How strains of Mozart became mosh-pit roars

Carolina town fights over its concerts, revealing splits of taste, class, and culture.

By day, it's a land of suits and skirts, a maze of tidy lawns, two-story houses, and sprawling office complexes. And at night, many here hoped, that sense of civility would linger, with strains of Mozart and Brahms spilling across Symphony Lake from the amphitheater nearby.

But somewhere in the last three years, as this bedroom community of Cary, N.C., built Regency Park - a modernistic performance complex abutting a high-tech mirrored-glass officespace - a band that calls itself Poison took the stage instead, crooning, "Talk Dirty to Me."

The trio of '80s big-hair bands that headlined here this weekend, was another in a flurry of aging rock acts taking their shows to uncommonly genteel venues, sending mosh-pitters' roar and beer breath where the smell of magnolias once drifted. But the push by this town-owned stage to broaden its bill has touched off, also, dueling solos of class distinction. As highbrow suburbanites have turned up their noses at bands and fans that define their eras, it's become, to some, a lifestyle issue: Late-night headbanging concerts are hardly conducive to sleep or property values, after all. But to others, the rockers of Regency Park are a sign that rich little Cary is finally confronting a bit of suburban egalitarianism.

"If they're rich enough to buy a house here, they're rich enough to buy 100 acres out in the country and enjoy the quiet," says Gary Ammons, a lifelong Southerner from the mill-and-farming town of Sanford, N.C., tailgating here. Despite his tattoos and Harley, he came to Regency Park last week to see chick-crooner Chris Isaak. On Saturday, though, he's here with his friend Kelly Olsen, who wears a snug Poison tank top as "Highway to Hell" belts out on a Harley's beefy sound system.

Cary is known as a little taste of Yankeeville in Dixie, but an anomalous one even here in the New South: 75 percent of its residents come from New Jersey, New York, or Pennsylvania. Most of them choose soccer over football and their roof colors match, according to strict zoning laid out by the original "IBM-ers" who colonized this central North Carolina burg in the 1950s. On the rare day when it snows, they roll the antique fire truck down to the sledding hill for a nostalgic taste of the old Northeast they left behind.

The 7,000-seat Regency Park is one of the summer's up-and-coming "mini-sheds," drawing everyone from sassy Sheryl Crow to soft-voiced balladeer John Mayer, from the B-52s to that beat poet of the baby boomers, Bob Dylan. It's already being compared to Colorado's Red Rocks and Atlanta's Chastain Park. To many, its success is a rock-and-roll coup: arena bands in an intimate theater with flickering lights that mimic fireflies and a lakeside lawn of wiry zoysia grass.

But this weekend's Poison concert, with Vince Neil and Skid Row backing up, cranked the lifestyle - and noise - debate to an 11, as high-heeled boots and hair stiff and crackly with gel, vied with flip-flops - "Jerusalem cruisers," one headbanger sniffed - and Dave Matthews T-shirts.

To many, the tattoos, Harleys, and bandannas just don't mesh with a Cary ambience that's way more Martha Stewart than Metallica or Joan Baez.

When Caryites hear Bob Dylan at the Regency, belting out "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" so loud they can't watch "CSI: Miami," many are not about to pull out their lawn chairs and enjoy a musical legend. Instead, some bolt their sliding doors and seethe. Others complain to town officials - rather loudly - about the unexpected sonic dissonance and shattered expectations of a suburban oasis for the ears.

"How many times a summer can someone be subjected to their china rattling off the cabinets?" asks neighbor Curry Darlington.

Already the town has done a lot - even hiring monitors who drive through neighborhoods with microphones and decibel meters. Residents meet monthly with venue managers to discuss their concerns. A new contract - which doesn't apply to this summer's acts - requires managers to limit music to 90 decibels, just a little louder than an idling construction crane.

But at some point, say concert defenders, the right to rock is ingrained - even in the toniest suburbs. Cary Mayor Glen Lang, himself a fan of Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash, says longtime residents "have a right to whine" - but there's a limit to that license. "When there's a sense that what you like is more important than what somebody else likes, I find that offensive," he says.

To be sure, not all the neighbors in the million-dollar homes around the theater are shutting their ears. For Melanie Carroll, a real estate agent who lives in Lion's Gate, being able to sit on her porch and hear legends like Dylan and talented newcomers like Norah Jones crooning through the trees is positively dreamy. The B-52s, she admits, "were a little loud." But with sonic scrutiny high on Saturday night, Poison may have played its quietest concert of all time.

Still, the greatest potential perk of the park is missing, says Ms. Carroll. The North Carolina Symphony does come for Summerfest, but while bass solos bounce soundly across the lake from rock bands, the strains of Brahms lacks the muscle to carry over the water.

"The greatest irony," says Carroll, "is that we can hear Poison, but we can't hear the symphony."

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