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September 14, 2011

Good vibrations

Mayor Fischer talks music with LEO Weekly

On a warm Friday night in July, Mayor Greg Fischer greeted thousands of music fans at Waterfront Park. The mostly under-25 crowd had gathered at the Forecastle Festival to hear some of the freshest new dance and hip-hop sounds, only to be greeted by a guy who not only looks like their dad, but is also the embodiment of navy suit-wearing power. Little did they know that his love of Bob Marley is as great as his love of leading Louisville.

That night, Fischer was accompanying Forecastle founder J.K. McKnight, who told the crowd that Fischer had deep musical roots, having been a concert promoter while studying economics in college. Intrigued, LEO asked our mayor for an interview to discuss his musical interests. The discussion covered not only his wonder years, but also the troubles facing the Louisville Orchestra, the viability of local venues, My Morning Jacket, what’s on his iPod and his affinity for reggae.

LEO: I saw you at the Forecastle Festival, where J.K. McKnight told the crowd that you had been a concert promoter when you were in college.

Greg Fischer: When I was a college freshman, looking for something to sink my teeth into, I got involved with the concerts committee at Vanderbilt University. I actually started at the Good Woman Coffeehouse. It was two large dorm towers, and we had a coffeehouse in the basement. Being in Nashville, there were all kinds of opportunities for musicians that lived there and for folks that were just traveling through. The Good Woman held probably 200 people. The drinking age at that time was 18, so it was a very vibrant place. That’s really where I learned to be a small promoter and producer, and put on lights and music and things like that. From there, I went on and worked with the concerts committee. We were the largest student-run concert committee in the country, so we’d have about 25 concerts a year.

The best one ever was one of Bob Marley’s last shows in December of 1979. He died about a year later. They were doing a tour of the country … I was the co-chair of the committee, along with a guy named Steve Buchanan, who now runs Gaylord Entertainment. And the other guy that was with us was Ken Levitan. Ken is one of the biggest names in music now.

What happened was, the promoter for Bob Marley called and said, “We’d like to play Nashville.” I was always a big reggae fan, so I said, “That’s great! But we don’t have any money left, our semester’s budget has all been spent.” And he wanted to do it in a very short time frame ... So I said, “How much is Bob Marley?” “$25,000.” I said, “I’ll give you 6.” He said, “How about 8?” I said, “Done.”

So we put this Bob Marley show together in three weeks, and it was a wonderful experience. He was touring around the country, spreading a positive vibration …

That was one of the biggest. Ray Charles came there. What was really fun, too, was we had a blues festival in the fall, so Muddy Waters was the headliner, Paul Butterfield, and I think we had the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan’s band. We’d met Stevie Ray Vaughan six months before that. He was young, I think about 18 or 19. This would’ve been ’79. He was going to come and do a show for us, he was like $1,500. We were one of the early people to discover him. But his bus broke down in Mississippi. He called and said, “I need you to pay for fixing my bus to get to the show,” and we’d heard a lot of that kind of stuff, so it was like, we can’t do that.

It was a great education for me, because I negotiated the contracts and that type of thing, I had a lot of responsibility at an early age. It was like getting an MBA while I was in college; some people do sports or fraternities, but I did music and concert promotions.

LEO: How did you discover reggae in the ’70s, when you were a kid?

GF: I just liked the beat, I don’t know where I was originally introduced to it. Probably going to spring break in warm places, I guess (laughs), I don’t know.

LEO: That sounds like a Jimmy Buffett song.

GF: Yeah. But that’s led to some fun stuff now that I’m mayor. I think festivals are great because they bring people together to celebrate. You can have a wonderful event that people are drawn to by some common bond, whatever type of music it might be. I think it’s great to build these up from scratch, have people come and then leave with a positive vibration.

Louisville has a strong history of festivals, so we want to amplify that. I’ve always been a fan of J.K. McKnight’s because I went to his first Forecastle because I just notice these type of things. There was probably just a couple of hundred people at the first one in Tyler Park, and I’ve admired the way that he’s grown that over the years, and I think his association with AC Entertainment … is going to be very good for Louisville.

LEO: Do you think it can be as big as Bonnaroo or Coachella, or one of the larger festivals?

GF: Forecastle? I hope that they see that as a different type of product than Bonnaroo. It’ll grow and be very successful, but I think Bonnaroo has its own stand-alone kind of deal. Now, I do hope that we can have some kind of strategic partnership with AC Entertainment, one way or another.

I know we’ve got other venues here in town that we need to start to optimize, like Iroquois Amphitheater should be a must-stop for bands coming through the Southeast. I’d like to see tens and tens and tens of shows there, to where you’re thinking, “We don’t have anything going on this weekend, let’s see what’s playing at the amphitheater.” And that should be people within a 100-mile radius, from Louisville to Cincinnati to Lexington to Nashville, should be thinking about that. We’ve got a great venue there, it’s just not being utilized that way. Louisville Gardens has got a way to go. It’s a nice, 5,000-seat indoor venue — we don’t have anything like that that’s active for entertainment, so it needs an upgrade. That will be a part, I hope, of the whole Center City solution, that will draw a lot more people to come to town, as well.

