Locals have been complaining for years about the lack of blockbuster entertainment here. We wistfully sighed over the many golden years, when we could make the short drive (or walk) to the Arena and see legends like Johnny Cash and June Carter, BB King, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, Fugazi, Tom Petty … well, you get the picture.
We wanted a hot musical act here, in our town, in our university arena.
And, this past Saturday, SIU delivered. Ice Cube — truly a living legend, a rap icon, a founding father of hip-hop — gave a professional, energetic performance that was stacked with hits.
It was the first in a new concert series called SIU Presents, which aims to bring those blockbuster musical acts back to the Arena. Because we, as a community, asked for it.
The crowd size for the Ice Cube show — Fat Joe and DJ Kid Capri opened — fell short of what organizers were hoping for, with just under 2,000 people inside the Arena, which has a total capacity close to 9,000 (give or take; that number can be reconfigured on a given night depending on the activity).
The empty space in the Arena was obvious that night. There were a lot of empty seats. On the floor, there was plenty of space for cartwheels. Since Saturday, photos of the crowd circulating on social media have generated much griping and criticizing.
Ice Cube even acknowledged the sparseness: “Tell your friends who aren’t here that they missed out,” he said. It’s true. If you weren’t there, you missed out. A legend in our town. Each ticket was worth every penny. And, even the cheap seats had a great view. There isn’t really a bad seat in the Arena.
But we do not see these attendance numbers as a failure. With the Ice Cube show, we think SIU Presents made a significant and impressive first step toward revitalizing a mainstream entertainment scene here. And, to them, we say, thank you.
To the critics who stayed home Saturday night, participated in bashing the show’s attendance, or otherwise had nothing but negative things to say, we say, pipe down, and get out of the way.
Consider this: It had been since the early aughts that a blockbuster musical act had played at SIU Arena. Sure, bands with devoted followings, like Widespread Panic, which played Shryock Auditorium in 2013, and The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, which opened the Sunset Concert Series in 2016, have played here in recent memory. But until this past Saturday, it had been a decade since an act that virtually everyone in town had at least heard of took the Arena stage.
There are many reasons for that — declining university enrollment, economic changes in Southern Illinois, geography, changes in the music industry, population decline, and so on. The Arena did not stop hosting those blockbuster shows overnight, and it did not do it for one reason alone.
SIU Presents faces an uphill battle and a variety of factors that could make or break its concert series. Just as the music didn’t stop overnight, it will not reliably start up again overnight. SIU Presents — with the (by all appearances) enthusiastic support of university administration — is tasked with revitalizing an entertainment scene. That just doesn’t happen with the snap of two fingers. It doesn’t happen in one concert.
You have to start somewhere. Just the fact that it has started is something to applaud.
Organizers of SIU Presents have said they are planning more shows, likely in the country and rock genres. If Ice Cube wasn’t your thing, and you didn’t want to spend your hard-earned cash to see a show you would have hated, OK, we get that. But a lively entertainment scene depends on an audience, so we hope to see you at the next big Arena show.
We must acknowledge that with the start of this ambitious revival, SIU Presents will undoubtedly have learned some lessons from organizing this first — of what we and they hope will be many — concert. Carry on. It can only get better from here, and where we are is better than where we’ve been for several years.
For the community who demanded big shows come back to the Arena, be glad they are coming back. What is it they say about looking a gift horse in the mouth?