Super Bowl: As Much A Concert...

[From Houston Chronicle]

Super Bowl is as much a concert as it is football

Only ESPN, Las Vegas sports books and the gridiron faithful would argue that Super Bowl Sunday is just about football anymore.

Don't believe that hype.

Willie Nelson pitching for H&R Block and previews of Halle Berry's new thriller, Catwoman, are as important to the Super Bowl XXXVIII telecast as the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots. And both the commercials and the game have fierce competition from the pageantry and fireworks of the pregame and halftime shows.

"The NFL has continued to raise the bar on entertainment at the Super Bowl. They are the leaders of merging sports and music," says Michael T. Fiur, producer of the

Super Bowl XXXVIII pregame show and a veteran of 15 pro football championship music programs. "Every year it's a challenge to top it."

The game has remained the same for 38 years, but the entertainment has evolved exponentially.

"Twenty years ago the pregame was orchestrated by (executive producer) Bob Best. There were no computers, and communication was done with a tin can and a string," Fiur says. "Now it's a team of hundreds. Counting local staff and volunteers there are over 2,000 people in the cast."

The onstage talent has expanded, too.

With the exception of Grammy night, one would be hard-pressed to find more music stars together than at the Super Bowl. This Super Bowl in particular.

Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Aerosmith and Josh Groban will perform as part of the "Welcome to Houston -- The Spirit of Texas" pregame show. Houston native and superstar Beyoncé will perform what Ira Dotson, promotions and production manager at her label Music World Music, calls a "soulful and unforgettable" rendition of the national anthem. Dance diva Janet Jackson will be joined by Kid Rock, rappers P. Diddy and Nelly, and the marching bands from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University at halftime.

MTV, the architect of merging music with visuals, is working with its Viacom sister station CBS to produce this year's halftime show. The last time MTV was involved, in 2000, it transformed halftime into a cross-generational, genre-busting medley of Aerosmith, 'N Sync, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige. That sort of synergy has now become the blueprint.

"The first time the question was `What can be done in 12 minutes that will blow people's minds?' " MTV producer Alex Coletti says. "Since then everyone's kind of followed our lead. Now we only have ourselves to beat."

At the inaugural championship game in 1967 both the national anthem and halftime show were provided by bands from the University of Arizona and the University of Michigan. That was when the Super Bowl didn't sell out, even though tickets cost as little as $6.

College fight songs and marching bands continued to dominate the first decade of Super Bowls. The national anthem, however, was sung by increasingly prominent stars. Super Bowls III through V -- from 1969 to 1971 -- got patriotic with Anita Bryant and trumpeters Al Hirt and Tommy Loy respectively. When the Super Bowl was last played in Houston 30 years ago, country star Charley Pride sang The Star-Spangled Banner.

They all demonstrated that pro football's championship had the potential to attract star power.

Ironically, it was a someone not known for her singing voice that kicked the door wide open on Super Bowl performances when Charlie's Angels actress Cheryl Ladd led off Super Bowl XIV in 1980. Even though her rendition of the national anthem wasn't memorable, her presence proved that anything could go.

Since then the event has seen memorable moments like1998's halftime tribute to Motown with Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Temptations as well some awkward choices such as Kathie Lee Gifford's unsung (no pun intended) rendering of The Star-Spangled Banner before Super Bowl XXIX in 1995.

No moment was more ulcer-inducing for Super Bowl producers than Michael Jackson's two minutes of statuesque silence before finally beginning his performance at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993.

"He just stood there, and our director was in the truck screaming at Michael, `Take off your glasses!', which was the signal to begin the music," Fiur says. "We learned that year to never allow for a break in pre-recorded tracks."

While it won't match the emotion of U2's post-9-11 halftime two years ago or
Whitney Houston's dramatic rendering of the national anthem after the Gulf War in 1991, Houston's Super Bowl show has the star power to become one of the most memorable ever.

A particularly poignant performance could be young "popera" chart-topper Josh Groban's tribute to the crew members of Space Shuttle Columbia, who died in a mid-air explosion exactly a year ago game day. Surrounded by crew members from a future shuttle mission and a choir of local high school singers, he will perform his inspirational song You Raise Me Up.

The inclusion of the UH and TSU marching bands is also significant because the collegiate brass represents the roots of Super Bowl entertainment.

The acts for Super Bowl XXXVIII have been announced, but Fiur says there will be surprises that only the artists and crew know about right now.

The music is meant to be a spectacle, but even its producer admits it may be reaching the peak of what can be done.

"As big as it's gotten, the music is never going to overshadow the game," Fiur says. "Football is what it's all about."

Sure. Tell that to fans of Janet Jackson, Willie Nelson, P. Diddy and the rest of the musical lineup, those people who will be tuned in to the Super Bowl ... but not to the game.



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