Belly Up: Raising the bar

Stewart Oksenhorn
Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg, in front of his photographs of three of his favorite acts who have played the club in its one-year existence: Damian Marley, Dickey Betts and Chris Isaak, left to right. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

Entering the live-music business a year ago, Michael Goldberg expected to spend a good amount of time at his new club. After all, one of the main reasons he opened the Belly Up was because the 57-year-old was a hard-core music fan who, like a lot of Aspenites, bemoaned the downturn in Aspen’s nightlife when the Double Diamond closed more than two years ago.”I was thinking I might be there when we had a great show,” said Goldberg.Twelve months into his venture, it appears Goldberg may have made a serious error in his calculations. Goldberg, who confesses to a serious lack of sleep, often sounds hoarse and stressed – but also cured of his music cravings. The great shows at the Belly Up have come more frequently than he, or probably anyone, imagined.There have been the eye-popping names, the kind that don’t often appear in 450-person venues in small towns. Crooner Chris Issak played the Belly Up last summer, a concert that barely hinted at the Christmas-week lineup, which included appearances by Jimmy Buffett and Seal.Just as impressive, however, has been the nonstop diet of acts that, if not as massively popular, sit atop their musical genres: country-rocker Lucinda Williams, barrio rockers Los Lobos, jazz guitarist John Scofield and Southern rocker Dickey Betts have all played shows at the Belly Up – and all of whom have worked their way into Aspen legend. Reggae singer Damian Marley, at the height of his career with the release of the Grammy-nominated “Welcome to Jamrock,” has played four shows at the club. North Mississippi Allstars, Burning Spear, Soulive, Steve Earle and Sound Tribe Sector 9, each in the top tier of club bands or beyond, have played sold-out shows at the Belly Up. Soon to join the growing roster of standout acts are Little Feat, Kinky Friedman, Galactic, Greyboy Allstars, Robert Randolph and Chick Corea.

“To have a club that offers as much as they do is an amazing thing for a community,” said Josh Behrman, who operates the local concert production company, Mountain Groove. “There are few small communities that could have a venue of that caliber. I don’t know of any.”No one is soaking up that bounty like Goldberg himself. A few Belly Up employees have likely seen more of the shows than their boss; Goldberg estimates he has missed perhaps 10 shows, almost all due to being out of town. He generally stays after the house lights have come on. But where the workers are working, Goldberg is enjoying himself. By day, he’s got his hand in almost every aspect of operating the club. But when showtime comes, he’s on the floor, camera in hand. The photo gallery that now fills almost every inch of wall space is courtesy of Goldberg.There are some rabid music-lovers whose attendance record is nearly as spotless. Goldberg tells of a concertgoer recently who approached him, begging for employment. It wasn’t so much that he needed a job; he needed a job that would permit him to see the concerts on a nightly basis.Fans aren’t the only ones finding the Belly Up irresistible. G. Love & Special Sauce did a two-night stand at the club over New Year’s Eve, but to do so, they had to turn down another gig: opening for the Black Crows in the slightly larger venue of Madison Square Garden.More than just the musicWhile he underestimated the number of can’t-miss concerts, Goldberg really got blindsided by how involved he would be on the operational side of the club.

“That’s because I didn’t know how many moving parts there are,” said Goldberg, whose brother Steve has owned the long-running Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif., for the last three years. “But if we’re going to do this thing, we’ve got to do it right. For financial reasons, for the customer experience. And I didn’t know how complicated that was. You can’t just put up a stage and put on a show.”Goldberg has gotten his fingers into issues as small as where the bands will park their buses. A recent photo shoot was delayed while he was handling concerns about the club’s ticketing system. The attention to detail shows everywhere: in the sound system; the website, which has links to band sites and even music samples; and the concert posters, imported from Seattle artist Skrojo. Shows are never oversold, so even the usual sold-out nights are not uncomfortably crowded. The club’s success so far is based not only on who has played there, but how they have been presented.”They’ve done a really great job,” said Steve Miller, a ski shop employee who has lived in the valley 12 years and has taken in between 20 and 30 shows at the Belly Up. “Between the way the Double Diamond used to be and the way Belly Up is now, it’s nice and clean and well-run.”

