By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Outdoor concerts have long been a staple of summer in Brooklyn, alongside the trips to Coney Island, open fire hydrants, barbecues and that incessant ice cream truck jingle coming through our windows.
After 34 years, the free open-air concerts at Prospect Park are one of the longest standing of these musical emblems of summer.
Every summer the Prospect Park Bandshell hosts a slew of artists, famous and not, including big names from across the musical spectrum: from Café Tacuba to Philip Glass, Kid Koala to Goran Bregovic, to Brooklyn´s own KRS-ONE, Norah Jones and They Might Be Giants. Every year the space also hosts many theater, dance and orchestral pieces, including the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
This year's lineup is no different. The series will feature 32 shows, 25 of which are free, including concerts by Hot Chip, Wilco and Sigur Rós. Two ballet companies and a screening of Saturday Night Fever will also play the bandshell this summer. Organizers say the ticketed shows help finance the rest of the season, which opened last month with a two-hour concert by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff.
Concerts in Prospect Park began in the late 1970s and, organizers say, helped catalyze a revitalization of Prospect Park. Free concerts featuring local artists, many from the Brooklyn music scene, were held at night as a way to increase a sense of safety in the park, which was then suffering from decades of budget cuts.
“The park was in bad shape,” said Celebrate Brooklyn Executive Producer Jack Walsh, “it needed love and care and Celebrate Brooklyn was a way to bring people back into the park.”
“We wanted to activate an under-utilized — and in the case of the bandshell, derelict — public space to bring people back into Prospect Park,” Walsh explained. “Then, the park was definitely not a place you would think about going to at night.”
Annual visitors to the park have increased four-fold from the two million visitors per year in the late '70s. The Celebrate Brooklyn series alone brings nearly 250,000 attendees to the bandshell each summer.
“It's the most exciting show in our hometown,” said Ditmas Park native Nick Panken, whose band the Spirit Family Reunion, playing an infectious, foot-tapping modern take on string-and-jug Americana, takes the bandshell stage on Saturday, Aug. 4.
Spirit Family Reunion has played many times in Prospect Park, said Panken, but until now only at the farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza. August's show will be an opportunity for Panken and his bandmates to take the same stage on which they've seen some of their favorite acts, like Dixie Hummingbird and Bob Dylan.
The bandshell, renovated multiple times since its construction in 1939, lets concertgoers spread out a blanket and eat, drink and listen to shows in Brooklyn's biggest park. For the artists, it's an opportunity to play a more laid-back, outdoor venue, with a better-than-usual sound system.
As for the big picture, Walsh saw holding concerts in the park as a way to take back public space after what he calls “the bad '70s — a time of massive budget cuts and crime.”
“It wasn't just the park,” he added, “it was all of Brooklyn — the concerts were part of a strategy to keep the borough from slipping over the edge.”