By all accounts, the concert was going as well as it could have. And then the rains came. 

Durwood Settles was a 25-year-old concert booker in August of 1968, and he was a bit nervous to bring Jimi Hendrix to a new amphitheater in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland. Merriweather Post Pavilion had just opened the summer before—built and conceived as the summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra. 

Poster for Tiny Tim, 1968

Settles had come from New York City, where he booked pop concerts at venues like Carnegie Hall. He wanted to bring pop acts to Merriweather but wasn’t quite sure how the community of Columbia would handle it. So before booking Hendrix and his band, Settles lined up Tiny Tim the month before to test the waters. 

“I booked Tiny Tim mainly because I didn’t want to overreach,” Settles recalls. “The whole approach was to be genteel about this. I didn’t want to blast the community with hard rockers.” 

Never mind that the opener for that Tiny Tim show was Ted Nugent’s The Amboy Dukes, who were at the peak of their acid rock phase. 

With the success of that show, Hendrix was set to perform the next month, and it would turn out to be one for the history books. 

Hendrix and his band burned through the hits, with Jimi fighting the roars of thunder with feedback from his stack of Marshall amps. As it started to drizzle, Hendrix used his mic to coax the Merriweather staff to “let them in,” so those on the lawn were allowed into the pavilion. 

But about three-quarters of the way through his set—just as he was finishing up his iconic take on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” believed to be the first time he played it live in front of an audience—the heavens opened, rain pummelled down, and the power went out, effectively ending the show early. 

That would be the first and last time Hendrix would play at Merriweather. And it would also be the last show Settles booked there.  

“I did the two pop shows that I wanted to do out there,” he says. “We had no idea what would have happened if Jimi Hendrix pulled out his lighter fluid and lit his guitar on fire,” he says. But by his measure it was a raging success, save for the power outage.

That Hendrix show is just one bit of lore from Merriweather Post Pavilion’s fabled history, which marks 50 years with its current season of shows. In the half-century of its existence, the famed amphitheater, situated amid 40 acres of serene, wooded land in the heart of Columbia, hasn’t just survived as a venue, it has also flourished as one of the country’s best outdoor concert spaces. It is cherished by both the artists who perform there and the tens of thousands of fans in the DMV who frequent it every summer. 

But Merriweather is more than just the site of wild rock ’n’ roll history. It’s the heart and soul of Columbia. “I think it is critically important,” says Ian Kennedy, executive director of The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. “There are a few things that set Columbia apart from other small cities of our size … but I don’t know of any others that have a major outdoor concert venue and cultural institution that is nationally acclaimed right in the middle of their downtown.”

And it’s not just Merriweather’s tranquil setting and location that make it so special. In the corporate world of concert booking, with Live Nation and AEG Presents accounting for a majority of large-scale concerts nationwide, Merriweather is thriving as an independent space—a testament to how a venue created with artists, fans, and community in mind can flourish. 

But like any classic rock ’n’ roll story, Merriweather’s is one full of ups and downs.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, 1970 Credit: Gordon Snyder Photography

***

Walking through the woods of Merriweather, it’s easy to see its history, literally. Concert posters of some of its most historic performances are tastefully tacked on trees surrounding the path to the main gate. The Who and Led Zeppelin. Jimi Hendrix. The Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin. It’s where Jackson Browne recorded songs that would go onto his hit 1977 album Running on Empty. Where President Jimmy Carter joined Willie Nelson on stage during his campaign against Ronald Reagan and sang a duet of “Georgia on My Mind.” It’s the namesake of Animal Collective’s most popular album to date, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion

Of course, this is far from what James Rouse, a real estate developer and philanthropist, envisioned for the amphitheater when he first started the plans to build Merriweather Post Pavilion. 

From the beginning, an outdoor performing arts venue was central to his vision for building Columbia, Maryland. So when The Rouse Company was developing the city, it was conceiving Merriweather too. He hired famed architects Frank Gehry and N. David O’Malley to design and build it and named it in honor of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress of the cereal company that ultimately became General Foods. 

Rouse envisioned a cultural arts center that would be the jewel of the town, hosting orchestras, operas, ballets, and other fine arts programs. His vision for Merriweather was for it to become the permanent summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra. 

But plans were already underway to build Wolf Trap, a similar, federally funded outdoor amphitheater, for the NSO on national park land in nearby Vienna, Virginia. Though the NSO graced the Merriweather stage during its inaugural season, Wolf Trap was set to be its future permanent summer stage. 

