Alaska Life

In Alaska, concerts from major performers are rare — and cancellations hit all the harder

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The recent uproar for Foo Fighters tickets recalls the similar pandemonium that accompanied past Anchorage appearances by well-known performers. Distance, population and cost are crucial factors in the planning for both bands and promoters. Put simply, relatively few major acts make their way north. For every Elton John that eventually winds their way up here, hundreds more performers are content without an Alaska performance on their resume.

Even then, many acts only make their way to Alaska long after their heyday. As Alaska folk singer Andy Miller sang on his 2018 album “Alaska in 28 Songs,” “If you like nostalgia, you’ll love the bands that tour Alaska.”

So, every concert by a national or international artist is a win for city relevance and resident entertainment. And if every such appearance feels like a victory, then the losses and cancellations hit all the harder.

Some of the most infamous Anchorage cancellations came within a window from the mid-1990s into the 2000s, including the Stone Temple Pilots in 1996, Red Hot Chili Peppers twice in 1997, Blink 182 in 2001, Biz Markie in 2005, White Stripes in 2007 and DMX repeatedly. The excuses had some range. Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland entered drug and alcohol rehab the day before their Anchorage concert. Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis broke his wrist, and the band later canceled several shows due to insufficient practice time. Blink 182′s guitarist had injured his back. Inclement weather forced Biz Markie to miss his flight. The White Stripes released a statement that drummer Meg White was “suffering from acute anxiety and is unable to travel at this time.” A mixture of personal demons and travel mix-ups caused DMX to no show or cancel in 2001, 2003 and 2017.

Some of the acts later, albeit much later in most cases, managed to make it to Anchorage. DMX played two shows at a smaller venue in 2003, the day after his scheduled concert. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played Sullivan Arena in 2013. Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, memorably played at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Wendy Williamson Auditorium in 2015. And Biz Markie was part of the “I Love the 90s Tour”—with Vanilla Ice, Sisqo, Kid ‘n Play and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray — that visited Anchorage in 2017.

However, the two most notorious cancellations came from one of Alaska’s own, singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher. Known professionally as simply Jewel, she was born in Utah, though her family soon relocated to Alaska. As she described it in her 2015 memoir, “Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story,” “My two brothers and I were raised by a musical family, and I spent my early childhood performing with my parents in Anchorage for tourists. When I was eight, my mother left and my dad moved us to the family homestead in rural [near Homer], a log cabin with creek water to drink, no plumbing or most modern conveniences.” Beginning at age 15, she endured a series of life-altering experiences, from living on her own to winning a scholarship to an art school to homelessness to being discovered by a major record label and releasing her first album before her 21st birthday.

That debut album, “Pieces of You,” was released in February 1995. It was not an immediate success and, in fact, initially failed to chart. Led by singles “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant for Me,” the album was instead a slow burn, gaining in popularity over the next two years and ultimately selling more than seven million copies in the United States alone.

Early in that process, she committed to perform at the 1996 Alaska State Fair. As the date approached, her stature increased. Finally, she canceled in favor of touring with Neil Young. The following January, she was performing at President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural ball. Broken agreements aside, she had reached a level of prominence beyond the typical fair act. Things turned out well enough for the state fair. To replace Jewel, they booked a young, relatively unknown LeAnn Rimes, who subsequently began her own rapid ascent to stardom.

In 1999, Jewel was scheduled to play New Year’s Eve at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena. In late November, she backed out. Her management company declared in a public statement that the cancellation was due to “Y2K concerns, the public’s response to traveling and going out on Dec. 31, and the unrealized expectations the promoter placed on Jewel.”

This answer might require a short reminder on Y2K, also known as the Year 2000 problem. In simple terms, it was believed that when the year 1999 tilted over to 2000, many computers would be unable to handle a date ending with two zeroes. The resulting errors were thought to threaten nearly all aspects of modern life, from airplanes to banking. While a serious issue, the problem was not worth the panic, fear and stockpiling that ensued within certain corners of the American population. Civilization survived the transition into a new millennium.

