Concert season is upon us, and several people in the last week have asked me about the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. So, here’s the scoop.
If you live near the San Francisco Bay Area, and if you like concerts, chances are that at some point you are going to end up at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.
There are other things to love and things to dislike about Shoreline, but there’s no denying that it attracts hugely popular acts and that no matter how much you might complain, you will be rocking and smiling through most of your visit there.
In my opinion, the best things about ‘the Shoreline’ are:
- The venue attracts great bands and festivals
- It’s really spacious and you can walk around
- It has a “park” feel, to a degree
- The sound can be quite good, depending on where you are
- The staff are (generally) really friendly
- It has a rich history back to rock impresario Bill Graham
- It’s really close to my house, so I don’t have much of a commute (YMMV)
The marginal things about it are:
- The standard food is kind of expensive and pretty basic
- The adult beverages are expensive (even beer and wine)
- The sound can be weak in a few places
- It is not intimate. There is no mosh pit and it’s not the best place to get up close with your favorite band (but you get to see big bands)
- It can be tricky with public transportation.
- The curfew means they usually have to end by around 11 PM, even if the band wants to do a longer encore.
- The security guys can be very friendly or meth heads, depending. There is sometimes a Nazi atmosphere with the security.
Built on a (Really Nice) Garbage Dump. By A Famous Guy.
The Shoreline Amphitheatre was built in the mid 1980s on landfill, as part of a big park project called Shoreline Park. Shoreline Park is absolutely beautiful, and it is pretty much right on San Francisco Bay, although you will never really see the bay from within the facility.
The City of Mountain View worked with legendary rock promoter Bill Graham to create the amphitheatre, which really was designed with some thought to the concert-going experience. For instance, seats have a lot of leg room so you can stand up and dance and move around. The premiere season was during the Summer of 1986.
Bill Graham was a close friend of the Grateful Dead and a huge fan of the band, and the facility was designed to resemble the Grateful Dead’s “steal your face” album cover image.
(The Dead logo is on the left and the Amphitheatre layout is on the right, BTW.)
Historically, the landfill base caused some issues because of methane that is produced from the decomposing garbage. The opening year, a fan attending a Stevie Winwood show flicked a cigarette and ignited a bit of the methane that had been leaking from the landfill. The city started regular venting of the methane that year, and it hasn’t been a problem since. When you’re visiting, there isn’t really any evidence that you’re on a landfill, and you won’t even think of it.
The Google factor: Oh, and if you start to feel super-smart while you’re at the Shoreline facility, it may be because Google’s headquarters is all around you. If that rumbling you feel isn’t AC/DC’s subsonic woofers it might just be the millions of searches per minute coursing through the Googleplex.
Management of the Shoreline
While associated with Shoreline Park and the city of Mountain View, Shoreline Amphitheatre’s actual events are managed by Ticketmaster / Live Nation, which assumed the management role after a series of corporate mergers following Bill Graham’s tragic death in a helicopter accident in 1991.
The Shoreline Amphiteratre facility is pretty spacious, which is one of its charms.
The map below shows the basic layout. There are two big sections of seats. The 100-level are closer up, and then the 200-level are farther back. The lawn is at the very back, and is much bigger than depicted here:
To give you an idea of scale, there are 6,500 seats, but the lawn can accommodate an additional 15,500 people.
And here’s an annotated satellite picture of the layout (bathrooms have the smiley faces on the map):
One particularly interesting thing about the Shoreline is that the General Admission area is in the back of the venue (“the lawn”), with the seats up front. Food and drinks are around the right and left sides as you come in. There’s lot of walking around space, which works particularly well for festivals such as Vans Warped Tour, Mayhem and BFD where there are multiple stages. The spaciousness of the venue — with the ability to move around — is one of its endearing qualities.
As a Shoreline employee says on Yelp: “There are signs all over the venue telling you which area you are in. Your ticket will tell you that area. The lawn is a given. There are plenty of people at the gate who can give you directions if you ask.”
The lawn is on a slope, which means even though you’re far away, if you’ve got good binoculars you can get a direct view of the stage. Also, because it’s on a slope, it’s amusing to watch people who’ve had too much to drink try to stay stable (lesson: don’t drink too much at the Shoreline, please).
Here are some pictures of the lawn experience, which you can see involves a friendly and relaxed crowd:
Chairs, Blankets, Coolers, Cameras, Binoculars
The policy for most shows is very friendly, and posted on the Shoreline/Live Nation web site:
- Low-back beach chairs are permitted
- NO smoking in the seated or lawn areas, but is permitted in the plaza areas only.
- Soft sided coolers may be brought in to events if “6-pack” size or smaller.
- Blankets allowed for most shows.
- Camera Policy: Personal cameras are allowed in the venue. Flash photography, video and removable lens cameras are not permitted without venue approval.
