Concerted Efforts 

Harry Connick Jr. opens the Live at the Garden series.

Expect a capacity crowd of 6,500 people at the Memphis Botanic Garden this Saturday night, when the venue kicks off its fourth-annual summer concert series, Live at the Garden, with a performance by Harry Connick Jr.

"The response has been phenomenal," says Sherry Misner, co-director of the series. "We're really excited. We've outsold all the past seasons."

According to Misner, Live at the Garden has been a big boon for the Memphis Botanic Garden. "This is a big fund-raiser," she says. "Any penny of profit from these concerts goes right back into [the garden]. On the other side of the coin, the concert series provides priceless advertising. We've brought in new crowds, as well as reintroduced a whole new generation to this place. People come in and say, 'Gosh, we'd forgotten about the garden until now.'"

Locally, Live at the Garden has flourished where other outdoor concert series have failed: At the Mud Island Amphitheater, a popular entertainment destination in the 1980s and mid-'90s, attendance has waned, although last summer's budget-priced Memphis Jams series helped put the venue back on track. The Shelby Farms Music Series, which was seen as Live at the Garden's biggest competitor, closed its doors in mid-2003.

Crediting Live at the Garden's success to "location, location, location," Misner says that the Memphis Botanic Garden "is a great built-in venue. We've got 96 acres of gardens located in the heart of the city. Regardless of where you live downtown or out in the suburbs you can get here in 15 minutes."

With New Orleans-born crooner Connick in place as the first performer of the 2004 season, opening night could be subtitled "A Midsummer's Night Swoon." An accomplished pianist, bandleader, and arranger, the jazzy heartthrob is also a regular on the silver screen: He's starred in more than a dozen films, including Independence Day, Memphis Belle (he portrayed Clay Busby, a crewman on the B-17 bomber), and, most recently, the John Grisham-penned family drama Mickey. He's also had a recurring role on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace.

Romantics, take heart. Connick is sure to play favorites like Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and George Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (which Connick first recorded for the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack); originals like "Heart Beyond Repair" and "Let's Just Kiss" (off his '97 album, To See You); and '50s-era ballads like "My Blue Heaven" and "Save the Last Dance for Me," which are on his latest release, Only You. He is a natural addition to the Live at the Garden roster, which, in past years, has included Chris Isaak, Roberta Flack, Lisa Marie Presley, Isaac Hayes, and Marcia Ball.

Connick's appearance has been four years in the making. "He's someone we've tried to get since that very first season," Misner says, "so we're absolutely thrilled." But, while bringing in Connick might be a no-brainer, booking the series hasn't been so easy. "It's a shell game," Misner says. "Since we're subscription-based, we try to announce our summer line-up in March, but some artists don't book that far in advance! We give our talent buyer [Resource Entertainment Group] our wish list in November, then our top 50 performers get cut to about 25 probable touring acts. From there, we start making offers."

Other artists appearing at Live at the Garden in 2004 include Lyle Lovett (July 31st), Bruce Hornsby (August 27th), and Michael McDonald (September 17th). On Independence Day, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will perform a "Pops with the Plants" concert. Tickets for the series are available via subscription or on a per-event basis. Concertgoers are welcome to bring their own food or pre-order complete meals from Tsunami, which is catering the series. Huey's and the Half Shell will be offering food on-site.

Pressed to name her favorite concert, Misner demurs. "Live at the Garden shows are more than just concerts. They're experiences. Every show we've done from Isaac Hayes, who opened our first season, on through Chris Isaak and Lisa Marie Presley, who put on an extraordinary show last year has been so unique. During our second season, Kathy Mattea had a magical night. Then, when Wynonna [Judd] hit the stage growling 'Burning Love' last year " Misner's voice trails off as she pauses to relive the moment. n

Live at the Garden presents Harry Connick Jr. on Saturday, June 12th. Gates open at 6 p.m.; performance begins at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $16 to $80, available by phone at 685-1655. For more information, go to LiveattheGarden.com.

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