WEEDSPORT | Beginning in the early 1980s, a small village in Cayuga County formerly known as Weeds Basin began an extraordinary run into the foray of presenting live music to complement its already successful dirt motor racing entity.
What started as a small pavilion type setup grew into a commodity at the Cayuga County Fairgrounds, home to DIRT MotorSports, founded by Greater Syracuse Sports Hall Of Fame inductee and music promoter Glenn Donnelly, setting the stage to grow into a grandstand that accommodated the hierarchy of the music industry elite, upcoming and otherwise.
“You know it’s summer when they’re rockin’ in Weedsport” became the go-to catchphrase created by Joe Kelly, who was the "voice" for concert advertisements that ran far and wide on both radio and television throughout the central New York market.
Music fans came from afar, backing up the traffic coming from the Route 90 Thruway corridor at Exit 40 for hours — at times delaying the start of a concert. People trekked from Rochester and Utica, Watertown and Binghamton, and all points in between and beyond.
No worries, though — the pre-show parking lot parties became the rage before long, with many regional bands getting the nod to perform on a smaller stage, engaging and priming the concert revelers for whatever headliner would be passing through town that evening. Dracula Jones, Mr. Slate, Bone China and the Prison City Rockers were just a few of the local acts to be privileged with making the tailgate parties successful.
In a recent interview at Riverbend Coffee, Donnelly reflected on the times and much of what surrounded the success of live music at the Cayuga County Fairgrounds’ grandstand stage and the various events he presented, from snowmobiling, monster trucks, rodeo, demolition derbies, concerts, go-cart racing and more.
“When the opening act came on,” Donnelly said, “We tried to get people to move from the parking lot to the inside. They all had tickets.” Chuckling, he added, “a lot of them couldn’t make it.”
Donnelly got involved in the music end of things due to gas spiking, and he looked at the big picture — remember the odd/even gas lines?
“I always looked at the five-year plan, and what lied ahead,” he elaborated, also fessing up to admitting his first musical purchase was Elvis Presley.
“Growing up, you’re always listening to music,” Donnelly said about his decision to present concerts. “It was a good experience. We were there at the right time. We put more than 2 million people through those gates.”
Blue Oyster Cult, Steppenwolf and others took the stage in their prime, while others arrived at the upswing of their career. Many returned for more than one appearance, including Alabama, .38 Special, Aerosmith, Metallica and others.
Ticket sales ranged from a few thousand to an overwhelming number, such as 13,000 when Alabama made a historic show at the venue that was limited by town codes and an official attendance of 10,000. Local sales outlets included Speno Music and Mayko Radio, with all tickets ranging around the $20 mark.
“Most everything we did in the late '80s and early '90s was a sellout,” recalled Donnelly. “The one that probably generated the most money for us over that whole period, and I did them eight to 10 times at all three venues and in Syracuse,” Donnelly said, “was Metallica.”
“We did 25,000 at the (New York) State Fair for Lollapalooza," he mentions. “Metallica came to us with a small guarantee, an unheard-of deal in today’s market.”
“Van Halen would never had played Weedsport,” said Donnelly’s son Pat. “If we didn’t have the other two venues, many of the shows would not have visited Weedsport.”
That, in and of itself, assisted in the success of the Weedsport concerts, as Glenn owned the Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown and operated shows at Manchester, N.H.'s city park, with the grandstands replicated at each venue.
It helped that many of the acts who performed were race fans, taking some of their antics to another level. For example, Motley Crue enjoyed taking its tour buses around the track for an impromptu race, and even stayed up until 4 a.m. racing go-carts in the indoor makeshift track.
Just last month, the new investment group that purchased the oval track and former concert venue demolished the grandstand, pavilion and the popular VIP tower that hosted many special guests and friends of those affiliated with media, family members, the elite and touring bigwigs.
Donnelly currently is partnered with many investors and will be bringing a 2.5-mile road course to Central Square with a synthetic oval track as well as a grandstand 77 feet high that will double the capacity of Weedsport’s fan limit, presenting a few of the bigger shows, similar to the all-day K-Rockathon blasts.
"We’ll have the latest technology, and it will blow people away," he said.
Weedsport was the place to go in central New York for concerts — Saratoga was further on down the pike and Darien Lake was not yet presenting concerts. The only action in the region was in the small village, except for the annual run of the New York State Fair in late August in Syracuse.
Many will recall the Friday night pavilion parties sponsored by 94 Rock that featured the best in regional acts, including Todd Hobin Band, Back Alley Boys and others. Even internationally known Auburn-based heavy metal band Manowar spent a long day of playbacks making its music video for the song “Blow Your Speakers” there.
“We were the first outdoor venue around here. We were it for many years,” added Donnelly, who is working on a documentary that will include backstage scenes, pre-show fun and live concert footage to coincide with the publication of a book about the history of "Rockin’ in Weedsport."
“People went to shows for the atmosphere, not necessarily the music,” he said.
Syracuse promoter Chuck Chao was the first promoter in 1981 to assist Donnelly prior to Donnelly Presents taking over and going through renowned college agent Harris Goldberg, of Woodstock. Donnelly met Chao through Chao’s father, who was a snowmobile enthusiast.
Donnelly packaged deals to get better prices by placing the acts in all three of his venues, making routing and overhead easier. Some shows were a hard sell to the public, but he always pulled out all the strings to make things happen, including bringing in the Auburn High School cheerleaders for a Beach Boys concert, which added to the entire beach atmosphere — bikinis, beach balls and fun in the sun with Katrina & the Waves opening.
“We had it good the first half of the '90s,” admitted Donnelly, “then it started getting tough with all the sheds popping up.” The Constellation Brands – Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center were not presenting anything but symphonic concerts during the early '80s.
Blue Oyster Cult performed in 1982 and returned a couple of times before co-founder Al Bouchard’s new act The Brain Surgeons returned to the county fair 25 years later with local acts Static Cling and Thumb joining in the lineup. Steppenwolf played one of those earlier shows as well, and returns to central New York for an appearance at this year's New York State Fair at Chevy Court.
Jefferson Starship with Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas performed in 1987 and return to Cayuga County for an appearance Aug. 2 with Mickey Thomas in tow at the Deauville Island Music Festival, with a reunion of The Doyle-Whiting Band and The Funky Blu Roots.
Donnelly, who wasn’t much for mingling backstage, did get to sit in the front row at Middletown for a concert and act he really wanted to catch, and that was when Celine Dion opened for Michael Bolton, a show he believed would not sell in the Weedsport market.
“We put so much into it,” Donnelly said. “Everyone involved played a big part to keep people coming back. The community was very involved — even the Boy Scouts who did the clean up.”
“We’ll have a reunion with some of these acts with our new venue,” he concluded, “The bottom line is, it was all fun.”