Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater has employed the proscenium arch of a traditional theater to curious effect. The roof of its stage structure stands like an enormous wave flowing left to right, frozen at the point where, if suddenly animated, it would crash into the Cumberland River. In my cellphone-produced image above, the wave’s crest curves slightly, but an actual full-on shot from a standard SLR camera would reveal the roof as it actually is: a geometrical, angular wave, flat on top–resembling a shape one might see on an ancient Greek frieze (like the ubiquitous Greek key design,** for example), lining the upper part of a structure’s walls or running along horizontally beneath a series of sculptures atop a colonnade. Architectural terminology notwithstanding, there it was, monolithic before me, on a recent mild July Saturday night. And just as you can see Mt. Fuji through the giant, breaking wave in Hokusai’s print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, you can see a glittering sliver of downtown cityscape through Ascend’s own cresting, rhythmic, cacophonous wave.
Opened three years ago, Ascend Amphitheater is a more-than-welcome addition to the city, especially for those of us who remember Starwood Amphitheater. When Starwood closed in 2006, we had no large-scale, dedicated outdoor music venue for nearly a decade (which, admittedly, is a first-world problem, i.e., not really a problem at all). Therefore, the summers all seemed to be missing something. Sure, there’s The Woods at Fontanel, situated beautifully at the edge of a forest. It’s a graceful, magnificent use of natural space, and a concert experienced there is truly a delight. But it’s always felt temporary to me, like a really elaborate campsite–a stage made of scaffolding and panels, hung with banners, and erected in a clearing over a three-day weekend. It’s just not the same as having a constructed amphitheater in town–something carved out of the land and built with concrete; something with a permanent structure as a focal point (something for which the ancient Greco-Roman amphitheater remains the ideal). Also, the Fontanel doesn’t typically host the same variety of acts that you’d find in a metropolitan-based, designated amphitheatrical space. In other words, you might see jam bands, country acts, and classic rockers at the Fontanel, but to see big-name alternative, progressive, or modern rock bands in an outdoor setting, you’ll probably need to go to Ascend Amphitheater. That second group are generally drawn to more urban settings. Of course, there are always exceptions (as well as other great venues not mentioned here–it is Music City, after all).
Speaking of alternative rockers in an urban setting, it was just such a scenario on that aforementioned July Saturday night at Ascend Amphitheater. The humidity had lifted, and a dry breeze swept across section 103, seeming to cool us off at just the right times. The Pixies were playing, capping for me what’s essentially been a twenty-year odyssey to see the band. Yes, they no longer have original bassist Kim Deal, but they were as tight musically as could be hoped for–maybe even tighter. Later, Weezer came out. Frontman Rivers Cuomo seemed to be having more fun than I’ve ever seen him have, donning a new outfit with each set change–riding a scooter out to a makeshift rowboat on the gangway for a pair of acoustic songs aimed at the lawn seats. And there was a moment in all this when I found myself staring up at the ceiling of the stage structure–the underside of that massive, ever-crashing geometric wave, its girders purpled with concert light. That’s when a new feeling set in: I wasn’t simply watching the show, I was part of the show. We all were. The amphitheater enveloped us, like the embrace of a friend who’s somehow always been there, even when it seemed like they weren’t. We felt its undulations and shifting currents, its ripples and its turbulence. We were immersed, allowing ourselves to be carried by the giant wave, its big energy pent-up like the angst behind every great rock song. And when the wave broke, over and over again, we broke with it, transcending space and time in the way that’s only possible with the very music that’s helped shape who we are–the music that accompanied countless fervent backroad wanderings and deathly still nights, when our bodies could scarcely contain our urge to live.
**A design choice made even more appropriate by Nashville’s old designation as “Athens of the South.”