Headliners seems to be doing well. They’ve got new ownership there, and they seem to be doing a good job. We’ve got a lot of places for outdoor concerts — Waterfront Wednesday’s been amazing, what’s happening with that. Is the new location permanent, do you know?

LEO: I don’t know if it’s confirmed as the permanent location.

GF: That’s added a real nice element to it, being there by the ramp to the bridge — and that amphitheater’s there by Waterfront Park. That’s a great venue. I think we’ve got a lot of potential that’s not being touched on as a city. We’re certainly big enough to support these acts in the city, in the region, so we’ll be working on that.

LEO: So what’s on your iPod right now?

GF: Well, most of my kids’ music is what’s on there. I’m kind of stuck in reggae, really.

LEO: Really?

GF: Yeah.

LEO: Do you keep up with it, or just the classic stuff?

GF: You know, Bob Marley’s kids have actually done some good music, so I like the classic reggae. Some of the newer reggae, from the 1980s on, the more DJ kind of stuff — you know, the stuff that was the precursor to rap, really — I’m not so much into that …

… Van Morrison … and I am a My Morning Jacket fan. I think they put on a great show. Did you go to the show that was here a couple of months ago?

LEO: Yes.

GF: What was the gal’s name that sang with them?

LEO: Erykah Badu.

GF: Yeah, I mean, she was over the top, I thought. That was just a beautiful, beautiful combination. So, I need to expand more into the modern era, I’m not taking the time to do that … if you would lend me your iPod, or give me a suggested playlist, I’d be interested in that.

What 91.9 plays, I tend to like that; I don’t know if that means I’m getting older, I don’t know … Ben Sollee, another good guy who does some very interesting stuff. You don’t have to look far to find good music. I tend not to like stuff that’s jarring. I just tend to like to get into a groove and not be too assaulted by the music.

LEO: What about the orchestra, what do you suggest for their situation?

GF: You know, one twist on that that not many people are talking about — and I’ve spoken to J.K. about that — is, “What are orchestras doing to be more popular among younger listeners?” There’s emerging, independent local music and the orchestra. We should be really vibrant here, we’ve got a great local music scene and part of that is the orchestra. Regardless of whatever the resolution is, we’ve got to see that come back. (Late last month) I met with management and some of the players. They’re far apart.

What makes this complicated is that it’s a financial situation, but then it’s an artistic situation, too. To play at the opera in the pit, that’s what, a 40-member orchestra? And the full classical orchestra is 70, 72, something like that? So there’s several moving parts to figuring this out. You can’t just say, “We’re gonna have 40 players and that’s it,” because then you can’t do a full repertoire of what the orchestra can do. So, I’m not qualified to make those judgments. What we’ve encouraged them to do, to help them, is to get a consultant that they both agree on, that understands the financial aspects and the musical aspects. The city, obviously, wants its orchestra, but it’s got to be a financially viable plan to where it’s not dependent on rescue donors every year. I’ve talked to these rescue donors, and they’re all saying, “We need a long-term, sustainable plan to figure it out.” I’m hopeful that will occur. It’s not like we’re the only city fighting this battle, there’s a bunch of other cities that we can learn from, in terms of what works in an artistic sense and from a budgetary sense, as well. You got any ideas?

LEO: Nope.

GF: Are you a musician?

LEO: No. Do you play anything?

GF: No. Our kids all play drums or piano or violin, but I’m pretty clueless.

I always wanted to be a good blues harp player, harmonica player. When we were in Nashville, Tim Krekel was living in Nashville at the time, making a living as a songwriter. He and a guy named Fingers Taylor were good buddies. Fingers was the harmonica player for the Jimmy Buffett band, that’s where those guys hooked up. So, we would do these independent parties, they’d bring all their guys in, I think they called it the “All-Star Rock and Roll Revue” or something like that. These guys were hardcore rockers in their day. So we’d asked them to play, “Sure,” just whoever’s gonna show up is gonna show up. They’d play at one of our houses. They were friends and associates and just great musicians. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring their buddies and jam, all kinds of people would show up and really enjoy it.

College is a unique time, especially when you can enjoy music and be exposed to music. I think it was a great influence on me, I learned a lot about business and finance and management, as well.

A couple of years ago, I meshed my interests in interfaith activity — I’ve done a lot with the Festival of Faiths here — and music. One night, I brought 25 musicians to town, called “Roads To You.” They were 25 musicians under the age of 25 from all over the world, so you end up with Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians playing music together. We had 75 different shows within one big period. Part of the deal was the kids would play great music, then talk about their countries and their lives. Say, “OK, Muslims and Jews make good music together, why doesn’t the world work that way?” So we’ve used that as an opportunity to teach kids about international music and international relations, as well. It was a really great week for the community, great cultural, musical, interfaith week for the city. 

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