Welcome Back To Pine Knob: Detroit-Area Amphitheater Comes Full Circle

By Gary Graff

Sue Plummer was a teenager and rock ‘n’ roll fan living on Detroit’s east side when she, her younger sister and their mother headed to “the boondocks” to see David Cassidy play the first show at Pine Knob Music Theatre on June 25, 1972.

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Musician Bob Seger performs at the Pine Knob Music Theater, Clarkson, Michigan, August 26, 1986. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

For Plummer, more of a Led Zeppelin and Who fan, the new venue was as alluring as the Partridge Family’s teen heartthrob.

“I didn’t know what Pine Knob was, where we were going, what it would be like,” recalls Plummer, now a music photographer. She’s frequently shot acts at the amphitheater and has been pulled onstage to dance there on multiple occasions, by the J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf. “When we got there, it was like, ‘This is cool.’ We liked the vibe. We just felt like, ‘This is the place to be. This is the place to go and have fun.’”

Not much has changed 50 years later.

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This year’s biggest change at Pine Knob, in fact, is that it’s Pine Knob again. Since 2001 the 13.5-acre venue, situated about 40 miles northwest of downtown Detroit in Independence Township, was called DTE Energy Music Theatre, although most performers and patrons referred to it by its original name.

The change, announced in January, took place after DTE Energy decided not to renew its deal after the original 20-year term expired.

The transition back to Pine Knob has generated enthusiasm from all quarters, including social media.

“When we made the announcement, we did think we’d get some attention, but the response was way beyond our expectations,” said Howard Handler, president of Detroit’s 313 Presents, the venue’s operator and booking entity.

313 Presents is a joint venture between Ilitch Sports & Entertainment and Pistons Sports & Entertainment. Pistons Sports, formerly Palace Sports & Entertainment, owns the property.

Handler knows Pine Knob well. He worked as a security guard, referred to as Rangers, as a teenager during the summer of 1978.

“When we announced bringing back the name Pine Knob, everyone rejoiced,” Handler said. “We tapped into something special. This legendary venue is full of so many different memories and tells a story of serious innovations and a number of firsts.”

Outdoor concerts were not unheard of back in 1972. In the Detroit area, the nearby Meadow Brook Music Festival (now Meadow Brook Amphitheatre and now booked by 313 Presents) played host to live shows in addition to being the summer home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But facilities such as Wolf Trap in Virginia, Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Ravinia Festival near Chicago leaned toward the high culture of classical music, musical theater and the occasional comedian. There were no full-time venues for rock and other forms of popular music.

Enter Pine Knob. The venue was built and originally managed by The Nederlander Organization. The old Palace Sports & Entertainment acquired the amphitheater in November 1990. Capacity expanded from 12,500 to 15,040 in the early 1980s.

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Howard Handler, President of 313 Presents (L) and Rob Casalou, President and CEO of Trinity Health & Trinity Health Southeast Regions pose in front of the Trinity Health VIP Entrance during its unveiling at Pine Knob Music Theatre on May 20, 2022 in Clarkston, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Cassidy’s matinee concert that day in 1972 was followed by a more sedate five nights with Andy Williams and Quincy Jones. The first-year lineup was stacked with variety that would become Pine Knob’s hallmark, from homegrown Motown favorites such as Smokey Robinson and Junior Walker & the All-Stars to rockers Chuck Berry, James Gang, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, plus The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Pearl Bailey and a pairing of Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini.

In addition, Pine Knob booked five nights of the musical “Hair.”

Chicago played a multi-night stand during August 1972, the first five of 81 shows that made the group Pine Knob’s most frequent visitor (number 82 takes place July 26).

“Even with a band name like Chicago, I’ve always felt that the audiences at Pine Knob have always kind of held us in their hearts,” said singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm. “It really became a home away from home for us.”

The group also started a tradition of playing softball games against Pine Knob staff, competitive affairs the band says it usually won, but sometimes with minor injuries the group would bring to the stage.

“Truth be told, I think we got a little more concerned with the game than we did with the gig sometimes,” trumpeter Lee Loughnane said with a laugh.

Besides its bucolic setting, with a general admission lawn that sprawls behind the pavilion, part of Pine Knob’s allure for performers was a low-slung stage, which brings the artists up close and personal with audiences.

There was no stopping the venue after that first season. Since 1972, Pine Knob has played host to 3,100 events; during the summer of 1978 it filled a whopping 99 dates, which is remarkable considering the short summers, weather-wise, in Michigan.

Hometown hero Bob Seger’s 33 concerts there were commemorated in June 2019, when the venue address was changed to 33 Bob Seger Drive, about five months before he played his final Michigan show there.

