 capacity) for Sept. 24. Other acts are set to be announced soon, Blockie says.
Getting the popular City of Trees festival — held last year at Gibson Ranch, where it was a logistical nightmare — was a major score for the venue. Blockie, who worked as a GM for Bill Graham Presents, notes that with its movable stage, Bonney Field could be configured to hold anywhere from 4,000 fans to almost 30,000 for a single show or multi-act event, making it unique in Sacramento’s concert landscape.
Officials are counting on Bonney Field’s ability to lure quality acts because of its location on the Cal Expo Fairgrounds, and access to onsite amenities like nearby camping/RV parking and the Raging Waters water park. The acquisition of a main stage that can be rolled into action within hours and accommodate flexible seating arrangements puts Bonney Field into a unique class.
The stage, acquired last fall from the Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team, sits on 120 tires. The roof is retractable, and an entire sound system can be lowered or raised quickly, allowing for an easy load-in process for artists. During Sacramento FC Republic games, the stage is used as the stadium’s VIP section.
The stage was on display for a national audience May 9 for the rally of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that drew about 17,000. The afternoon before, Sacramento’s pro rugby team, The Express, played before just a few thousand fans, but Bonney Field was reconfigured in just 24 hours to host the political event.
“Bernie Sanders has been our biggest thing here so far,” Blockie says. “It was a great experience.”
It’s no secret that sound complaints doomed the old amphitheater, but those problems should be in the past. “Cal Expo is the perfect place for an outdoor venue and (Bill) Graham would have kept it there if noise hadn’t been such an issue,” says Bob Beyn, founder of Seraphein Beyn Advertising, who worked as Graham’s Sacramento publicist during the amphitheater’s run.
One difference, Blockie says, is that today’s technology allows sound to be directed downward and not up and over an audience. The Bonney Field stage direction now points north, instead of at the nearby River Park neighborhood where many of the old complaints originated.
Blockie says artists coming to Bonney Field will operate under a strict sound ordinance, but one that actually features decibel levels higher than most other outdoor venues. “It used to be how much PA equipment you could stack, and it is now more directional sound,” Blockie says, adding that any sound originating in the venue would be more controlled within the facility.
The curfew to end shows at Bonney Field will be 11 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, Blockie said, and 10:30 p.m. other days. The City of Trees show, which begins at 1 p.m., is scheduled to wrap up at 10 p.m.
Looking past the scheduled September shows, Blockie hopes Bonney Field will be part of the State Fair concert series and eventually attract a multi-stage, multi-day festival or major act, such as Paul McCartney, who is scheduled to play two shows in October at the new Golden 1 Center.
Will Bonney Field replace the Cal Expo Amphitheater experience in today’s changed musical environment? That means competing with established local venues such as Golden 1, the Toyota Amphitheater in Wheatland or impressive venues at nearby Indian casinos.
“Everyone develops a niche and City of Trees will show what we can do,” Blockie says “We’ll keep plugging away, deliver on what we promise and promoters will realize we’re an option.”