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Belly Up Aspen: Five years of hot tickets

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – In conducting telephone interviews with musicians, my routine is to start with a most basic question: Where are you today? It’s a tougher one than you might imagine. The touring musicians’ life is spent on tour buses, in hotel rooms, in clubs and theaters, fairgrounds and arenas, usually a different one each night, and the first casualty of such an existence is a grasp on the sense of place.

I’ve had musicians pause to take account of their surroundings before answering; I’ve had some who, a few minutes into the conversation, had to correct themselves: “Did I say Milwaukee? I meant Cleveland.”

Part of the mission of Belly Up Aspen, it seems, is to shake up that sense of disorientation. The club, which opened five years ago this week, aims to be an out-of-the-ordinary experience for the artist, singular enough to make the musician take notice of where he is, how he got there, what he’s doing there.

“A truly remarkable thing has happened at several Belly Up shows I’ve attended,” Mike Miracle, the managing editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine and a veteran of some 20 shows at the venue. “The artist stops, sometimes mid-song, shakes his or her head, looks around and says, ‘Man, this place is incredible.’ I remember Lucinda Williams doing it; Jerry Douglas, too.

“That never happened at any of the Hartford Civic Center shows I went to.”

In the case of Lucinda Williams, that didn’t happen at Jazz Aspen, either. Williams – who was named some years ago by Time magazine as America’s best songwriter – made her local debut with a lackluster, dial-it-in appearance at Jazz Aspen’s 2004 Labor Day Festival. Less than a year later, in her first Belly Up appearance, a different Williams showed up. Sure, for a notoriously mercurial artist, the difference could well have stemmed from personal circumstances or simply that night’s state of mind. But at Belly Up, Williams left little doubt that the venue was a big part of the mix.

“When Lucinda Williams came the first time, she was blown away by the experience,” said Mike Kapsa, an Aspen business and property manager who sees about 25 shows a year at Belly Up. “Within two songs she realized what she had in front of her. She commented to the crowd, ‘Wow, this is good. We’re going to have some fun tonight.'”

I took a photo of Williams – it’s from her return Belly Up gig, in 2007 – and she is clearly having a soul-pleasing moment, her hands crossed over her heart. But she’s not in the middle of a tune; what she’s singing is the praises of Belly Up, the crowd that night, the way she has been treated.

• • • •

It’s not easy for acts to come to Belly Up. Aspen is well off the beaten path of interstates and access ramps that tour buses generally use. And for a lot of musicians it makes little sense to play there, either in the financial short-term, or the bigger career picture. The club’s capacity is a scant 450 ticket-buyers, meaning that artists playing there often must accept a smaller pay day or charge more for a ticket than they ordinarily do. In the ratings of Arbitron, a company that does radio market research, Aspen is dead last among the 302 radio markets included in their survey. It’s safe to say that nobody is getting a career boost, at least not in the obvious way, from playing Belly Up.

Yet they come, and over the five-year history the bigger names are appearing more frequently on the posters in front of the club that announce that night’s performer. B.B. King, Seal, Jimmy Buffett and Damian Marley – all acts accustomed to playing far bigger venues – have made repeat appearances at Belly Up. The club’s five-year anniversary is marked with a return visit, on Friday, Jan. 29, by rapper Snoop Dogg.

Thievery Corporation, an electronica act that headlines at major festivals rather than clubs, made its Belly Up debut last spring and returned for a summer date. Guitar god Warren Haynes not only brings his hard-rock quartet Gov’t Mule to Belly Up for uncommonly intimate performances; he has also used the club to stage rare solo, acoustic appearances. Perry Farrell first came to Belly Up with his recent project, Satellite Party; he returned last month for a New Year’s Eve gig with his better-known alt-rock band Jane’s Addiction, perhaps the most notable booking yet for Belly Up.

In terms of venue fundamentals – sound system, the look and comfort of the space – Belly Up ranks in the top tier. “There’s really nothing better in the state. There’s probably nothing better between Chicago and Vegas,” Kapsa said. The 52-year-old, whose tastes run to roots rock and blues, has done extensive fan’s-eye-view research on concert venues, having attended numerous shows up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast while living in Washington, D.C., and having made the pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for 20 years running. “There’s no dust in the air, no toilet paper on the floor. You can’t say that about most clubs south of the Mason-Dixon Line. You’d have to reach really far to see an operation like this. Maybe in Vegas, the House of Blues, which is a big chain and is run very well.”

• • • •

In fall 2003, the Double Diamond ended its decade-long run as Aspen’s primary popular-music venue. Operating in a downstairs space that had been a music club since the ’70s, the Double D was an unadorned, seat-of-the-pants operation. It was manned by a small staff; the night always ended with the club owner, Greg Jurgensen helping clean up beer bottles off the floor. Despite its bare-bones nature, the Double D managed to leave a legacy of memorable concerts; among the acts who appeared there (and haven’t played Belly Up yet) are the Eagles, Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies and Sheryl Crow.

For two years after Double Diamond’s demise, the space sat vacant, and the conventional wisdom held its days as a nightclub were done. But conventional thinking didn’t consider Michael Goldberg. A businessman, a former University of Minnesota defensive tackle, Goldberg had built a Florida-based airline-leasing company before moving to Aspen in the early ’90s. In Aspen, Goldberg became the principal owner of the restaurant Matsuhisa. But it turns out that jets, football and sushi couldn’t match live music for capturing his interest.

Several years earlier, Goldberg’s brother Steve had bought a music club, Belly Up, in Solana Beach, near San Diego. Steve had a word of advice for his brother: Don’t! But Michael wanted a challenge, wanted to bring a night-in, night-out music venue back to Aspen. And above all, he wanted to hear the music.

