A new, 3,500-person outdoor music venue is opening this month, not in Providence or Newport, but in East Providence. On August 9, The Beach Boys will kick off the inaugural summer concert season at Bold Point Park, an unassuming little piece of waterfront property along the Seekonk River. It might seem like an unlikely place for a concert venue, but Michele Maker Palmieri and her team at RI Waterfront Events have nothing if not vision. The company, which formed after the closing of the much loved Newport Yachting Center, has proved to be capable and scrappy, operating like a band of concert-throwing nomads as they waited for the right location to put down stakes.
The Newport Yachting Center was the home of beloved annual festivals and summer concerts. The Reggae Festival, Oktoberfest and the Chowder Cook-Off were staples, and the center’s stage hosted big names in music and comedy, including BB King, Alanis Morissette, Amy Schumer and Louis CK. But in 2014, the Yachting Center was sold, leaving these annual events without a stage and the team that pulled them together out of work. Michele Maker Palmieri was the Yachting Center’s general manager at the time and suddenly found herself with a roster of summer events, a good working relationship with the booking company Live Nation and nothing to do with either of them.
“I knew that we needed to find a new home,” Michele says. “So I went to my event team and they said, ‘We’re on board if you want to do it,’ so crazy me created a company and we took the show on the road.”
For two years, Rhode Island Waterfront Events set up stages wherever they could find them. The Chowder Cook-Off took root at Fort Adams in Newport, while the Reggae Festival moved to Providence’s India Point Park in 2015 and 2016. The company also launched a Latin music festival and hosted classic rockers the J. Geils Band in India Point Park. The whole time, though, they were looking for a place they could call their own.
“We were at the Reggae Festival [in 2015], and when we looked across the river we saw all of this undeveloped waterfront,” says Michele. “We came to East Providence and talked with the city manager and city planner, and got the discussions going to see if we could set up a seasonal concert venue.”
As soon as Michele and her team saw Bold Point Park, they knew it had the makings of the seasonal, outdoor music venue that they’d been looking for – and that Rhode Island had been missing since the sale of the Newport Yachting Center. Live Nation had imagined the Newport Yachting Center as a smaller version of Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion; Bold Point Park will follow the same template, and will kick off its first season with The Beach Boys, followed by the 8th Annual Waterfront Reggae Festival on August 12, moe. with Railroad Earth on August 24 and the new Waterfront Blues and BBQ Festival with headliner Kenny Wayne Shepherd on August 26. Oktoberfest is scheduled to make its return on October 7.
Though Live Nation gives them access to national headlining acts, Bold Point’s organizers haven’t lost their sense of Rhode Island pride. “We’re still a local company, [but] being able to partner with something with all that power behind them has been really cool,” Michele explains. With that power comes a responsibility to homegrown artists, which they’re fulfilling by including local performers in their festivals – Rhode Island bands The Silks and Cannibal Ramblers appear on the Blues and
Of course none of this happened overnight. RI Waterfront Events needed the East Providence Waterfront Commission’s approval before moving on to the city council for the necessary entertainment and liquor licenses. Thanks to the public boat ramp (which will remain open, with limited exceptions), the Department of Environmental Management needed to sign off, as did the National Parks Service. Ultimately it all came down to a city council vote last November, where the project was unanimously approved.
Support from city officials has been overwhelming; according to East Providence Mayor James Briden, the city is “confident that this new entertainment location will serve as the catalyst for creating the vibrant and exciting destination that our residents have long envisioned for our emerging Waterfront District.”
Vice Chairman of the East Providence Waterfront District Commission William Fazioli echoes the sentiment. “This is a pivotal project for the City of East Providence,” he says, “as it complements the current commercial, manufacturing and residential expansion taking root in the City’s Waterfront District. More importantly, the entertainment venue will add a vital component to the City’s future redevelopment efforts while enhancing the region’s tourism and hospitality industries.”
RI Waterfront Events has a three-year lease on the property, and will treat this first season as a pilot program to work out any logistical kinks. This year’s audiences can expect about 1,800 seats in what is currently the park’s parking lot, with a stage facing the water. General admission ticket holders will have the run of the park’s grassy areas, which will host food trucks, pop-up bars and a lounge. The venue will rely on the mobile setup the company has used in previous summers at India Point Park and the seated sections will remain uncovered; going forward, the setup will, ideally, remain in place throughout the summer concert season, which will run from June to October and could include more than 20 events. Whether the few old favorites, like the Comedy Series and the Celtic Rock Festival, that have fallen by the wayside since the Yachting Center days are set to return is still up in the air, but Michele and her crew are open to anything. Comedy would be nice, she says, but it would have to be different enough from the lineup at nearby Comedy Connection to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.
Seeing the location before the stage goes up, it’s hard to imagine all of this happening in the quiet little park, but – believe it or not – it’s actually got more space than the old Newport Yachting Center. Rhode Island hasn’t had a seasonal venue quite like the center since it closed, and while RI Waterfront Events spent the last two years putting on successful shows in temporary locations, nothing ultimately allowed for the semi-permanent setup they needed to put on those big shows again. They think they’ve found a home here.