Have large touring acts finally found a venue in Perth?
Text:/ Graeme Hague
I once attended an Alice Cooper concert and was gob smacked by the special effects, the sense of theatre and the brilliant music – this was the Welcome To My Nightmare tour and in my never-so-humble opinion it was Alice at his peak. I remember it well, particularly when AC stepped out through a slit projection screen as if he’d walked right out of the movie. It was cutting-edge AV technology and we were amazed. It was at the original Perth Entertainment Centre (PEC) and in researching this story I’ve stumbled across the depressing fact that it must have been 1977. Before today, I was fairly certain I wasn’t even born in 1977, but this is damning evidence to the contrary and might explain the glasses I’ve been wearing lately.
Some things have come full circle in those intervening years. The PEC was built in 1974 in response to local promoters who complained that bringing major acts to WA was a nightmare, between the costly logistics of travelling across the country and then needing something akin to a circus tent to host the show. The numbers just didn’t add up. With its 8000 seats, the PEC temporarily solved the problem but was still often considered too small. Then there were the construction cost blowouts that saw the centre handed over from private ownership to the government for administration.
It was the largest venue of its kind in the southern hemisphere with a proscenium arch stage, but this impressive attribute was also its Achilles heel. The purpose-built performing arts theatre lacked versatility and spent far too many days “dark” to escape the attention of the government’s bean counters as a budget black hole. When the Burswood Dome opened in 1988 offering an extra 5000 seats to concert promoters, the PEC struggled to survive. In 2001 the centre was closed for the last time with a vague promise to replace it with something better. It sat empty for nearly 10 years and the government ignored regular calls for it to be used for something – hell, anything – before the bulldozers finally arrived last year.
The infamous Burswood Dome wasn’t much of an improvement. At least it could host sporting events, in particular tennis with the Hopman Cup, but the innovative woven glass-fibre domed roof supported purely by air pressure was always a recipe for serious issues with acoustics – not to mention the debacle of 15,000 punters all trying to exit through the rotating, airtight doors at the end of a show or bringing every piece of stage equipment through the pantech-truck sized airlocks. Much of the permanent seating, while perfect for watching John McEnroe chuck a tantrum, was crap for seeing a main stage erected against one wall. And you can’t talk about the Burswood Dome without mentioning the parking. With the popular casino complex next door, getting a parking spot was next to impossible.
So the call for a genuine, indoor concert venue for Perth since 1974 has never been properly answered – until now. The much-anticipated completion of the Perth Arena is expected to finally address the need for a large-capacity stadium for touring acts. Considering it opened in November with a big bang called Elton John, followed quickly by Matchbox Twenty (when ‘support act’ INXS famously announced their permanent retirement) and Nickleback all in the first week, the signs are good. Upcoming acts are a Who’s Who of music royalty past and present: Deep Purple, Journey, The Jacksons, The Script and even Black Sabbath. But before you get too excited, let it be said the Perth Arena is a multi-purpose facility with a strong emphasis on – you guessed it – sport.
The arena is the official home of the Perth Wildcats basketball team and will host the 2013 Hopman Cup. A retractable roof will let in the flies and the sunshine during the tennis and the main floor will see more dribbling (no, not Black Sabbath) and slam-dunks than anything else. The standard configuration is again a large playing court surrounded on all four sides by seating designed to view the games, not the stage that can be erected at the northern end, and when it comes to in-house production for concert events it’s definitely BYO. So you might figure those signs aren’t good.
Don’t worry, catering for musical performances was high on the agenda when the arena was designed. It claims state-of-the art acoustics – no one’s complained so far – and the removable seating is designed to be removed quickly and efficiently to make way for the custom-built staging to be put in place. A proper grid for rigging lights and PA is permanently overhead – albeit a lot higher than you’d expect, which prompted one local PA company to nip out for extra steel for its chain motors – and a clever system of drapes hung from motorised tracks can convert the space in a variety of ways.
The curtains were supplied by Jands and add up to a staggering 6.5km thanks to the different configurations available and the sheer length of the drapes. Each one is custom-made and numbered, and has to be maneuvered into place in the correct order to create the desired effect. The stage is modular and it’s possible to drive trucks right into the arena to park next to it. Brilliant.
So while there’s no in-house PA apart from the Nexo public address system for game commentary and announcements, and the installed lighting is only good for basketball, the Perth Arena may well live up to its promise as a premier concert venue: it provides production companies with a blank canvas and no serious obstacles to getting great results. It’s been described as being so far ahead of any other comparably sized venue in town that any niggling teething problems aren’t even worth mentioning.
There’s nothing blank about the foyer area thanks to a large digital signage installation dominating the space. The unconventional showpiece ‘pendant’ array comprises 88 NEC displays – 44 on each side – and greets the audience with an impressive display of venue information and corporate messages. The NEC software allows each screen to be mapped so any imagery takes into account all the bezels and gaps between the screens, and allows the content to flow smoothly. Each NEC display can take individual, native 1080 HD content, and the screens can be addressed in clusters or as a whole array. Aside from the pendant’s obvious use as a central information point, it’s a powerful tool in the arena’s arsenal to generate revenue. Given the unique format and application of the pendant, it sits on its own network, quarantined as it were, from the broader venue-wide signage installation. That’s another 200-odd Samsung commercial displays throughout the complex along with a Panasonic LED superscreen.
The signage network is driven by an Intellimedia solution. Whereas most networks push content to a media player in the back of the screen, Intellimedia is more like an IPTV broadcaster and is particularly suited to the venue with its ability to take live video and relay it out to the scores of screens with a more-than-acceptable latency of less than 40ms. This is crucial for sporting events – if you can imagine VIPs in corporate boxes enjoying both the screen and the live action, a longer delay would render them annoyingly out of sync. Mind you, a few glasses of bubbly and some canapés could probably fix that.
The 108sqm Panasonic LED (10mm pitch) superscreen was selected for its brightness, sharp image and crucially, its versatility. Again with the sports action in mind, the screen can be broken down and assembled as a centrally-hung, four-sided gondola display for the basketball games (showing live video, scores, etc.), then rebuilt as one large screen at the back of the stage for a concert production – all in a short turnaround. The full 5000-nit LED screen will also be pressed into occasional service outside Perth Arena, at one end of the ‘Federation Square’ style development currently underway in the Perth CBD.
As you’d expect in a major new facility, the arena makes a bit of cash on the side with five luxurious function rooms. The biggest holds 670 people while the smallest, called the Backstage Bar (of course), is a bistro-style room for less than 200 guests. Full AV facilities for seminars and presentations can be made available.
As for the all-important car parking that the Dome failed to deliver, 650 bays have been created underneath although some production crew tell us that the first day’s pay on any gig goes straight to their parking fees.
It’s all a far cry from Alice Cooper jumping through a slashed canvas screen and chewing on rubber chickens – although AC hasn’t retired yet and you never know. He would no doubt be well pleased with the world-class concert venue that Perth can finally provide. I’ll be in the front row – yes, I know, I’d better take my glasses.