Belly Up Aspen celebrates 10 years
January 23, 2015
Ten years ago, when Belly Up Aspen opened its doors for X Games weekend, it was a gamble, a surprise venture from music-business neophyte Michael Goldberg, who aimed to book live music 300 nights a year in this seasonal resort town.
This X Games weekend, as the club celebrates its 10th anniversary with performances by Skrillex, Wiz Khalifa and Chromeo, it's known across the U.S. for showcasing such premier acts in rare intimate shows, it's known as a proving ground for artists on the rise, and it's now a family business — with Goldberg and two of his sons at the helm.
"I've invaded this world," said Goldberg, an Oklahoma native who has lived in Aspen for 26 years and owned a jet-leasing business and the local sushi restaurant Matsuhisa before taking on Belly Up. "I came to it at 56 years of age. For them, they've grown up in it and in the business."
His sons, David, 26, and Danny, 25, both now serve with their dad as owners, talent buyers and operating managers of the club.
"I remember when he told me and I was like, 'You're going to open a music club! What the hell?'" David recalled with a laugh.
Danny began his time at the club as a teenager peeling potatoes in the kitchen and took an early interest in marketing and artist management. He went into the business, first working for William Morris Agency in Los Angeles and the concert promotion company C3, which produces events such as Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, in Austin, before coming home to help run Belly Up.
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David came back to work in the club after attending college at the University of Colorado, where he played defensive end on the football team.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Michael said, "because now I get to do this with two of my sons."
The Goldberg sons have taken a particular interest in production, keeping the club on the bleeding edge of lighting and sound technology, and installing a video-mapping projector last spring. They've also added a new dimension to Belly Up: artist management. They signed their first client, the Canadian rock duo Black Pistol Fire, last year.
As the club looks toward its second decade, it's almost taken for granted that Belly Up books some of music's big names with regularity. Those bookings began with early coups like Seal, Chris Isaak and Jimmy Buffett (who performed as Freddy and the Fishsticks).
"What I couldn't have predicted is that we'd be doing as many big acts — acts that play Red Rocks," Michael said. "That's somewhere that we've been able to grow over the years and proved to the music world that we can do those acts."
Over its first decade, the club has been agnostic when it comes to genre. You're as likely to see an Allman Brother there as a Marley brother, a globe-trotting DJ, a jam band, a rapper or a breaking rock group. Local acts also get their due in the occasional Local Artists Showcase.
Along the way, Belly Up has earned a national reputation. In 2013, Rolling Stone named it among its "Best Small Clubs in America," calling it, "an oasis in a ski-town concert scene that usually focuses on local singer-songwriters and itinerant jam bands."
Such accolades, and word of mouth in the industry from artists that have played here, have made it easier to land the big fish in recent years.
"They have an idea now of who we are and what we've done," David said.
After they come once, bands often tend to come back to Belly Up. Much like seeing a show there has become a bucket-list item for many live music fans, a growing number of prominent musicians make repeat stops at Belly Up.
"When we get those acts a second time, that means that this place really hit home for them," Danny said.
A number of big bands will go immediately from playing the 9,450-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver to play the Belly Up — less than one-twentieth the size. Last year, acts like Gary Clark, Jr. and Bassnectar came to Belly Up after filling Red Rocks.
Last May's sold-out, two-night Bassnectar run at Belly Up came in the doldrums of offseason and drew fans from 37 different states along with the local faithful.
"You'd go to Little Annie's, Cache Cache, Matsuhisa, and there were people in tie-dye and dreadlocks," David said. "It was Bassheads everywhere in town. It turned Aspen intro a mini festival. I've never seen anything like that."
The annual two-night Belly Up stand from Umphrey's McGee has become a similar gathering of national fans. The sold-out shows coming up in March drew ticket sales from 35 states.
Widespread Panic's three nights of shows at the club in 2012 was a stand-out event, with a line of fans camping out in sub-zero temperatures the night before tickets went on sale.
The Goldbergs aim to keep topping themselves, after seeing events like the Widespread series come together through years of persistence. Some acts, though, Michael said, simply can't scale down to the club's size. Marilyn Manson, for instance, has been on Belly Up's wish list from the start, but the goth rocker won't play without a massive stage guillotine. Classic rock legend Peter Frampton's stage show also is too big (Michael Goldberg was so keen on bringing Frampton to town that he offered to promote a show at the Wheeler Opera House, which also, it turns out, is too small for Frampton's stage spectacular).
In some cases, Belly Up has become the only small club that bands book on tour. Empire of the Sun, for instance, the Australian electronic duo, played two nights at Belly Up last year in the week between its two weekend shows in front of 90,000 fans at Coachella.
Aspen can't offer the usual attractions of major market radio play or a sizable college crowd, Michael noted, but other unique local perks can help land them. The club booked hot indie bands such as Alt-J and the Avett Brothers, for instance, because they are skiers.