Poster for Jimi Hendrix, 1968

The schedule for Merriweather’s first season in 1967 was exactly what Rouse had imagined, with the National Symphony Orchestra, a ballet, and the Russian Festival of Music and Dance all booked for the inaugural season. But it proved to be a financial disaster. So the next season Merriweather experimented with booking rock and pop acts like Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors, and Joan Baez, in addition to Hendrix and Tiny Tim. 

From then on, pop and rock concerts became the standard for Merriweather, which has hosted some of the best artists in the history of music. 

“The challenges that we have, where you’re basically putting on a massive party at your house 40-plus times per summer, trying to make sure everybody is having a great time, and then getting all in order prior to sunrise, are the best challenges to have,” says Jean Parker, Merriweather’s general manager, who has worked there since 1977 and attended her first-ever concert there in 1972—the Beach Boys.

Parker recalls a Grateful Dead show in 1985—the last time the group performed at Merriweather—when the show sold out the day of the concert. “Back then, it was a bit harder to tell the world that a show had sold out,” she says. “You’d try to get a radio station to run the news, or get it on TV somehow, but day-of it really wasn’t easy.” 

In addition to the ticket holders, more than 7,000 Deadheads, blissfully unaware that the show had sold out, showed up at Merriweather expecting to buy tickets at the gate. “We eventually decided to let them all in,” Parker recalls. “Lawn seats were $12.50 each, and we just rounded down to $10 for efficiency’s sake to not have to make change. So we set up makeshift box offices consisting of a staff person on one side of the fence and the fans on the other side. We took their $10, and one of our security staff or ushers would help them jump over the fence.”

In all, Parker estimates that about 25,000 people attended that Dead show, easily the biggest crowd the venue had hosted up to that point. “That’s the only time we ever had to do something like that,” she says. 

It’s that kind of accommodation that’s solidified Merriweather’s reputation among artists as a preferred show venue.  

But as the decades rolled on, Merriweather’s booking thinned out. And by the late ’90s, it was in rough shape, hosting fewer and fewer shows each summer, in dire need of renovation, and—most critically—unprofitable. 

***

Janis Joplin, 1969 Credit: Gordon Snyder Photography

Ian Kennedy and his family moved to Columbia when he was 15. “For me, I think the first concert I went to [at Merriweather] was in, like, 1989 or ’90,” he recalls. “It was an Earth Day concert they did there. I remember my dad brought me and my brother and sister, and we sat out on the lawn and had the typical Merriweather experience.” 

As he got more into music as a teenager, Kennedy attended shows there more frequently “because it was five minutes away and because what else are you going to do in Columbia?” 

Kennedy even got to play at Merriweather as a teenager—twice. His high school band performed in a battle of the bands on a stage in the back of the lawn, and he performed a song at his high school’s graduation, on Merriweather’s main stage. “It was always more than just a concert venue to me,” he says. 

So in 2003, when The Rouse Company announced plans to develop the gravel parking lots that had long served the concert site, Kennedy was worried.

“When they first announced those plans, no one was talking about Merriweather, and a friend of mine and I sat at a Memorial Day cookout at his house. We had been reading the local paper and started asking each other like, ‘Well, what do you think this means for Merriweather? If they’re going to develop on those parking lots, what’s going to happen?’” 

By that time, it was no secret that Merriweather was struggling. The Rouse Company had hired Clear Channel to handle booking, and it was evident that they were funneling most of the good shows to a nearby venue in Bristow, Virginia, it had just opened—Nissan Pavilion (currently known as Jiffy Lube Live). 

As The Rouse Company—then in negotiations to be bought by what’s now known as the Howard Hughes Corporation—worked on plans to redevelop downtown Columbia, Merriweather wasn’t included. They put the venue up for sale, but with one major recommendation: Turn Merriweather Post Pavilion into a much smaller, enclosed concert hall.

Credit: Courtesy of Jean Aker

Kennedy was a 25-year-old graduate student at the time of Merriweather’s uncertain future. In his early twenties, he worked as a newspaper reporter covering Carroll County. “I didn’t have any organizing background, but I remembered how important it was … for people to use the media to amplify their voice,” he recalls. “We really just started out by, like, emailing reporters and saying, ‘Hey, there’s this development going on. What does this mean for Merriweather?’”

He remembers the first public hearing for the parking lot development proposal in 2003—on the day of his 26th birthday. “The developer got up and said, ‘Merriweather Post is no longer profitable. To make it profitable is like trying to sell ice cubes to eskimos, so we are going to close it down. We are going to build a much smaller enclosed theater that’s much more focused on classical arts and less on contemporary music. And that’s our plan,’” he recalls. 

Around the same time, a 28-year-old politician named Ken Ulman had just been elected to the Howard County Council. He wasn’t going to let his first year in office be marred by the demise of Merriweather, which was in his district. 