Officials with the Municipality of Anchorage first became aware of the Y2K problem in 1995 while preparing five-year projections for the 1996 budget. The accounting software failed when it encountered the year 2000, a typical Y2K issue. The municipality began working on solutions in 1995 and was well prepared, far in advance of Dec. 31, 1999.

Of course, the slow ticket sales likely also played a significant factor in Jewel’s decision. Whether Alaskans were swayed by Y2K fears or not, only around a thousand tickets had been sold for an 8,000-seat arena. Ranging in cost from $65 to $99, the event was somewhat expensive by Alaska standards, though downright cheap compared to similar shows in the smaller states. Other New Year’s Eve concerts that year included Rod Stewart for $400, Jimmy Buffet for $1,500, and Barbara Streisand for an extravagant $2,500. Jewel and her management perhaps wanted to avoid the inevitable headlines if she could not sell out in her home state. A decade later, Jewel claimed her agency booked the concert without her knowledge.

Sullivan Arena also has an uneven history regarding major events. Sellouts proved to be a daunting target over the years. From the No. 1-ranked North Carolina basketball team in 1985 to Snoop Dogg in 1994 to Kiss in 2000, paid attendance often fell far short of capacity. Tellingly, DMX went from being booked for Sullivan Arena in 2003 to the much smaller Egan Center in 2017.

The locals handled the Jewel reversals as gracefully as one would expect. After the state fair cancellation, a former elementary classmate accused Jewel of “using Alaska as a gimmick. Something to set her apart from every other singer in the flock.” After her 1999 cancellation, a local wrote to the Anchorage Daily News and suggested longtime area performer Mr. Whitekeys could easily replace Jewel. Another meanspirited letter said, “Maybe we can have a special legislative session with the purpose of stopping Jewel from calling herself Alaskan.”

The antipathy was slow to dissolve. A decade later, she returned to play a benefit in Homer and a couple of shows at Anchorage’s Atwood Concert Hall. Once again, Alaskans felt compelled to complain about her existence. One Daily News comment read, “She burned this bridge a long time ago. Take a hike, Jewel!” A former Homer resident told the newspaper, “When she progressed in her career, I just think she betrayed the state.”

In an interview with Anchorage-based Associated Press reporter Rachel D’Oro, Jewel responded, “I consider myself a product of Alaska. The love and the debt that I feel to my home state, you always want your hometown to be the proudest of you and so it’s heartbreaking to hear people say snarky things.” She notably did not perform in Alaska again until 2017, when she headlined Salmonfest. Finally, the complaints seemed to dwindle away in favor of a “returning to her roots” narrative.

Key sources:

Carter, Dan. Letter to editor. “A Jewel of an Alternative.” Anchorage Daily News, November 25, 1999, B-12.

Clinton, Barbara. Letter to editor. “Alaska Should Disinherit Jewel.” Anchorage Daily News, November 25, 1999, B-12.

D’Oro, Rachel. “Jewel’s Return to Alaska Sparks Some Resentment.” Anchorage Daily News, August 19, 2009, A-1, A-12.

Dudick, J. Mark. “The Frown Jewel.” Anchorage Daily News, November 20, 1999, A-1, A-12.

Fricke, David. “Stone Temple Pilots: Stop Breaking Down. Rolling Stone, February 6, 1997, rollingstone.com/music/music-news/stone-temple-pilots-stop-breaking-down-241342/.

Gibson, Rebecca. Letter to editor. “Jewel Uses Alaska as Gimmick.” Anchorage Daily News, June 23, 1997, B-5.

Jewel. Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.

“Meg White’s Breakdown Causes White Stripes to Cancel Local Concert.” Anchorage Daily News, September 12, 2007, adn.com/voices/article/meg-whites-breakdown-causes-white-stripes-cancel-local-concert/2007/09/12/.

Rasmussen, Bill. Letter to editor. “Municipality Dealing With Y2K.” Anchorage Daily News, August 1, 1998, C-8.

Severson, Kim. “Fair Gets Lucky, and so Does State.” Anchorage Daily News, 8 insert, August 16, 1996, 23, 24.

Shroyer, Spencer. “Alaska Promoters Cautiously Bet Against Concert Cancellations.” Anchorage Daily News, February 5, 2005, E-1, E-2.


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