At some point or another, many of us Louisvillians have found ourselves driving home from Cincinnati or St. Louis or Nashville or Indianapolis at 2 o’clock in the morning, adrenaline-rushed and sleepy, all for the sake of seeing a good show. At the very least, we’ve complained more than once about a touring act that skips right on past the nation’s 16th (or 26th) largest city.
It could be argued that these scenarios play out far too often for a city with such a rich history. Doesn’t our late-’80s/early-’90s underground scene grant us some kind of special status? Shouldn’t people be dying to be part of Louisville’s scene?
For example, once upon a time, bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers played a local, all-ages venue called Tewligans, in the space now occupied by Cahoots. In 2000, the Chili Peppers played Freedom Hall, but this summer, the closest they’ll get to Louisville is Chicago.
Not that long ago, the Louisville-based Initial Records got national attention. Playboy, of course, dubbed Louisville a music mecca. That was almost 10 years ago, though, and these days most of the national media attention directed at Louisville seems to focus on our visual arts scene. That also seems to coincide with a general decrease in the number of national acts performing here. What was once an obsession with waterfront development — inferences from public figures about a venue on the river, perhaps a tie-in with what would become Waterfront Park — has been washed over by a river of trolley hops and a plethora of museum and gallery openings.
At any rate, those two facets of culture — music and art — don’t need to cancel one another out. In fact, each plays on the other quite well, as history has shown, and this town is most assuredly big enough for both.
In many respects, Louisville is a town of substantial musical talent and output, and yet, for whatever reason, bands too often play to minuscule crowds in their own hometown. Some musicians who tour regionally will tell you they see bigger crowds in cities like Columbus, Ohio or Indianapolis, but without a fairly absurd amount of research, who’s to say if it’s not apocryphal? And that, in essence, is an inherent flaw to this very discussion.
So, buying the premise that there is something wrong with our once-flourishing scene, you might begin devising a fix by identifying who, in fact, is responsible for doing so. Can the city of Louisville provide support for the scene we’d like to have? Should it?
The answer may actually involve the music fan — you — getting up off your ass, and letting yourself be surprised by a show.
Look who’s coming to town
Take a quick look at 2006 summer tours and it seems pretty clear that Louisville is not getting the big shows. In fact, none of the artists listed in a recent list of ear X-tacy’s top 10-selling albums will make a stop here. The closest the Raconteurs came, for example, was Cleveland in June (they’re also playing Lollapalooza in Chicago). The nearest Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen (with his 18-piece Seeger Sessions Band) came was Noblesville; Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris played in Chicago; and so on.
The problem is fairly simple: too many mid-sized cities in the same area. Myriad factors, from the lack of a suitable venue to concert-buyers who won’t take the risks, mean Cincinnati, Indy, Chicago and Nashville will beat Louisville almost every time.
So who is coming to Louisville?
Production Simple — the production company that boasts as senior partner Billy Hardison, a veteran Louisville promoter — is pulling a majority of mid-level acts. Many of these shows are billed as part of the Simple 5 Series, which clusters together five shows of varying sizes into a series with the intent of offering exposure to smaller acts. The shows are usually at Louisville’s largest small venue, Headliners, and less frequently at the Clear Channel-owned Palace Theatre or the Brown. (Popular performers in the series have included Jolie Holland, Lucero and Beth Orton, each of whom has built a following and performed here several times. The shows are a bargain at five bucks, which is a good incentive for locals to come out for something they might not’ve heard, or get a deal on some of their favorites.)
WFPK-FM, the music-oriented public radio station that pushes the AAA format here, is host to its own summer series, Waterfront Wednesdays. On the last Wednesday of each month, starting at 5 p.m., you can catch three or so performers on Waterfront Park’s Harbor Lawn for free. While WFPK isn’t booking Pearl Jam or the Dixie Chicks (again, ear X-tacy’s top sellers), it is promoting its playlist. Performers like Martin Sexton and Jackie Greene, who are getting significant airplay, have already played this year. Also, the station has figured out how to utilize the waterfront as a venue, albeit seasonal — something many of us wished for our updated public space on the Ohio, when public chatter about what would become Waterfront Park made some people froth with the possibility of a good venue.
Catering to a different crowd is local label Auxiliary Records. For the entire year, brothers Ryan and Evan Patterson have offered an all-ages show on the last Saturday of each month, the aptly-titled Last Saturday Show Series. Invoking the local music scene of yesteryear, these events highlight Louisville bands as well as out-of-towners, bringing in hardcore and underground acts that are unlikely to show up anywhere else in town. Like the other two series, Last Saturday is affordable (but not free) and dedicated to one venue — the Keswick Democratic Club on Logan Street. Unlike the other two, Last Saturday is run and supported by musicians, another reason it resembles the way things used to be … during the era for which Louisville is now famous.
Louisville musician Aaron Hodge says local bands used to nurture the scene by following a set of unwritten rules. Hodge now produces electronic music with Brian Huffines under the name The Radium Screen; he fronted the band Wino during the mid-’90s. He has a theory about why Louisville doesn’t draw as many out-of-town indie rockers as it did when bands like Wino were around.
One of the rules then, he says, was that bands didn’t play more than once every few months, which helped ensure a big turnout every time. That’s appealing to non-local musicians looking to tack onto a show that will help fund their tour. As such, Hodge puts the onus of getting good shows on Louisville musicians.
