Old, loud, beloved: CNY talks concerts in imperfect venue

Article by Dan Poorman
Infographic by Liu Jiang

There’s a reason the Carrier Dome is the only on-campus arena in the nation that sells beer. Chris Baker, former music writer at and The Post-Standard, said it’s because the 49,262-seat stadium has become less for the students, and more for — as he put it affectionately — all of Central New York’s “old guys” who aren’t just flocking to the Loud House for sports.

“It goes so far beyond Syracuse University, and I feel like people really do think of it as this community venue,” Baker said. “I think that extends to concerts.”

Since 1980, the Dome has seen 67 major concerts, featuring performers the likes of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and The Who — and more contemporary stars such as Kesha and 50 Cent.  While the latter two acts are evidence of student-centric, university-sponsored programming, it’s the old rockers who frequented the Dome in the ‘80s and early to mid ’90s that stick out most to many of Syracuse’s now middle-aged community members — at least that’s what native Mike Shanahan, 46, noted.

“During the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were so many shows coming to the Carrier Dome,” Shanahan said. “It would host any major tour that came around — any big show you heard about, you knew they’d stop at the Dome.”

An avid concertgoer, Shanahan mentioned some memorable Dome shows: Van Halen in 1988 (“That was the loudest concert I’d ever been to”), Billy Joel and Elton John in 2006 and most recently, Zac Brown Band in 2012, which was the last major non-university-sponsored concert in the Dome until Billy Joel’s return in March 2015.

Shanahan said he saw a significant slow-down coming in the late ‘90s, and until this year, he’d been worried about the subsequent decay of a Syracuse music scene. Because Syracuse stopped getting steady national acts, stadiums in Albany, Buffalo and Rochester became legitimate competition.

“We didn’t have a venue,” Shanahan said. It was not so much the students. It was a community issue.”

Syracusans wondered, what’s to blame?

“You could say it’s promoters, you could say it’s the way the music industry is changing, you could say it’s a lot of things,” Baker speculated. “But Syracuse in general, not just the Dome, is not as desirable a place for bands to come anymore. That’s why you don’t see a ton of new, fresh stars coming through.”

That means there will likely be no Jay-Z, Beyonce or Taylor Swift anytime soon, Baker said. Gone are the days of famous artists testing out their acts for New York City at the Dome, and even at the War Memorial. Baker said the War Memorial hosts mainly “second-tier acts” now, despite its history as “one of the most iconic, longest-lived rock arenas in music.” Quite simply, the pop and hip-hop stars who rule the charts “can go to a bigger place with a bigger stadium and play there.”

Baker acknowledged that the most successful shows in the Salt City though (the ones that actually stand a chance) are in fact classic rock and country shows. Still, from 2012 to 2015, genre didn’t seem to matter at the Dome — the big-name concert drought remained.

In 2014, when it was announced that the piano man himself would come to the Dome for a record seventh time in March 2015, Baker sat down with the facility’s general manager, Pete Sala, to discuss the challenges in securing national acts for the past few years and the future of the Dome as a concert venue.

Baker’s article on, with the optimistic headline “Billy Joel at the Dome could be the beginning of a renewed era of music in the Loud House,” noted Sala’s intent to be “more aggressive” in pursuing big-name acts. This included attending conferences in Nashville and establishing a rapport with major promoters like AEG and LiveNation. Scheduling is what’s always been most difficult for the Dome, Sala told Baker.

Because it is a sports arena first, Baker wrote, busy SU athletic teams use it the most. In this interview, Sala said because of this, there always seems to be a significant lack of dates to make available for concerts.

Baker said the Dome’s scheduling process is indeed “brutal.”

“If you’ve got another place to set the concert at, you can go to LiveNation and be like, ‘Listen, we’ve got July and August open. What can you do?’,” he said. “Versus, the Dome can go to them and say, ‘We have these two days open.’ ”

As a result, Baker added, when most massive, 40-city conglomerate tours can’t accept ‘We have these two days open’ as an answer, they move on to bigger cities.

For many live music lovers in the Syracuse community, though, there is one glaringly consistent setback to a Dome concert: the building’s acoustics, which Baker himself called “awful.”

“[But] you cannot get around it,” Baker said. “There’s no fixing it. You’re on a concrete shell with a cloth roof.”

In fact, Billy Joel himself cracked a joke about echoes in the cavernous Dome at his 2015 concert: “If you come back tomorrow, you can probably hear the show.”

Pete Bartolotta, 44, of Marcellus, has attended many concerts at the Dome. He highlighted Bruce Springsteen in 1985, Pink Floyd in 1987 and Eric Clapton in 1990 as some of his favorites. He said the acoustics have always been a point of contention among community concertgoers, but it doesn’t always bother him.

“It depends on the act,” Bartolotta said. “Some acts you’re going to hear the sound. Some you’re going for the energy the band’s going to bring.”

He recounted that the sound setup at Pink Floyd was actually ideal. For a spacey, psychedelic group like them, there was an interesting sort of dimension added to their Dome performance, he thought.

“The speakers were at the stage, and they had huge towers in the audience. The sound wrapped around the Dome,” he said.

The most recent Dome event Bartolotta attended was 2012’s “One World” concert, featuring artists like Dave Matthews Band and Matisyahu and a speech by the Dalai Lama. The sound was a bit of a problem in that one, he said.

“You had to be quiet in there to catch what [Dalai Lama] was saying,” Bartolotta said. “He was very soft-spoken.”

Ultimately, though, Bartolotta said he was able to live with a bit of echo.

“Some echo, definitely, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “The obvious draw was the Dalai Lama, especially in Syracuse.”

Paul Sealy, 62, of Syracuse, attended the Billy Joel show this year. He said he’s never worried about sound in the Dome.

“I can’t personally tell if it was good or bad acoustics,” Sealy said. “If you’re an audiophile, maybe. But no. It was fun. These shows are fun.”

Sealy’s testimony here aligns with Baker’s philosophy on why, against all odds, the vast majority of the Syracuse concert-going community still craves new Dome events.

“They’re not going because they want to hear every note,” Baker said. “They’re going for the experience, and to say they saw Billy Joel — and hear the jokes he’s going to tell in between the songs. There’s so much more to a concert experience than just the sound quality.”

The community members polled in this report all agree: more big-time acts in the Dome is a positive prospect for the venue, which, as a stadium twice the size of Madison Square Garden, has for some time been underused.

“We’re a small city, but it’s what we’ve got,” Bartolotta said. “It’s part of the community.”

On the heels of Chris Baker’s projection that Billy Joel may spark a new string of concerts in the Dome, Sala and his crew are already on track. Thousands of country music fans attended singer Luke Bryan’s “Kill The Lights” show at the Dome on April 9.

Mike Shanahan said this is good news, because these days, country artists sell out stadiums. Luke Bryan, in particular, Shanahan noted, seemed to attract members of all ages from the Central New York community — and that keeps the concert scene thriving.

“It does something for the community,” Shanahan said. “It gives it a little more diversity. It gives us something to do.”