“First and foremost, I love music,” said Goldberg, a burly 61-year-old Tulsa native whose interests range from the Democratic party and classical music to photography and local high-school sports. “And because the Double Diamond, which I loved and came to often, was no longer here. I could rely on my brother’s experience, and I saw it could be fun.”

In the days leading to Belly Up’s opening, as crews worked around the clock to finish the venue in time for the 2005 Winter X Games, it became clear that the space was undergoing a thorough transformation. Local music lovers worried that yet another slice of Aspen would be put more or less off-limits to the average fan, that Goldberg’s idea of fun might not be as inclusive as it had been in the era of the scruffy Double D.

It’s true that there have been some stratospheric ticket prices, like the $550 charged for a 2007 New Year’s Eve show by ZZ Top. Shows featuring a roped-off VIP section just above the dance floor are not uncommon. And there are nights when cell-phone chatter dominates over whatever may be happening onstage.

“Sometimes with their big-ticket shows, they get over-run with out-of-town folks who don’t bring in the best vibe. That big-city vibe can get in the way,” Kapsa said.

But only the most nit-picking Aspenite would use these instances to conclude that Belly Up is an elitist place. In fact, if Goldberg had a mantra for his club, it would be diversity – diversity as a financial necessity (an Aspen club relying only on big-ticket acts would be shuttered most of the time), a personal preference (Goldberg’s musical tastes run from hip-hop to classic rock to electronica), and a guiding philosophy for how they want the club to fit into the community. Indie bands with cheap tickets are at least as common as the premium-price shows. Free shows abound; even this past December, during ski season, there were four such nights. There are frequent screenings of recent movies and broadcasts of live sporting events on big screens, all free. There have been events with Gay Ski Week, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, Jazz Aspen and other local nonprofits. On most nights, there is an all-ages policy.

“It’s overwhelmingly diverse,” Josh Behrman, who produced concerts and other events in Aspen and Snowmass, said. “I’m amazed every time I get my e-mail blast – everything from Dionne Warwick to Tea Leaf Green.”

Goldberg is involved in most every aspect of the club, including the booking, which he does with the club’s talent buyer Erik Newson. And he thinks there is room for improvement.

“I think we have to get better, and can get better, filling the calendar with quality, diverse acts,” said Goldberg, who is also a part-owner of a 1,200-capacity dance club in Denver, Beta, that specializes in electronic music.

Belly Up has struggled with the reality that some acts just aren’t going to play a small club in the mountains. But he’s one to go down swinging, and has made what he says are legitimate offers to such big draws as Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Modest Mouse.

“Sometimes it’s disappointing we can’t get the acts we want,” he said. “When an artist looks at a market where they want to play, we’re not an obvious choice. We’re not a college market; we’re not a big radio presence. We’re a a small town and we’re out of the way and we’re a 450-capacity venue. So I understand that a really popular band can’t make it work.”

• • • •

A major reason a lot of bands do decide to play Belly Up is Goldberg himself. When Goldberg decided to open the club, his brother Steve shared his view on club ownership: “He said, ‘Find your table, put on Groucho Marx glasses, enjoy the music and leave,'” Goldberg recalled. These words were ignored as fully as the advice to not open the club. Goldberg is a presence at Belly Up – in attendance virtually every night and remaining through the encore; taking photos; chatting with fellow concertgoers about that night’s show and who they’d like to see in the future.

And paying special attention to the artists themselves. A big, sometimes forceful personality, Goldberg has built personal relationships with Chris Isaak, Seal, the Brazilian DJ Tiësto, and numerous members of the Marley family of Jamaica. He has taken the New Orleans groove band Galactic swimming at the Punch Bowl; Leo Kottke’s contract specifies that Goldberg will take the guitarist and his band to dinner at Matsuhisa.

“The people part of this has been exceedingly fun for me,” he said. “If I couldn’t do this part of the business, I wouldn’t do it. That part of the deal is so much fun and so rewarding.”

It is also part of the key to booking those acts. The company of Goldberg – and the food at Matsuhisa, the sound system at the club, the allure of Aspen – help persuade a band to make the effort.

“We’re not the next place where we say, ‘Here’s X dollars, come play here.’ We’re just not,” Goldberg said. “You can do it because it’s Aspen. I make people understand, this isn’t just about a show at Belly Up. This is about Aspen and what Aspen is.”

At the same time, Belly Up has added another dimension to Aspen. Local high school kids have an outlet to see top DJs and hip-hop groups. College kids from Boulder flock to bluegrass and jam-band shows. Well-off tourists who come to town during Christmas week or President’s Weekend can count on going back home with not only tales from the slopes, but late-night escapades of seeing legendary musicians in an intimate setting. And then there are the diehard local music fans for whom Belly Up has become an integral part of Aspen life.

“There are the locals, a number of them, who have said, I wouldn’t live here if it weren’t for Belly Up,” Goldberg said. “Do I think that’s an extreme statement? Yes. But I don’t hold a gun to their heads to make them say it. There is that aspect of it, that we occupy a meaningful place in town.”

Mike Kapsa wouldn’t go so far as to threaten to leave town. But there’s no question for him that Belly Up has been a substantial addition to Aspen, to his life.

“It gives us that first-class stature as a music town,” he said. “Sure, I’ve seen shows on my top-10 list at other clubs. But I haven’t seen top-10 shows at a 450-seat venue like Belly Up as consistently.

“Without Belly Up, I’d be on the road a lot more, going to shows in Denver or Vail.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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