If the show is expected to be extremely crowded or frenetic, the venue may restrict your bringing in chairs or blankets. But really, who wants to sit down at a concert anyway? In the words of one Shoreline employee on Yelp: “If you need to lie down, stay home and go to bed.”
The Shoreline staff are fine with small personal cameras as long as they don’t have a detachable lens or look professional. Binoculars are fine and recommended.
The Music Experience from the Lawn
It’s not as good as being right close up to the stage, but if you don’t mind being set back, the lawn experience is OK and affordable. Often, lawn tickets will cost you only $20-30. For a band that you’ve seen before or that maybe isn’t your absolute favorite, the lawn is a pretty good deal, especially because you’re free to walk around.
Because the lawn is sloped, you have a pretty good view over the heads of the people in front of you. I like to hang out toward the top, where I find the sound to be better and where I can get a commanding view and see the projection screens.
The people watching on the lawn can be great. For instance, at a Furthur shows I find the lawn is more fun than seats.
Here’s the downside: It’s pretty far away from the stage. That means unless you have binoculars, the only good view you’ll get is from the projection screens, which are really only visible when it gets dark enough.
Here are some videos taken from the lawn after dark, so you can see how far away you are and how the video on the projection screen works. Also, you can tell the sound is pretty darn good:
Linkin Park - Waiting for the End:
Linkin Park - Crawling:
System of a Down - Radio/Video:
Before dark, the video projection screens aren’t much help. Here is a picture from The Strokes playing at dusk:
The seats and aisles at Shoreline are very roomy. Each row of fixed seating at the amphitheatre has a pitch of three feet. That means lots of legroom and space for dancing. Some seats are reasonably close to the stage, but you still feel like you’re at a big stage event.
A friend of mine likes to look for seats near the mixing board section: “The sound is definitely better the more centered you are. Section 202 by the mixing board is my favorite place to sit when I’m not up front.”
Keep in mind that seats can be expensive. In many cases, the seats will end costing you $60-90 and you’ll still be pretty far away. The venue has started selling “VIP” tickets that are within the first twenty or so rows of the stage, but make sure it’s a band you love because those tickets can run $200+. (On the other hand, a mediocre Police concert at a big coliseum may cost you that anyway.) Also, be aware that even if you get row “A” you may be several rows back, since at the very front are rows DD CC BB AA.
If you have even more extra cash, you can buy season tickets which entitle you to reserved seating for multiple concerts. And, there are boxes (which are unfortunately way back at the end of the first level, but do have a very nice food and beverage service).
Here’s what the lower level (100s) and box seating looks like on a map:
Lower level (101, 102, 103) is closest to the stage. Boxes are at the back of the lower level. The upper level 200 seats are pretty far back. And the lawn is behind all of that. The Live Nation site has an interactive map so you can choose your seats.
The Sound System
The sound system at Shoreline gets mixed reviews from people, but I think it’s actually pretty good, usually. A friend of mine concurs: “I think Shoreline is one of the best sounding major venues that we have in the bay area. I’m much more likely to spend big $ on an act there vs. Oracle Arena or HP Pavilion.”
One thing to be aware of is that on the lawn there are definitely some dead spots. If you are near the front rail on the lawn, especially on the far side, you may not get too much volume. I had this problem seeing Gogol Bordello, which I had arrived late to because of traffic. I grabbed a spot down front on the lawn and on the left side, but then noticed the sound wasn’t very good. When I moved back and to the center, I found the sound to be a lot better. When I am on the lawn I usually stay back and center, and the sounds is usually pretty good. The audio in the seats can sometimes be over-modulated and bassy,though this really seems to vary act to act.
One thing to keep in mind is that because of city ordinances (and the fact that when the weather is just right the sound can travel as far north as Menlo Park) the volume will not be up to 11 at Shoreline. Just 9 ½.
Festivals and Side Stages
For big festivals like BFD and the Vans Warped Tour, there will be several stages set up outside of the main amphitheatre on the grounds and in the parking lot.
At BFD in 2011, for instance, here’s what a tent in the parking lot looked like (with Neon Trees performing).
The Limousines performing Flaskaboozedancingshoes in the Subsonic Tent at BFD:
Subsonic tent pictures — it was fun!
And, I think the guy with the pink hair hanging out on the Bud Lite parking lot stage with Bad Religion is Mike Dirnt of Greenday!
Unless you’re at the VIP Terrace, don’t expect gourmet fare at the Shoreline Amphitheatre. It’s your basic burgers, brats and dogs. The food booths in front tend to be better (that is, not paper wrapped and steamed). I like the hot links, which they will smother with onions and sauerkraut. The BBQ sandwiches can be pretty good, but the Mexican food is surprisingly bland (use lots of hot sauce!). They usually have pizza, which is of the Pizza Hut variety. The food isn’t cheap, though. For instance, a plain double-cheeseburger costs $7.50 with no sides.
According to the rules posted on the Live Nation site, you can bring in a very small cooler, so I suppose can could bring in your own sandwiches. I have never tried this, though. There are a lot of food reviews on the Yelp review for Shoreline (see end).