In August 2015, Kid Rock, whose real name is Robert Ritchie, another Detroit native and an artist that made so many guest appearances with other acts that the facility was nicknamed “Pine Bob,” set an attendance record with 10 sold-out shows drawing 145,000 fans.

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CLARKSTON, MI – AUGUST 14: Kid Rock performs during the $20 Best Night Ever Tour at DTE Energy Music Theater on August 14, 2013 in Clarkston, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Peter Frampton, Barenaked Ladies, J. Geils Band, Steve Miller Band and Def Leppard have all recorded live albums and videos at the shed.

Joni Mitchell took the cover image of her 1974 concert set “Miles of Aisles” in the pavilion.
Seger and Bruce Springsteen first met backstage at Pine Knob on Sept. 2, 1978.

Bette Midler famously collapsed from heat exhaustion during a 1983 performance.
In June of 1996 Sarah McLachlan used Pine Knob as one of four stops to test her successful Lilith Fair tour that went out the following year.

Garth Brooks played a surprise acoustic solo set during the 99.5 WYCD Hoedown on June 15, 2019.

“It’s not only the history,” said Dave Clark, president of Live Nation’s Great Lakes Region, Pine Knob’s primary promoter. Clark began attending shows there as a teenage fan during the mid-1980s.

“It’s a venue where fans have a great time, regardless of who’s playing,” he said. “When you’re a venue that can sustain itself for 50 years and continue to have the attendance that it’s had for all these years, it shows that metro Detroit music fans just love going to the place.”

Pine Knob, originally among the nation’s biggest amphitheaters, is now on the smaller end of the scale, which can work to its advantage.

“Although it’s an amphitheater it does feel intimate when you’re there as a fan,” Clark said. “The consistency of sales in the building really gives it that comfort factor for a lot of (artists) to say, ‘OK, we’re gonna play Pine Knob.’”

313 Presents’ Handler said the time was right to reclaim the Pine Knob brand. Discussions began in earnest during the pandemic, as the second decade of DTE Energy’s naming rights sponsorship neared its conclusion.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, cool, let’s do this,’” Handler said. “We talked to several hundred guests and stakeholders and artists. The (change) is the result of several months of work and research and creative development and listening to people.”

“The equity in the Pine Knob name is undeniable, and it was just so obvious,” he said. “Night after night, performers come on stage, even ones that never played there when it was Pine Knob, and say ‘Hello Pine Knob!’ We know that there was a lot of passion and a great connection to all of that, so it was just a question of striking the right balance and to deliver something meaningful back to the community and be true to our business and find a new sponsorship model.”

313 Presents found willing partners in three metro Detroit firms, United Wholesale Mortgage (UMW), Trinity Health and the digital finance services company Ally, striking deals for presenting sponsorships.

The value for each of those “proud partner” deals runs about $750,000 annually, sources previously said. All three agreements have longer terms than the typical three- to five-year deals for amphitheaters, Handler said.

“When they said they were bringing Pine Knob back, it was just so powerful,” says UWM Chief Marketing Officer Sarah DeCiantis, who directed Palace Sports & Entertainment’s corporate partnership marketing several years ago. “The Pine Knob name is so well-loved, and it’s revered as one of the greatest outdoor amphitheaters. We would have been interested in a naming rights partnership, but that was a no-go. It would’ve been pretty short-sighted.”

Pine Knob patrons will recognize the new partners. The venue’s three entrances are branded for the three sponsors: UWM owns the west entrance, Ally has the east entrance and Trinity Health the VIP area, which includes the Ivy Lounge for season ticket holders.

The new Pine Knob logo is prominently displayed on the aisle seats and other locations.
A 50th anniversary photo exhibit featuring 150 images by 17 photographers sits outside the east entrance as well as in a special section of the 313 Presents website, and the company has a 50th anniversary banner backstage for artists to sign.

313 Presents has booked about 50 concerts at Pine Knob this season, which kicked off May 27 with AJR. Patrons that night received a commemorative sticker. On June 25, marking the day of the 50th anniversary, those attending the 99.5 WYCD Hoedown, headlined by Brooks & Dunn, were set to receive a commemorative poster listing all the acts that have played Pine Knob over the years.

“The rebranding couldn’t have come at a better time, of course,” Handler says. “It is the 50th anniversary. We’ve got some great programming on tap. The lineup is jam-packed. It’s just so much fun to be saying, ‘Welcome to Pine Knob again.’”

“I can’t wait to get on stage and say, ‘Hello Pine Knob’ and have it be Pine Knob again,” said Barenaked Ladies guitarist Ed Robertson. “That’s gonna feel so right.”