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[From Woodstock to Hard Rock ]

Smooth transition?

The company that brought Céline Dion, Bette Midler and Cher to Vegas looks to continue that success with Santana at the new Joint

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Carlos Santana.

It’s tough to argue with AEG live/Concerts West’s track record. After all, this is the national promotions company that brought Céline Dion to Vegas and remains responsible for booking acts into the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, including Bette Midler and Cher (and Jerry Seinfeld when neither is performing). It’s about to put that sterling reputation to the test with this week’s announcement that Santana will become the resident headliner at the Joint at the Hard Rock, the other showroom booked by AEG Live/Concerts West in Vegas.

Santana may at first seem a safe bet for a series of runs at the Joint, each lasting a few weeks. Technically a band, Santana is in reality a vehicle for guitarist Carlos Santana and a rotating cast of other players. This has resulted in many creative rebirths in sound without ever abandoning Santana’s signature high-note-favoring solos. The group’s history includes the credibility of playing Woodstock backed up by classic rock hits such as “Black Magic Woman,” an ’80s-era MTV-assisted hit (“Winning”) and a final commercial rally in 1999 with massive-selling disc Supernatural.

But in reality nothing new is a safe bet in this economy. And no Woodstock-era rock band has ever attempted to become a resident headliner in Vegas before. In part, this is the result of a long-standing mutual reluctance by classic rock bands and the Strip to embrace fully. The bands saw fat Elvis in Vegas, and the casinos saw hippies as not an ideal customer base.

But the company’s president and co-CEO, John Meglen, put it this way during the Colosseum’s sixth-anniversary celebration on March 25: “I think the announcement is we need some good news in this town. This building is good news. A lot of projects that people are doing in this town aren’t good news. We are believers in this marketplace, and we are going to continue to be believers in this marketplace. Sure, everybody is going through tough times right now. But in the long run I think we are all still going to win.”

In a way, Santana’s extended stay in Vegas seems almost logical. By the time the rock fans grew up and began running the casinos, most of the original San Francisco psychedelic bands were long gone, as were the major ’70s bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Vegas has really only been fully integrated into most major rock tours for the past decade or so. Even now rock bands can have an attitude about Vegas. Meglen says of the search for a resident headliner for the Joint: “I was warned that I would be hearing that out there [about bands not wanting to ‘go Vegas’]. But maybe one in 20 has made that comment. People understand the market. They have been coming out here with their touring shows. I give tremendous credit to Cirque. You can’t say those shows aren’t hip or that those shows are the end of a career.”

And, though he did not reveal the name of the artist he signed for the Joint at the Colosseum party, Meglen talked to the Weekly about the thinking behind the decision to bring in Santana: “I think the Joint is about seeing your favorite rock band in almost a club situation. But the Joint will have state-of-the-art production. The show will have elements that you could never do on a touring show. That is the concept. I think the residency concept here is healthy for the rock touring business. I want Las Vegas to be looked upon as an alternative to touring by doing residencies.”

Santana therefore is a fairly known quantity for an interesting experiment. Will the band do as well playing Vegas as the reliable business it does touring over the years? As part of the deal, Santana has agreed to do no concerts west of the Mississippi during the Hard Rock residency.

Some may see this as a risk, but AEG Live/Concerts West has thrived on risks, the biggest of which was celebrated at last week’s party: Céline Dion. In fact, everything about her show seemed risky, from the cost of the tickets to the $95 million spent on the venue to the appeal of Dion to audiences. But her success, along with the success of Elton John, silenced critics.

The company estimates 4,237,963 guests have seen 1,268 events at the Colosseum over six years. And events there remain among the most expensive tickets in Vegas. “Until the last six months, Bette and Cher were doing well above 90 percent,” Meglen says. And, of course, then came the economic turmoil, but he says the shows are both still strong.

While last week’s party was advertised as an employee-recognition event, everyone was more interested in asking what the company would do next: Would Céline Dion be coming back? If she wants. What about Michael Jackson? Let’s see how the London shows go.

The company that has used the resident-headliner model so successfully at the Colosseum has yet to make a poor move with a resident show in this market, and even the first classic rock band to sign a multiyear headlining deal at a casino looks to be a sure thing coming now. Time will tell if the result will be more good news.

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Richard Abowitz

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