The Drinks and Bars
There are plenty of places to get adult beverages, and yes they are expensive. A small glass of wine is usually $10 and a bigger beer is about the same. Mixed drinks are available and expensive, too. The best range of options (e.g. for better wine) are actually in small booths on either side of the entrances to the lawn. Some places to get alcoholic drinks are:
- The small Cuervo stands near the entrance to the lawn and seats (specialty drinks, shots, beer and wine.) [Warning: Shots are not recommended if you are going to be on the sloped lawn! They’re gross anyway.]
- The sit-down bar near the entrance, with full bar service (see below)
- The Skyview Bar at the tiptop of the lawn (beer and wine)
- Food booths, which often have beer and wine
- Drink service, if you are in the VIP area
- The VIP lounge, near the entrance, if you have the right kind of VIP ticket
There is a sit-down bar near the entrance, and if you get tired of the lawn, it can be a good place to enjoy a and enjoy the performance, since there is video and sound piped in from the stage. You must be 21 to enter. Ironically, the bar doesn’t have much of a wine selection; for wine, you’re better off at the small booths near the seating and lawn entrances.
If you want to have a nice glass of wine before going to the show, Savvy Cellar in Mountain View at the Caltrain station does nice wine tasting and flights, and you can cab over from there for about $9.
Here’s a picture of the sit-down bar setup (that’s System of a Down playing on the video screen):
There’s getting parked, and then there’s the bit about leaving after the show. At Shoreline, depending on the show, the general parking can be anywhere from free to $15+ to $40 for a “premium” ticket. Unless you’re early enough to get there for a close-up lot, it’s a long and winding trek to get to the parking – but the crew do an efficient job of getting you parked.
Exiting is another matter: The lighting when you’re walking back to your car isn’t very good in the distant parking area, so you may have trouble finding your car. And, because so many people are exiting at once, you may have a long exit of up to an hour. Make sure your iPod is charged up an crank the tunes.
Another option is to pay ahead for VIP or “Premium” parking (by buying parking or a VIP package, depending on the show), which can be $40+. You’ll be closer to the entrance and also able to make a quicker escape at the end of the show. The VIP parking is obviously also included in full VIP packages that you might buy. But you usually can’t buy it except via those pre-paid tickets. The “Premium” parking offered on some shows is a different thing, but still gets you in closer and out faster than normal.
By the way, don’t be tempted to ride away on the Google bikes that may be parked outside. They belong to Google and are intended for the use of Google employees.
Public transit is a little tricky, but the good news is that Mountain View is a transportation hub for all of Silicon Valley. A lot of people take cabs from the Caltrain station to Shoreline, and there are also from VTA bus/shuttle options to get there. The bad news is that you will have to leave your concert early to catch a cab and get the 10:49 PM train from Mountain View to points north. It’s worse on Sunday, when the Caltrain schedules stop even earlier. VTA busses run later from the Mountain View train station, but are slower to get up or down the Peninsula.
For some special events, such as I Love This City, there are chartered buses so you don’t have to worry about the schedules.
There are also private “party busses” that go to Shoreline for various locales such as San Francisco.
Taxis usually line up outside of the venue after the show, but may be in short supply. If there are none, walk down to The Sports Page (about 1/4 mile away) and look for cabs there. If the traffic isn’t really bad, insist on running on the meter and not doing a flat rate.
One perennial feature of Shoreline is that people in the seats area bring beach balls, inflate them, and let them loose. This has been going on forever. The Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas actually commented on it at a recent show: “Wow, people here bring their own beach balls.”
One time when we were watching Megadeth play, our beach ball landing right on the stage and stayed there through a few songs before bassist David Ellefson gently picked it up and gave it to the roadies.
Shoreline is on the edge of the San Francisco bay, and it gets cold at night. Even in summer. So, bring a sweater, wrap or extra layer that you can don when the fog or cold air descends.
Rock & Roll Curfew
One of the things to be aware of is that the shows by law need to finish by 11 PM. Most shows try to end at 10:55 or so to be safe. That means that if your favorite band wants to jam late, they can’t keep going or there’s a big fine. The only ones who seem to violate this a bit are the Grateful Dead/Dead/Furthur. Or at least they did once.
Most of the security guys are great and true music fans. But on occasion, the venue management will have hiried a junior hothead in security who, depending on the rules of the show, might confiscate cell phones or pull people from their seats for simple acts like tweeting or even pulling out their phones. Steer clear of the security guys and you’ll be fine, but keep in mind that a few of them may be looking for trouble with fans.
Things to Bring
- Beachballs (if you are in the seats - not technically alowed but people bring them anyway)
- Concert ear plugs (in case it gets loud OR the woman next to you likes to make ear-piercing hog-call style whistles)
- A coat or sweater for nighttime shows
- Lots of money for food
- A small camera
- A blanket or a low-back beach chair if you really want to sit.
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