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Updated: 10:17 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 | Posted: 7:46 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

ACL Live job a dream come true for Austin's Tim Neece



By Michael Corcoran

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Tim Neece has given the grand tour dozens of times in the past few weeks and it never gets old.

He's a former musician and ex-artist manager who knows just how bad a dump with bad sound can rattle the psyche of a touring musician, and so he delights in showing the four luxurious dressing rooms, the easy equipment load-in for crews and the state-of-the-art sound, video and lighting systems. He loves to watch the jaws drop.

Neece is the general manager for the new Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, the new home of the namesake TV show as well as a year-round venue that's sure to be the biggest jewel in Austin's nightlife crown when it debuts Thursday.

The soft opening is a concert by the kid-aimed Imagination Movers. The real, full-throttle, grand opening of the 2,750-capacity venue will be Feb. 13 and 14, with headliner Willie Nelson, who co-owns the $40 million theater with Stratus Properties and the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund. The block of Second Street where ACL Live stands as part of the W Hotel development has been renamed Willie Nelson Boulevard.

A favorite part of Neece's tour is when he leads visitors up two flights of stairs to the balcony. He walks to the last seat in the last row and sits on the plastic covering.

"The worst seat in the house," he said. "And it's 75 feet from the stage."

Well-heeled fans have snapped up 333 prime seats on the mezzanine level for a license fee of up to $1,750 a year, and they still have to pay the ticket price to the shows they choose to attend.

A young-looking 64-year-old, who previously booked and handled business negotiations for the University of Texas Performing Arts Center, Neece said he was persuaded to take the new gig after he was shown the bare-bones layout in June.

"In all my years in the music industry I've never seen a building as well thought out as this one," he said. "Most music venues start out as something else and are converted. But this one was designed with the live music experience in mind. There might not be another place like this in the world."

ACL Live at the Moody Theater has the acoustics of a recording studio because that's what it will be for 45 days out of the year when the TV show takes over the space for tapings.

Nelson's nephew and business partner, Freddy Fletcher, said Neece was recruited because "we wanted it to be someone from Austin, who knew the local music business inside and out. We didn't really even think of anyone other than Tim."

Once on board, Neece researched and negotiated a ticketing agreement with Ticketfly, new to the Austin market. But his biggest project was assembling the venue management team of concert industry veterans.

In charge of all aspects of ACL Live operations, Neece is tuned in to synchronizing the needs and scheduling of the venue and the TV show, whose offices are side by side.

Like many, Neece moved to Austin as a musician from somewhere else. It was 1971, the Vietnam War was polarizing America, and drummer Neece's rock band migrated from Abilene to the place you moved in Texas if you had long hair and enjoyed an alternative lifestyle.

After his rock group Sundance broke up, Neece put his business degree from McMurry University to use, opening an 8-track store called Rockola on West 24th Street near San Gabriel Street. In a back room he started an artist management company.

Neece was looking for bands to sign and was out one night checking out a band called Good Question.

"They were a really great cover band, and one of the guys told me, 'You ought to hear some of Chris' originals,'" Neece recalled. He loved the songs and the singer and signed Chris Geppert, who would win five Grammys a few years later as Christopher Cross.

"It was an amazing time when 'Ride Like the Wind' hit," Neece said. "I was in a limo with Michael Ostin, who signed Christopher Cross, and he kept turning the radio dial, and three stations were playing 'Ride Like the Wind.'"

Neece moved from Austin to Los Angeles in 1982 when Cross' career required hands-on attention. "I went to every show and handled all the little details. I saw how things were done, top to bottom," Neece said.

Most managers could only dream of having an act as successful as Cross; Neece soon signed his second platinum artist in Bruce Hornsby and the Range, whose "The Way It Is" hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles charts in 1986 and led to a Best New Artist Grammy.

Neece's client list also included Rickie Lee Jones, Pat McLaughlin , the Posies and Leon Russell.

It was a 16-year-old guitar hotshot with teen idol looks that reinforced Neece's ties to Austin.

"Charlie Sexton just blew me away, as a musician and as a person," said Neece, who also co-managed Sexton's later outfit the Arc Angels.

Working with Sexton and getting burned out on L.A. conspired to remind Neece how much he missed the pace and musical soul of Austin. "After dealing with the whims of artists for so long and all the fluctuations, I was ready for a more dependable line of work, where I could build a solid base to expand on."

When Tim O'Connor offered Neece a job in 1996 as director of operations for Direct Events, which owns the Backyard, the Austin Music Hall and La Zona Rosa, Neece jumped at the chance to go back to where his career started.

Next up was NextStage, a Houston-based entertainment company that hired Neece as the senior talent buyer for 15 midsized auditoriums (6,000 capacity) it planned to build. After opening one in Grand Prairie, NextStage ceased operations and Neece was out of a job.

"It was right after 9/11, and all corporate business shut down," Neece said. "We were having trouble selling naming rights."

After a 32-day break in Europe with his now-wife Maryleigh, a spiritually recharged Neece got a job offer from Pebbles Wadsworth, then-director of the Performing Arts Center, in 2003. "They were doing about two concerts a year at the Bass Concert Hall, and they wanted to expand it to 16 to 22 shows a year," Neece said.

He was perfectly happy to stay at the PAC, where he booked performers as diverse as Tony Bennett, Neil Young, Alicia Keys and Jerry Seinfeld, but seven years into that job he was offered the top post at ACL Live.

"I thought I had the best job in the world before," he said, as he led a visitor to the hallway of unfinished offices that will house him and his staff of 14 full-time employees.

Since he took the general manager job nine months ago, in his head he's been watching the crowds standing and applauding. This month, during shows that include the Steve Miller Band and Diana Ross, he'll get to see it finally come true.

"I think this will have a big positive impact on Austin as a whole," said Neece, who remembers how the Armadillo World Headquarters put Austin on the map in the early '70s. "This is going to get people talking about Austin even more."

Unlike the Armadillo and many other legendary live music clubs that have been bulldozed, Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater is in no danger of one day disappearing.

A great music town is about to get a whole lot better.

mcorcoran@statesman.com,

445-3652

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