A Lesson in MIXology: Sponsor Good, Free Music and Fans Will Come

98.5 MIX FEST With Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, 10,000 Maniacs, Paul Cole and The Monkees At City Hall Oct. 11-12

Free? Did someone say free? It's hard to believe that anything on the concert circuit is free these days, especially when tickets for shows like U2's Pop Mart and Fleetwood Mac's reunion tour are selling for as much as $60 and $70. But "free" was the word heard all weekend, as students around campus grabbed friends to hop on the T and head to downtown Boston for MIX Fest '97, the two day outdoor extravaganza organized by local radio station MIX 98.5 (WBMX FM).

The fifth annual event took place Saturday and Sunday at Boston's City Hall plaza, featuring local bands and more than 10 superstar national performers like Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, 10,000 Maniacs, Duncan Sheik, Third Eye Blind, Sister Hazel, The Monkees and Bare Naked Ladies. The concert extravaganza is the primary promotional event each year for MIX and Assistant Program and Music Director for the station Michelle Engel said that the event is the "largest radio sponsored concert in Boston, and the largest free radio concert in the country." What is even more impressive is that the artists (with the exception of the Monkees, the only band not on MIX's play list) performed for free.

"[The event] is very well respected in the industry and bands tend to come to us. Believe it or not, the artists for the most part, play for free as a gift to the station and the city for all of our support," said Engel. Only the performers' basic costs for things like transportation and lodging are covered.

Engel described the festival as a gift from the radio station to the city of Boston. The concert is designed in the hopes of bringing friends and family together over the long weekend. In addition to the musical performances, there was also a children's area, an arts and crafts area and lots of food vendors. Because of the price tag attached to the festival, MIX solicits presenting and participating sponsors. This year's two presenting sponsors were Wal-Mart and Christy's. The many participating sponsors included Boston television's Channel 7, whose arts staff was on hand to introduce bands, as well as Strawberries music store who set up onsite, selling CDs and holding autograph sessions with the artists.

Despite the amount of work involved, the event certainly has its perks for MIX. "We really wanted to bring a tangible definition of 'the New Sound of MIX 98.5' to the city and align the station with our core artists," said Engel. The mega amounts of publicity for the event will undoubtedly draw some new listeners and certainly solidify old ones.

While several of Saturday's performers--such as Sister Hazel--were the one-hit-wonders that fueled much of the summer radio season, the early evening offered 10,000 Maniacs and The Monkees. Even without Natalie Merchant, the 10,000 Maniacs are still a pleasure to see. New lead singer Mary Ramsey, who sounded almost too much like Merchant at first, proved that she is beginning to establish herself in the band. The crowd, however, was most pleased by older Merchant hits like "Because the Night," and "These are the Days."

The Monkees, who appeared without the no longer touring Mike Nesmith, headlined Saturday's performances. Surprisingly, they were the largest draw of the day, with fans ranging the spectrum from children to college students to baby boomers. Band members Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz raced out on stage with an abbreviated version of their television show's former theme song, "The Monkees." They quickly followed with "Last Train to Clarksville," before heading into some newer and much-less known material. By the conclusion of the concert though, they returned to old hits like "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "I'm a Believer" and "Daydream Believer."

The highlight of the performance came when Jones said that everyone in Boston had been coming up to him saying "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha," alluding to his infamous appearance on another classic TV series, The Brady Bunch. Jones then invited fans to join the band in a sing along of The Brady Bunch theme song. The thousands of adults present proved that there are just some things one will never outgrow. Jones then followed with the song he serenaded Marsha Brady with in the series as well as in the 1995 movie remake in which The Monkees appeared.

What made The Monkees so fun to watch was their incredible ability to poke fun at themselves while playing some good music. The Brady Bunch song was just one of many gags that included an Elvis wig for Jones and several jokes by Tork and Dolenz, many of which made light of the band members' age. But for a trio of guys in their 50s, The Monkees have more pizzazz and energy than a lot of bands around today.

Day two of the festival seemed almost to be a "deja vu" of this summer's Lillith Fair--Lisa Loeb, Paula Cole and Sarah McLachlan were all present. McLachlan, who headlined Sunday evening, was by far the biggest drawer of the weekend Fans who stuck around in the crowds and cold weather long enough to hear her play were definitely rewarded. MIX, who was broadcasting live from the concert and filling the intermissions with their own airwaves, goofed big time by playing McLachlan's hit "Building a Mystery" moments before she opened live with that song. Although many fans booed when it happened, they seemed to have forgotten about it when the radiant McLachlan took the stage. Her set included hits like "Hold On," "Wait" and "Good Enough." For "Do What You Have to Do," McLachlan was joined onstage by the Barenaked Ladies' guitarist who played the bass for the song. McLachlan closed with hit "Sweet Surrender," and then returned to play the quirky, yet endearing song, "Ice Cream." For the latter, the band's drummer--who is also her husband--joined her at the front of the stage with two small drums. Unlike during this summer's Lillith Fair, McLachlan did not break the hearts of her male fans by revealing their true relationship.

Noticeably absent from McLachlan's set was "I Will Remember You," the hit theme from the movie The Brother's McMullen. But fans did not seem to mind, probably because McLachlan created a great repoire between them and herself, often stopping to talk and joke with the audience. At one point, two love-struck male fans shouted out "We love you Sarah!" during a quiet moment in her performance. McLachlan looked up from her grand piano and responded "Aww! Thank you guys so much!"

If McLachlan was the biggest drawer, The Barenaked Ladies were a close second Their offbeat performance featured hit songs like "Brain Wilson," "Jane" and their final song, "If I Had a Million Dollars." After their performance, the group stuck around on stage to play a few mock cover songs. The band poked fun at the Spice Girls and even fellow MIX Fest artist Paula Cole. In their gag, they referenced the lyric "while you go have a beer" from Cole's hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone." The group also made up a mock song about the many fans sitting high above in the trees surrounding City Hall Plaza.

Even though it is hard to complain about an event of this magnitude that was completely free, there were a few drawbacks to the festival. There were large gaps between the big-name performers, and although local bands tried to fill the time on a small secondary stage, fans were often waiting with not much to do or see--and that is if you were lucky enough to see to begin with. City Hall Plaza is definitely not the ideal location for an event of this magnitude. The main stage was set up in front of the old City hall, and fans filled in the layers of steps that descend to the building and around the stage. That means the stage was down below in a pit, and fans were left far above fighting for a place to see.

Many fans were wondering why the festival had been moved from Boston Common where it had been held last year. The Common provided the ideal location because it held more people comfortably, and the stage was elevated above the ground allowing the audience to just raise their heads to watch.

According to Engel, city politics is the reason for the move. MIX was hoping to hold the festival in the Common again, but the station bowed to pressure from Boston mayor Tom Menino. "It is an election year," said Engel, "and to better the downtown area's image and appeal, the Mayor asked that we try the plaza, although we really wanted to remain on the Common." Engel also added that "the people of Beacon Hill aren't crazy about music on the Common and they appealed to the Mayor." Engel said that next year's location is still up in the air.

Free music, a fun outdoor holiday weekend, great performers and completely non-profit--as if all that is not enough, a limited number of reserved Golden Circle tickets in front of the stage were sold for $50 each with all proceeds going to The Children's Advocacy Center of Suffolk County, a non-profit organization that provides direct assistance to victims of child abuse. Not bad for one weekend and one radio station. One may wonder why more stations do not follow suit. Maybe Boston's KISS 108 could make their annual KISS concert free next year, too.