The first show that I can remember seeing at Headliners was Smash Mouth. That’s definitely one of the least cool things I’ve ever admitted to, but it was 1999, and I was 17, just old enough to get into the show, and desperate for a live music experience. I never bought into “All Star,” but “Walkin’ On the Sun” was pretty great, and I freely admit to still liking that one. But I digress. This isn’t an article about that band. It’s a love letter to my favorite venue, one of the most important buildings in my life.
The first thing you notice, the first thing anyone notices, is the plane. I remember all of the theories, questions and rumors that we had that first time. Did it really crash there? “I heard they left it as a memorial to the dude who died.” Nearly 20 years later, I still smile every time I see it, which these days is several times a month, at least. I was there twice last week to see Luna and The Jesus and Mary Chain, and during the first night, I caught myself staring at the giant murals that have watched over everyone, and all the room’s incarnations, for decades. It’s easy to take yourself back in time in that room. The building itself was built in 1909, originally a cafeteria for a bottling company, and then a practice room for bands playing at the Seelbach and the Brown.
The murals were painted in 1939. They watched over us when my wife and I had our wedding reception there — a perfect, old-style decoration for such an event. When Jenn and I were planning where we wanted to be that day, Headliners became the natural first choice. It was the room that put us together. We were both there to see Father John Misty. I saved her from dudes who were hitting on her at the bar by pretending to be her boyfriend, and then became her real boyfriend. We had Sean Cannon introduce us (as Wild Stallions) at our reception while Matt Anthony DJ’d, and all of our friends and family present, which included nearly the entire staff. Speaking of, I also need to sing the praises of Billy Hardison, Joe Argabrite, John Grantz, Lizi Hagan, Matt Snow, Mez, Country and all the rest. They swooped in when the venue was having its troubles, and not only put it on a path to success, but in doing so, completely rewired and redirected the entire Louisville music scene. That group of people literally changed my life and made it better.
I remember one show in particular, before they took it over, that had become a regular occurrence. Kings of Leon were on stage and the room had been oversold. It was packed beyond the doors, and the air conditioning had gone out. 700 to 800 people crammed in there, every single one of us drenched in our own sweat, and Caleb Followill walked out in an all-leather outfit. I cannot imagine how long it took him to peel that off afterward.
In those early days, I would always find a way to sneak to the back door to meet the bands. Since there was no dressing room, they would have to hang around their bus. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon had their toddler, Coco, playing on the asphalt when I sheepishly got their autograph. Neil Finn was touring with his brother Tim when I got to pick his brain on a few of their early collabs. And one of my first industry jobs was promoting Elliott Smith’s XO. He and the crew were playing Wiffle ball in the lot before sound check, right below that crashed plane.
I’ve seen more shows in that room than I can remember, and had more revelatory moments than I can count. Justin Townes Earle once opened for Jason Isbell there. I stood against the right wall near the stage in complete awe of two of the greatest songwriters of our generation, both really just getting their start. Laura Marling once performed a complete album that she hadn’t even recorded yet. I don’t think I said a word the entire set. I’ve been pants-less on the stage. I should apologize to the murals for that one. I tried stand-up comedy a few times. I apologize to everyone for that. But, it was all of those moments that gave me so many memories. I’m so thankful for you, Headliners. Here’s to all the moments yet to come. •