“It was months into my term when The Rouse Company … essentially announced that they were closing Merriweather,” Ulman recalls. “I remember vividly TV news interviewing people in the parking lot of Merriweather going into a show saying, ‘What do you think about the news of Merriweather closing?’ And I just remember thinking, ‘Merriweather’s not closing.’” 

Ulman was also the chair of the zoning board at the time. The Rouse Company had a lot of development work for Columbia in the pipeline,  and he made it clear to them that he would do everything possible to keep Merriweather going.

“I marched into The Rouse Company’s offices and said, ‘I can’t tell you to keep something open that is losing money every year, but what I can tell you is I just got this call from this gentleman who believes that he can turn it into a thriving venue again. I’d like you to give him a shot,’” Ulman recalls. “That was 14 years ago.”

***

Credit: Photo by Will Cocks, courtesy of I.M.P.

Seth Hurwitz knew the odds were long when he placed that call to Ulman. But he had to try.

Hurwitz, who has made a name for himself in the D.C. area as the chairman of the local concert booking titan I.M.P. and the co-owner of the 9:30 Club and forthcoming venue The Anthem, knew how special Merriweather was and that he could tap into that legacy to make it prosper again. And he knew that he had a community behind him.

“At the time, the landlord wanted the place closed so they could build things on top of it like Home Depot,” Hurwitz recalls. “And the operator also had Nissan Pavilion and was shoveling as many dogs into the kennel as they could squeeze so it would close and leave their other place the last one on the island. The really crazy thing was that the neighbors [of Merriweather] were the kids of the people that used to try and close the place down when hippies urinated in their yard while camping for Dead shows,” Hurwitz says. “Only now now they were YIMBYS … Yes In My Back Yard. … So, the powers that be said, ‘Fine, we’ll let your precious little indie promoter have it,’ thinking that would be the final nail in the coffin. Springtime For Hitler.” 

With I.M.P. taking over operations and bookings for Merriweather, and the community outrage over the prospect of it closing, The Rouse Company relented and agreed to keep the doors open. Soon after, the Howard Hughes Corporation, which had purchased Rouse, struck a deal to redevelop all of downtown Columbia.

Impressed by his community-rallying efforts to help save Merriweather, Ulman hired Kennedy to join his council staff and work behind the scenes on the deal with the Howard Hughes Corporation to preserve the venue. 

“The end result was a new massive plan for downtown Columbia passed in 2010, and as part of that master plan, it called for a full redevelopment of the venue, the creation of a new nonprofit organization that would at some point receive ownership of the venue from the Howard Hughes Corporation,” Kennedy says. 

As such, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission was founded in 2013 to take over ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion, with Kennedy at its helm as executive director. 

In March of this year, Hurwitz’s I.M.P. signed a 40-year lease with the commission to operate Merriweather, which is three years into a five-year, $55 million renovation that so far has included an expansion of the stage, a complete renovation of backstage facilities—including two pools for touring artists—new box offices, bathrooms, and concessions. 

“I remember going there to see all the cool ‘new wave’ stuff—Blondie, Elvis Costello, Devo,” Hurwitz recalls. “If someone told me then I’d be promoting either them or that venue back then, that would’ve been like telling Donald Trump he’d be president some day. And what would the chances of that happening be?”

***

Willie Nelson and President Jimmy Carter, 1980 Credit: Courtesy of I.M.P.

Before this summer, the last time Durwood Settles had stepped foot in Merriweather was in 1969 to see The Doors. Like many of the people who contributed to Merriweather’s legacy, he was invited to attend the venue’s 50th anniversary concert in July, which was headlined by Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, and Father John Misty. 

It was the first time in nearly 50 years that Settles had been to Merriweather. A lot has changed since then, but he says it’s maintained its essential character. 

“It has the same feel as it had before,” he says. “Everywhere has changed and grown in the last 50 years. [Merriweather] really was and still is an idyllic place. I loved being able to bring Jimi Hendrix here.”

As a longtime Columbia resident, Kennedy knows how important Merriweather Post Pavilion is to the community. On any given night, Merriweather concerts can be heard throughout the town. Simply put, it’s the soundtrack of Columbia summers, and thanks to Kennedy, UIman, Hurwitz, and I.M.P., it’ll stay that way for decades to come. 

“There was no mistake that when Jim Rouse built Columbia, one of the first buildings that he built was Merriweather Post Pavilion,” Kennedy says. “And the purpose that he built it for was to attract people to come visit and hopefully to come live in Columbia, and I think that purpose is as true today as it was 50 years ago.”

Mad Decent Block Party, 2014 Credit: Joseph Schaefer

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