The Showboat Casino-Hotel made a loyal and regular customer out of Phil Maturi, of Somers Point, during the last year by booking nationally known acts to play for free inside its Party Pit.
Maturi, 31, made his way to the Party Pit to see the rock bands Alien Ant Farm, Filter, Fuel, Lit and rapper and songwriter Everlast.
"I think the atmosphere is what it comes down to. There is a nice, wide-open dance floor, table games. It's the best-kept secret in Atlantic City," said Maturi, who makes half of his visits to Atlantic City just to see the acts in the Party Pit. "I saw Lit years ago ... The Party Pit is better. You are right on top of them. The band is playing a show just for you and your friends."
This has been a banner year for music lovers who love to hear familiar songs from well-known acts played live, but who don't always have the money to spend on expensive concert tickets.
Showboat's live concerts in the Party Pit have been joined by Revel, which has staged free shows by rising and cult music stars in its venue known as The Social. Earlier this summer, people who were lucky enough to get tickets, could have seen country music superstar Kenny Chesney on a Wildwood beach for free.
These concerts joined the Summer Concert Series and the Jazz on the Beach Concert Series in Atlantic City as well as the Somers Point Beach Concerts.
Showboat started its free concerts in May 2011 with Ed Kowalczyk, the former lead singer and songwriter for the alternative rock band Live. Since then, the Party Pit has hosted a nationally known headliner about once per month.
"A lot of acts like it because that gives them a chance to give back to their fans," Jason Spencer, Eastern Division Director of Entertainment for Caesars Entertainment, said about the Showboat's free shows. "The way the industry is, they normally do not have that opportunity because when they get booked, they are in a venue that sells tickets, because that's the nature of the business."
Caesars Entertainment expanded its music offerings with a free concert in May by the reggae band The Wailers in Sammy's Beach Bar at Bally's Atlantic City and free shows earlier this month by the 1990s pop-rock act Fastball at both Sammy's and the Party Pit .
When Revel opened on April 2, it also decided to offer free shows by nationally known acts in The Social. It has offered an act almost every month. The selections have been all over the map, from the Danish indie rock duo The Raveonettes to up-and-coming American pop duo Karmin to the funky and jazzy jam band Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.
The free concert that dwarfed all others was American Express-sponsored Kenny Chesney live show on June 20 on the beach in Wildwood. Twenty-five thousand ticketholders were inside the beach venue while another 5,000 people stood outside and listened to the music.
Chesney was the biggest free beach concert in Wildwood since a Beach Boys show in 1991.
John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Tourism Authority, said many people who attended the Wildwood show paid to see Chesney with Tim McGraw the previous weekend at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
"I think there may now be promoters who were watching this, saw it happen and realized how cool it was to be on the beach," said Siciliano, who added there were no major incidents. "I do believe we will end up having conversations with people in the future talking about doing something on that beach."
The municipalities that have been offerings free shows each carve out their own niche, so they don't step on each other's toes. Atlantic City offers jazz and old-school R&B while Somers Point tends to host rock 'n' roll, blues-and New Orleans-influenced acts.
Even though Atlantic City has been offering its 1970s and 1980s old-school R&B for a decade in Gardner's Basin, Darrell Bacon, 42, of Pleasantville, checked it out for the first time this year. He usually works on Saturdays when the shows are held, but he made it to see Tavares and Con Funk Shun on June 23.
"I liked the atmosphere. It was something I didn't expect. Now, I'm addicted," said Bacon, who added seeing Morris Day and the Time will cost him $50 on Aug. 18 at Resorts Casino Hotel, but another 1980s funk group, Cameo, performs on the same day in Gardner's Basin for free.
Since 2002, Gardner's Basin has hosted the R&B acts Rose Royce, Brass Construction, B.T. Express and others for free, said Wilbur Banks, Atlantic City's director of Health and Human Services. This year, the acts included reggae band Third World, the funk band WAR, the Chi-Lites and national gospel-recording artist Kurt Carr.
"(Audiences) fully enjoy it. A lot of them don't have the opportunity to get into the casinos for a major show, so now they get to see acts up close and personal," said Banks, who added as many as 2,000 people will show up for these shows on a Saturday afternoon.
Carmen Marotta, of Egg Harbor Township, is carrying on the live music tradition started by his late father who ran Tony Mart's, the legendary rock 'n' roll showplace on Bay Avenue in Somers Point. Over the years, Marotta with his production company, Tony Mart Presents, has been a sponsor of the Somers Point Beach Concerts at 7 p.m. Fridays at William Morrow Beach.
Acts that performed as part of that series, and also Mardi Gras on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, include the Grammy Award-winning Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, the New Orleans, La. brass funk rock band Bonerama and Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers.
"People express their gratitude warmly and sincerely all the time," said Marotta, who added his wife, Nancy, deserves credit as the production coordinator for both the Somers Point Beach Concerts and all the Tony Mart Presents events. "There are dozens of people every week, who thank us. It's a very gratifying experience. Based on my background on Bay Avenue with Tony Mart's and my family, it makes me feel really good to keep my father's legacy alive."
Henrietta Shelton, president and founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, Inc., combined her love of jazz with memories of the Atlantic City's live music scene during the 1950s and her time spent on Chicken Bone Beach to create the Jazz on the Beach free concert series on Thursdays at Kennedy Plaza between Mississippi and Georgia avenues on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Over the years, pioneer jazz-funk artist Roy Ayers, former Blue Note recording artist Donald Byrd and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard have performed during the 13 years of the Jazz on the Beach series, which is sponsored by the foundation.
"A lot of young kids have never been exposed to jazz in this area," said Shelton, who added children have thanked her after attending one of her concerts for helping them appreciate jazz. "I have never seen a kid running up and down the aisles acting silly. I have never seen that for the whole 13 years. It's like they are mesmerized."
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