Red Rocks in the Redwoods? Exploring the Quarry Amphitheatre’s potential to become an elite concert venue

The view from above the Quarry shows its magical potential.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Newly renovated and reopened in 2017, the Quarry at UC Santa Cruz was shut down for a year due to the pandemic. Now, it’s working to be a player in the wired future for live music in the post-COVID-19 world.

If performance venues were cars, the Quarry at UC Santa Cruz might be that fully restored, rebuilt, and tricked-out sky-blue ’64 Chevy Corvette that’s been parked in the garage for more than a year and has never been taken out full-throttle on the open road.

But a beauty like this can’t sit idle for long.

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The Quarry is now a kind of haunted dreamland, a beautiful bowl-shaped amphitheater just steps from the Bay Tree Bookstore in the center of campus. In recent years, it’s been the site of a handful of concerts and a few commencement ceremonies. But its potential is bigger still.

This is a place that invites you to imagine one of those brand-name artists you might see at Villa Montalvo or Shoreline Amphitheatre on stage performing for a couple of thousand people, commenting to the rapt crowd between songs, “Wow, this is a nice place.”

On a recent visit to the Quarry, the site’s manager, Jose Reyes-Olivas, referred to it half-facetiously as “Red Rocks in the Redwoods,” a reference to the legendary outdoor concert venue in Colorado. That tag alludes as much to the venue’s ambition to one day host big-name acts as it does to the site’s natural beauty.

Reyes-Olivas is reluctant to name specific artists or bands he’d like to see perform in the Quarry one day. But clearly, his ambition is to get the venue into the minds of artists, touring agents, and concert promoters in hopes that it might live up to the Red Rocks comparison.

‘COVID just knocked us out’

In its previous incarnation, in the first decades of the UCSC’s history, the Quarry was a campus touchstone, a site that once regularly hosted lectures and performances, occasionally by well-known figures such as Buckminster Fuller and Joan Baez. But over the years, the amphitheater fell into disrepair and was even closed to visitors for years.

In 2017, however, Reyes-Olivas and his team reopened a newly renovated Quarry, outfitting it with the latest in digital transmission capability. In the fall of ’17, the Quarry welcomed the neo-psychedelic band Chicano Batman.

Jose Reyes-Olivas wants to teach UCSC students the art of putting on a show.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We really hit the ground running,” said Reyes-Olivas. “As soon as we opened the facility, we really wanted to showcase what it was capable of doing.”

A few more concerts and commencements followed until the winter of 2020. Then, the pandemic put an abrupt halt to steady progress on the site.

“We were in the midst of having our busiest spring ever,” said Reyes-Olivas. Famed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood was scheduled to speak at the venue. The university’s astronomy department developed a program. Another concert for the students was planned.

All of it was scrapped. “COVID just knocked us out,” said Reyes-Olivas.

With more than a year inactive, whatever momentum the Quarry had in its effort to grow into the status of a major concert venue has evaporated. “With the majority of my associates in the concert industry,” Reyes-Olivas said, “this has been a nightmare beyond words.”

There are currently no plans to stage anything at the Quarry in 2021. But, in future years, is it possible we could see big-name headliners at the Quarry?

“That’s the vision,” he said.

The ‘Quarry Amphitheatre Production Academy’

Reyes-Olivas has even grander plans than hosting rock stars. He’s a protégé of legendary concert promoter Tom Campbell, who put together benefit shows for years including the famous “No Nukes” show.

He also looked to Moe’s Alley club owner Bill Welch as a mentor, and worked as the operations director at San Francisco’s Stern Grove. He’s worked on many high-level, big-budget events.

What he wants to do at UCSC is to teach the art of putting on a show, from house management and artists relations to security and logistics. He calls it the “Quarry Amphitheatre Production Academy,” partially tongue-in-cheek given that he’s not faculty and has no formal curriculum.

Reyes-Olivas' is looking forward to passing on his experience in music event production.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I want to give a lot of students of color and working-class kids the opportunity to see themselves in this role because ...” and he pauses, “it’s magical.”

To learn how to produce shows, you must produce shows. And when the concert economy finally opens up again, Reyes-Olivas believes the Quarry will be well-positioned to take advantage of the new normal now emerging.

A big part of that optimism is the site’s digital capabilities. During the pandemic, virtual events took the place of in-person events, but once the all-clear is issued, there is a widespread belief that streaming will not go away and will instead emerge in a kind of hybrid model.

The Quarry — with a terraced-seating capacity of about 2,600 — may not have much in the way of, say, green-room facilities. But it is equipped to the gills in wi-fi access points.

“We can have up to 2,000 wireless units logged on at the same time,” said Reyes-Olivas. “We can stream high-quality content with very little latency with incredibly fast upload and download speeds.”

UC Santa Cruz's Quarry Amphitheater
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Quarry has been exploring the on-line world by offering a series of virtual concerts aimed at UCSC students, including a show in February by Mexican indie-pop singer Carla Morrison.

There are still big questions to ponder before the Quarry takes its place among elite concert venues in the greater Bay Area — including security, parking, green rooms and more.

“Look at where we’re standing,” said Reyes-Olivas, taking me on a walking tour of the site. “It’s like a chapel here. When we can figure out how to make it a real multi-use facility where there’s a lot more activities going on for the student networks, and then how to book the facility where we have a fair deal with bookers and promoters.

“This market is a solid market. Santa Cruz gets wonderful live music. It’s really where we land in the routing, in this beautiful little pocket. But we’ll get there.”

For more historical perspective on the Quarry, check out this UCSC video produced in 2015, two years before it was reopened.


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