Where Goldberg’s hands seem to be busiest is in the programming decisions. While the club has an experienced, full-time talent booker in Steve Weiss, Goldberg keeps on top of which acts are touring and what their availability might be. He has been known to call artists directly to convince them to add Aspen to their schedule.Perhaps the hardest part of that job is separating the music fan from the club owner. Goldberg, who also has had success in the aviation business, almost certainly doesn’t need the Belly Up to make a living. But the businessman in him is not about to run a money pit. Over the last year, he has learned that almost any act can be lured to Aspen for the right number of dollars.”It’s hard to say no sometimes,” he said. “The temptation to say yes is overbearing, because there’s a band we love, or we think is musically significant, or we think will do well. But we have learned to say no when the numbers don’t make sense.”That lesson has come the hard way. Goldberg points to a stretch early last June when the club booked a slew of shows mostly because they could: Violent Femmes, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Gin Blossoms, Dickey Betts and more. Some shows did well, others didn’t.”From a purely musical standpoint, I’d do it again without thinking twice. From a financial perspective, it could have been done differently,” said Goldberg. “It’s too many high ticket prices in too short a span. And it’s seeking a lot of the same demographic in very few nights.”Which doesn’t mean that the Belly Up has stopped taking chances. A perfect example is Sunday night, Feb. 5. The act is Matisyahu, a young reggae singer who has never performed in Aspen and has just one CD in wide release. The ticket price, more or less dictated by what the band charges to appear, is $45 – more than such reggae acts as the well-known Damian Marley, or the Grammy-winning Burning Spear, or The Wailers, a proven draw. But Matisyahu has been in the spotlight of late, drawing attention both for his “Live at Stubbs” CD and the fact that he has put his Orthodox Jewish stamp on reggae music.”Forty-five dollars is a steep ticket price, and he’s not one of those that just jumped off the page,” said Goldberg. “But the opportunity to see him in a small venue is not going to be around much longer, probably.”(For those who don’t attend, the Matisyahu concert will be broadcast live on Sirius, the satellite radio operator. It is the third concert to be broadcast in a growing relationship between Sirius and the Belly Up; the Buffett show and G. Love’s New Year’s Eve performance were both available on Sirius.)As the Matisyahu booking indicates, Goldberg is not just interested in bringing proven favorites to town. But booking and selling out shows by the likes of cover bands Super Diamond and Danger Kitty have given the club license to bring in Sufjan Stevens and Citizen Cope, the kind of contemporary, risk-taking acts that have a history of not doing well in Aspen.”To me, that’s a real important part of what we’re doing here – bands that are on the edge,” said Goldberg. “It doesn’t have as great a response as we wanted. People are not as musically adventurous as I hoped they would be. Citizen Cope, we brought him in when we were a month old and it was a loser financially. But musically it was a success, and the 175 people who saw him talked him up. And he talked up the club wherever he’s gone.”The Belly Up hasn’t shied away from taking on adventurous, unknown quantities. This week’s lineup includes avant-garde bands the Dead Kenny Gs and Hairy Apes BMX (Wednesday, Feb. 8); also coming in the weeks ahead are indie bands Action Action and Something for Rockets (March 6), the Gold Chain hip-hop package tour (March 13), and rapper Lyrics Born (March 19). It adds up to be, by far, the most diverse offering of music Aspen has ever experienced.

A year ago, Goldberg said the biggest reason to get into the music business was to fill the hole that had been made in Aspen’s music scene. But 12 months into the Belly Up era, it is apparent that Goldberg has not stopped at merely plugging that gap. Instead, he has raised the bar on what is possible for a small-town music venue.”We want Aspen to be an important place for musicians to play,” said Goldberg. “Important – or fun. We want artists to want to come here because they know they’ll be in front of an important crowd. Which they have. We’ve had some very interesting people in the club.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is


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