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Promoter Mike Luba on Forest Hills' Fifth Anniversary and Being the 'Antidote' To Madison Square Garden

Forest Hills Stadium
Bojan Hohnjec

Forest Hills Stadium

Five years after its reopening, the venue's 2018 lineup includes Arctic Monkeys, Jamiroquai and Maxwell.

In 2013, promoter Mike Luba remembers watching Mumford & Sons reopen the old-school tennis stadium turned concert venue Forest Hills: “It felt pretty awesome. It was also pretty nutty,” he tells Billboard. “We learned a lifetime in that first night, because the stadium revealed what worked and what didn’t work. We didn’t have a permanent stage at that point, we didn’t have any seats, we had no aisles, we had no handrails, the bathrooms were in the wrong places and we had 17,000 people -- our capacity now is around 13,000. There were definitely moments where I was [thinking], ‘If this thing goes the wrong way we’re going to be one and done and that will be it.’"

Fast forward five years, and the outdoor Queens venue is now celebrating an impressive summer lineup including Arctic Monkeys, Jamiroquai, Van Morrison with Willie Nelson & Family, Maxwell’s Black Summer Night For Social Justice, Portugal. The Man and more.

Luba and his partner Don Sullivan -- who together lead Madison House Presents -- are always trying to push the envelope with the acts they book. “We very much try to curate it, as opposed to it just being whoever is out on tour,” Luba says. “When we started, [we booked] bands who we had either worked directly with or had slept on our couch or we were personally cashing in chips with to give it a shot.”

But after last summer ended, Luba says the calls were coming in from agents and artists who were already looking ahead to 2018. “This felt like the first year where we’re in the ether of places that people have to at least pay attention to.”

The current attention and acknowledgement of Forest Hills is an immense improvement from when Luba first eyed the venue for restoration. He remembers standing on a corner “literally two blocks from the stadium” to stop random people on the street and ask if they knew where Forest Hills was located. “Out of 100 people, two had heard of the stadium and 98 of them couldn’t point [me] in the right direction.”

Similarly, after Luba and Sullivan first presented their plan to restore the stadium, “people thought we were aliens,” he recalls.“There was definitely a lot of, ‘No way in hell. Impossible. The neighborhood will never have it, the police will never have it, the borough will never have it.’ I think when everyone realized how serious we were and how committed we were to it, [they] really jumped on board.”

As for early concerns about reopening the venue in the middle of a growing residential area, Luba says, “We’re hyper-conscious that we are in a neighborhood, for sure. The shows end at 10 p.m., which wasn’t always a [selling-point], at least on the band’s side. It took a couple years for people to actually have the experience and realize, ‘Holy mackerel, I actually can play my whole headlining set, in the dark with the sunset behind me, and then I’m done and and it’s not 1 in the morning.’”

Aaron Dessner, guitarist for The National, which played Forest Hills in 2017 and will return this coming September for its own two-day curated event There’s No Leaving New York, says in the press release for this summer’s lineup: “Our show last October at Forest Hills was one of our favorite shows in the history of the band.” He cites the “incredible legacy of the place, and the fact that it still feels intimate even given its size,” as reasons for the band’s return this year (with guests Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Future Islands, Cat Power and more).

But what made Luba want to reopen a nearly abandoned stadium that was the original host of the U.S. Open? “The place had so much history and on the most basic, primal level the goal was to just bring it back and let it do its own thing, because when it was built in 1923, they put something special in its bones and we felt like our job was to be good stewards for it moving forward.”

And they have been. Since reopening, in addition to The National, the venue has hosted Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Flume, The xx, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and several other performers. Looking further ahead, Luba hopes to include more world music acts and eventually book a K-Pop show. “We try to really, as much as we possibly can, avoid the old white dudes with guitars syndrome, which is tricky sometimes, but we’re conscious of it.”

Lineup aside, the venue itself is equally enticing -- “It’s definitely a Twilight-zone experience,” Luba says of arriving to Forest Hills for the first time. “You cross under the bridge and all of a sudden, [you feel like] you’re in 1800s Europe.” Not only is Forest Hills an open-air venue surrounded by lush greenery, but it’s complete with secret speakeasies and, “the big final frontier” coming this summer, the property’s first-ever permanent and gender-neutral bathrooms. “We think that will be a game-changer for everyone’s experience,” Luba relates. “People can now bring their grandparents and not be horrified that they’re going to get locked in a plastic Porta Potty.”

With New York’s hyper-competitive market for live shows in mind, Luba knowingly admits, “We’re battling it out with Madison Square Garden and Barclays [Center], [but] as beautiful and swanky and slick as those places have become, we’re trying to be the antidote to that.”

Check out Forest Hills' full 2018 lineup below.

June 8 - Belle & Sebastian with Perfume Genius and Frankie Cosmos
June 9 - Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and The Head and the Heart (co-headline) with Hiss Golden Messenger
June 13 - Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters with special guest Sheryl Crow and Seth Lakeman
June 15 - alt-J with special guest Kamasi Washington
June 17 - Roger Daltrey performs The Who’s ‘TOMMY’ with The New York Pops
June 22 - Dropkick Murphys & Flogging Molly
July 24 – Arctic Monkeys
July 28 - The Life Tour: starring Boy George & Culture Club and The B-52s with special guest Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey
August 11 – Black Summers Night - A Concert for Social Justice: Maxwell with Fantasia, Jazmine Sullivan and Special Guests
August 17 - CAKE and Ben Folds with Tall Heights
August 18 - Russell Peters’ Deported World Tour
September 8 – Jamiroquai
September 12 - Van Morrison and Willie Nelson & Family
September 15 – David Byrne with Tune-Yards
September 22 - Portugal. The Man with Lucius
September 29-30 - The National presents: There’s No Leaving New York, with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Future Islands, Cat Power, Cigarettes After Sex, Phoebe Bridgers, U.S. Girls, Bully, Adia Victoria
October 6 - The Infatuation presents EEEEEATSCON Discover A Different Kind of Food Festival


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