It seemed like such a sure thing.
Not so much a slam-dunk or sell-out, as the kind of bill that would virtually guarantee an extremely large crowd.
We’re speaking of the recent Back In The Day concert in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Arena of Savannah’s Civic Center.
Friday, July 28 was billed as a triumphant return for many pioneering rap and hip-hop artists, and a (relatively) low-priced opportunity for young and old hip-hop fans alike to see some of the originators and emancipators of this American art form up close and in the flesh. Well, most of the folks in attendance did get pretty close to the stage, but that’s because if they’d wanted to, every single person in the crowd could have easily fit on the standing room-only floor of the Civic Center, with room to spare.
Despite a lineup that was advertised as including such big name stars as Kurtis Blow (“The Breaks”), The Sugarhill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight”), Big Daddy Kane ( “No Half-steppin’”), and Grandmaster Melle Mel & Scorpio of The Furious Five (“White Lines,” “The Message”), less than 1,200 people showed up to witness the musical time capsule.
That means the Civic Center’s arena was barley 12% full.
As if that weren’t enough, immediately following Big Daddy Kane’s energetic, heartfelt set of past hits and newer, freestyle raps, local radio station DJs (acting as between act MCs) summarily announced that fellow headliners The Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow would not be performing, and that they “sent their love.”
In a terse and seemingly perfunctory notification that two-thirds of the headlining artists had failed to arrive due to inclement weather in their native New York area, the MC said simply, “If you wanna blame somebody, blame the airlines.” Then she hyped the proverbial after-party at the Southside’s Club Ice, where —for an additional entrance fee— folks could supposedly mingle and/or chat with many of the acts they’d just seen onstage.
As surprising as this announcement was (one could liken it to an usher entering a movie theater 10 minutes before the film’s end, telling the audience the projector had broken, and failing to offer a refund of any sort), what was even more surprising was the muted and generally apathetic response this information drew from the crowd.
I was bewildered to see a complete lack of upset, frustration or disappointment on the face of almost anyone at the show. Compared with the reactions I have personally witnessed at rock shows of a much smaller scale when unforeseen circumstances forced a cancellation or a severely truncated performance, this seeming lack of interest was almost creepy.
Finley Martin —whose Fat Man Running promotion company actually booked the Civic Center and put on the show independently— says he expected at least a few people to be upset, but that to his knowledge no one complained or asked for their money back (a story that representatives from the Civic Center corroborate).
“We kept thinking Sugarhill would get there on time,” he says by phone from his home. “But they got off the plane about 10 minutes after the show, and you can check the flight records on that. With Kurtis Blow, we had all his dancers, his back-up singers, his DJ... The whole army was there, just sittin’ around twiddlin’ their thumbs. I was gonna put ‘em on stage, but you know, it’s kind of hard without Kurtis! (laughs)”
Martin says he figures since he had a handful of unexpected surprise guests (such as rappers Kool Moe Dee and L.A. Sunshine) on hand anyway, that the crowd didn’t feel too gipped. He was however confused and dejected by the turnout.
“I really thought more of Savannah would’ve turned out for that show,” he admits. Still, his first experience hasn’t soured him to working here, and he claims to be planning a show with “a much bigger name” in the near future. Next time, he says, “I’ll use the (much smaller) Johnny Mercer Theatre, rather than the big room.”
Sugarhill’s Master Gee says he and his crew had a nice time at the after-party, but they’d have much rather performed.
“We’re looking to get back down there sometime real soon. We hate to let people down. Hopefully the next time mother nature will work in our favor instead of against us! (laughs)” ƒç