Behind the scenes

Big acts in town in the past year have a person in common: Alisa Gilbert.

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Ticket time

Tickets for Saturday's Ziggy Marley concert are available at:

Ticketswest.com - 800-325-SEAT

Walla Walla Village Winery or by calling 525-9463

For more about the show, check out Marquee, in today's paper.

— Some of the biggest names in music have come through Walla Walla in the last year, brought to you by a woman whose name you've likely never heard.

Alisa Gilbert doesn't expect that to change even after you read this.

"Nobody will remember me in this," she said just a little more than a week before her latest booking: the Ziggy Marley concert at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds for this weekend.

People, she said, will remember the performance and the venue. Just as they did when Peter Frampton tore the proverbial roof off the radiant Cordiner Hall a few months ago.

What they also won't see is the intricate web of volunteers, scheduling and coordination that will be used to pull it all off -- from greeting Marley and his crew as they arrive to tending to every detail before their departure.

If you've wondered to yourself how a community whose biggest musical acts have largely come as an annual affair at the Walla Walla County Fair & Frontier Days has suddenly been a destination for the likes of guitarist and soloist Peter Frampton, American country singer and songwriter John Rich and blues performer Matt Schofield, look no further than Gilbert.

The longtime promoter -- a term that makes her squirm slightly with discomfort -- moved to Walla Walla from Alaska about two years ago when her husband was named chief executive officer for the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center.

She was quickly enamored with the culture of arts and the bustling wine industry. But among the theater performances, galleries, dance recitals and more noticed an absence of consistent big-name concerts in the community.

"Our community is going to Spokane, Portland and the Gorge to shows, paying three times as much as they could here," she lamented. "I think we can deliver a quality first-class performance right here."

She thinks they can also be done without stretching wallets too far. Case in point, the VIP tickets for Marley's sold-out show in Seattle went for $100 compared to $75 in Walla Walla.

Gilbert cut her teeth in promotions years ago with one of the country's biggest producers of entertainment and special events management, St. Louis-based Contemporary Productions. She continued with a production company on shows in Albuquerque.

Even when she didn't work for production firms, she was at the helm of major promotions and events coordination through her other jobs, including executive director for the American Cancer Society in Alaska and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

On her new path as a development specialist for the Walla Walla Community College Foundation shortly after moving to town, she couldn't help but notice the possibilities for more performances in the Valley. For the eighth annual Entwine event, a scholarship fundraiser for the community college, she booked country superstar Rich for a custom concert. At the time, he wasn't even touring.

That was a followup nearly one year ago to a performance at the school from Matt Schofield, who had been the British Blues Society's Blues Guitarist of the Year.

In March as a separate venture from the community college shows she'd put on, she arranged for Walla Walla to be a stop on Frampton's tour, marking the 35th anniversary of "Frampton Comes Alive!"

When word spread early this summer that Grammy-winning Rastafarian Ziggy Marley would be next to come to this off-the-beaten path farm town where local music lovers had previously told Gilbert consistent shows can't be supported here, jaws dropped.

As of last Friday, 1,000 tickets for this weekend's performance had been sold. Gilbert expects a crowd of about 1,800 at the fairgrounds Saturday.

So how did she do it? It started with a phone call, she said nonchalantly. That and careful selection of the artist who would be the right fit here; finding sponsors to help financially; coordinating the venue; and calling on a fleet of trusted volunteers.

The event is not just the show itself. It's a daylong family-friendly festival with food, music and vendors known as W2 Sun Splash.

That day will also include a separate exclusive screening of "MARLEY" at the Power House Theatre at noon. The film is a documentary, including never before seen footage, of the king of reggae Bob Marley, Ziggy's father. The younger Marley co-produced.

At the fairgrounds, nonprofit vendors will be set up to provide food and drinks. The Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market will serve as a beverage vendor; the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute will serve salmon chowder and huckleberry slush drinks; Shakespeare Walla Walla will have a beer and wine tent; and the College Place PTA will have a popcorn stand, Gilbert said. Opening acts will be Rubberneck and Campbell Davis & Co. before Marley's Wild N Free show begins at 8 p.m.

For Gilbert, Marley is a quintessential show for the community. He's accessible, easy to work with, has a good name and willing to come. If she has her way, there will be many more like this to follow, all elevating the local scene both for local residents and visitors.

As head of her own promotions company -- in addition to a day job for the Power House Theatre -- Gilbert serves as the so-called head hunter for the acts, chief negotiator and financial backer with help from sponsors for the shows. The work is a financial risk for her. But it's a calling she is content to answer for her love of music. "I tell my husband, some women buy handbags and shoes. I do this," she quipped. "I don't mind taking a risk."

She thinks back to her own first show. As a child in St. Louis, she remembers a neighborhood family whose patriarch was a stagehand. The family had tickets and backstage passes for Seals & Crofts, a duo whose songs then 8- or 9-year-old Gilbert were unfamiliar. It hardly mattered as she navigated the catacombs of Kiel Auditorium and came face to face with the artists. "I had no idea who they were," she recalled. "I only knew what I'd just heard."

It was an awe-inspiring moment that helped shape her love of music and one Gilbert hopes to re-create for others with every new show that comes through.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, in making it all happen is finding the right venue in the community. Different places seem more suited to different artists, but they all have to have capacity. Someday, if the movement for more acts continues to be a success, a dedicated venue would be a dream, Gilbert said.

Bringing the talent, she said, is certainly not the problem. She's already got the next show lined up: British blues guitarist Oli Brown at the Power House Theatre on Aug. 6. "Nobody's inaccessible to me. Nobody. But there has to be rhyme or reason for who comes here," she said.

"It's got to be about developing community. These types of activities reflect on our entire community. They have to go right."

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