The Avett Brothers, it's worth noting, played the club three times in a 14-month span in 2006 and 2007, before breaking out as one of the biggest-selling, most-sought acts in the world in 2009. The club has had a remarkable eye for talent, giving locals the chance to see bands in its cozy confines before they end up playing massive arenas and festivals. Sufjan Stevens played the club weeks after the July 2005 release of his album "Illinois," seemingly moments before he became a global phenomenon.
Booking artists on the brink of breaking out can be a risk, though, as buzz about them may not yet have penetrated the Aspen bubble. Acts that are selling out larger venues in big cities might play to a half-full room here. Most of the time, though, that's not the case, the Goldbergs said, though sometimes it takes some P.T. Barum-style promotional stunts. During the club's first year, for instance, Michael booked the little-known gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello, and offered a money-back guarantee to ticket-buyers who didn't like the show.
Skrillex, who plays during the club's anniversary weekend run Saturday, debuted at Belly Up in 2010 when he was still an underground DJ at a sold-out $25 show.
Skrillex (whose given name is Sonny Moore) is among the artists who have developed friendships with the Goldbergs and the Belly Up staff.
"We're friendly with Sonny," said David, "and we'd see him at festivals all over the United States and say 'Come back, come back,' and he'd say, 'We're trying to make it happen!'"
Michael Franti has become a particularly close friend of the club's owners and its staff, which now numbers more than 50 employees. In 2013, when Franti was starting his nonprofit, Do It For the Love, he reached out to the Goldbergs to help launch it. They did, with an event at Michael's home and a benefit concert at the club. Wayne Coyne, of the Oklahoma-born Flaming Lips, has also become close with the Goldbergs ("My only regret with Wayne is always the next morning," Michael quipped). G. Love, who crashed at the Goldberg house after a New Year's Eve 2011 gig, left his flamboyant stage suit in Goldberg's closet, promising to pick it up for a future return to the club. Damian and Stephen Marley, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method, and Lukas Nelson are also among the Belly Up extended family.
"That's an aspect of the business that was not anticipated that is just really fun, from a human-nature standpoint," Michael said.
At the outset, Michael opened Belly Up to fill a void. Its Galena Street space had previously been occupied by the Double Diamond, a music club that closed in 2003. He wanted a club running in town because he wanted a place to regularly see music. So he forged ahead, though his brother, Steve — who bought a music club in Solana Beach, California in 2003 — had cautioned him against it.
As he worked on renovating the Double Diamond space to reopen it, Michael recalled, folk legend John Prine played in Snowmass Village. The aspiring club owner met with Prine and Hunter S. Thompson in a bar on the Snowmass mall after the show. Goldberg had tasked Thompson with naming his music club, but demurred on Thompson's choice ("The Orifice"). Michael talked up the club to Prine, who appeared understandably dubious.
"I said, 'You've got to play the club' and he just said, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, we'll do that,'" he recalled.
Four years later, Prine was on-stage at Belly Up, playing the first of multiple shows there.
For the current generation of rising musicians, Belly Up, in a short decade, has become a musical mecca in the mountains, and playing it is a meaningful step. In the fall Alaina Moore, of the up-and-coming Denver-based pop duo Tennis, talked about playing the club as an honor. Her band served as an opener there twice, for The Shins and The National, before landing its first headlining Belly Up gig in November.
"Belly Up is iconic for anyone who's grown up in Denver," she said.
The club's small, 450-person capacity means that more popular artists playing there often must accept a smaller payday or charge more for a ticket than they ordinarily might.
"We've proved, in most cases, to the ticket-buying public, that it's worth the difference in ticket price for the intimacy," Michael said.
Ticket prices are a battle the club has waged nearly since the beginning, when locals balked at its first $100 ticket. That was for Chris Isaak, during the Food & Wine Classic in 2005, and it prompted, Michael recalled, a front page news story. But the show sold out, and was an early milestone for the club. The price of shows at Belly Up will almost always be higher than it is for clubs in Denver and elsewhere. But, Michael noted, while Red Rocks is 20 times the size of Belly Up, ticket price here has never been 20 times higher.
"We pull the plug on as many shows as we go through with when we and the band agree that it's just too much," David said.
When working-class locals are priced out of big-ticket events such as the $235 general admission Tenacious D shows at Belly Up last month, the Belly Up brass hears it from Aspenites. But, they noted, most of the 300-some shows there each year don't cost hundreds of dollars. More than 70 concerts there in 2014 were free, and more than 20 had an average ticket price of $16. There's no way around the higher prices for higher profile bands, they said, but they hope locals take pride in the Belly Up.
"It's our baby, but it's also Aspen's," David said. "I hope that anyone who works here, that lives in this town and this valley, feels that way because it's a special thing and everyone should feel it's their home."
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