“If the local bands were filling up the clubs,” he says, “the promoters would be willing to bring in whoever.”
But Carrie Neumayer, a member of the band Second Story Man and also a longtime show-goer, says local bands are filling up the clubs. “Scott Carney, for example, can play five times in two months and draw huge crowds every time.”
Neumayer agrees with Hodge that local bands have the power to bring in out-of-town bands; like Hodge, she remembers a loose system that allowed out-of-towners to rely on the popularity and generosity of local bands.
“The old way was you help out bands from other towns and they will help you out; it’s kind of a trade,” she says. “And that still happens, but I don’t think it happens nearly as much as it did in the late ’90s.”
But perhaps the Last Saturday series is modeling a better way; nearly everyone cites its ability to capitalize on this exchange method (capital referring to good shows, not money).
Demonstrating how the series supports his theory, Hodge says, “Ryan and Evan Patterson brought in Vaz, which is a band I know not many people have heard of. It’s an incredible band, and they had the local bands there that were drawing in the people, a lot of people got to see them play, and they seemed to enjoy it. Now, if that band ever comes back through, people saw them.”
Ryan Patterson acknowledges drawing heavily on Louisville’s past.
“Ultimately, we just wanted to put on great shows that could inspire others in the way we were inspired by Louisville shows through the years.”
As far as underground shows go, it appears that Louisville is able to rely on its local scene to attract out-of-town bands, which, taken in a broader context, is a little inverted.
Why won’t they come?
The Simple 5 Series (and Production Simple in general) reaches beyond the underground scene and is able to use the bigger national names to increase attention given to smaller out-of-town bands and local bands alike — almost the opposite kind of give-and-take the Patterson brothers are doing — but still following a similar method of exchange.
Hardison says he works hard to make performers happy so they will come back, citing Orton and Holland as prime examples. Built to Spill will return soon, he promises, although the band left Louisville off its (very busy) summer tour.
“It makes sense, in a region where people are conditioned to travel, to skip Louisville when they are playing Indy, Nashville and Cincy in the same leg,” he says. “Their desire to wait only helps me. They had such a great time here
that I can guarantee you that we’ll see them before next summer.”
Hardison has a reasonable explanation for why the Chili Peppers (and their ilk) won’t be in Louisville this summer.
“A band like that would likely be willing to play here if a promoter was willing to put up the money,” he says.
“We don’t have any local promoters with that much jack, and the out-of-town promoters that do have the cash will want to look at markets that have a better financial history with the artist.”
Nick Sprouse is the talent buyer and general manager at The Dame, one of Lexington’s most utilized venues, comparable on scale to Headliners, but a bit smaller.
“Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the talent buyers to book the shows for their respective venues,” he says. “A supportive city government, local musicians and loyal concert-goers go a long way to helping things along, however.”
Perhaps because of the University of Kentucky, as well as an eager, music-hungry constituency, Lexington has been the beneficiary — historically — of seemingly inordinate attention from bands and tours, both mainstream and underground. Matt Jordan is the promotions director for WRFL-FM, the University of Kentucky’s impressive Lexington-based radio station.
“Not a year goes by that I don’t remark how amazing it is that Lexington is able to pull in such great shows,” he says. “I think that’s largely thanks to a great number of people who get involved and refuse to settle for substandard music. There are a lot of bands (for example, Andrew Bird, Anathallo, Page France) that have built a fan base in Lexington over the years and wouldn’t dare leave it off their schedule. And the reason why most of them came here in the first place is because of dedicated fans, venues or radio stations like WRFL, who are committed to serving the community with good music.”
Go to shows, damn you!
To boil this down, we could say it’s all about two things: Money (on the promotions end) and money (on the patrons’ end). But that, of course, would be oversimplifying.
Besides bigger rock venues (another obvious theme) and wealthier promoters, there is also a changing consumer culture to grapple with. The advent of the age of independent, utterly programmable entertainment (see Jason Noble’s story, page 15) has quickly provided an unanticipated level of insulation between you and your favorite band. In a phrase, you don’t have to leave your house for the live experience anymore.
Some argue that the major affliction in cities like Louisville is the under-evolved Midwestern pedestrian night culture, which says, simply, don’t go out unless it’s a weekend. That makes bringing good shows problematic.
For everyone’s sake, don’t buy these company lines.
The most probable and simple solution, offered by many of the people who know first-hand how difficult it is to book good shows, is fan support. To paraphrase them collectively: Stop bitching and cough up a few bucks to see the bands you love — local and out-of-town — as well as some you’ve never heard of. Don’t be afraid to catch onto something new.
Or, to quote Louisville DJ and all-around well-reputed music junkie Kim Sorise, who says it much more eloquently: “Pay to see the bands you love and want to see. I have been privy to the perks of the guest list, but it needs to be used very sparingly. Anyone that has ever been on tour, put up a band on their sofa or floor, is aware that every dollar counts. Art and time is money; musicians deserve to be paid and paid well.”
Jessica Farquhar is a Louisville writer and record critic for the LEO Music Desk whose faith in the ability to see a good show in Louisville, to get turned on by a new band buzzing through town unexpectedly, is still fairly intact. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org