Big names Belly Up to Aspen
July 31, 2006
So, how does B.B. King come to have a date ” Aug. 12 ” at Belly Up? On this summer’s leg of his ongoing 80th birthday celebration tour, the King of the Blues is set to play festivals and amphitheaters in Europe and across the States ” and one small club, Aspen’s Belly Up, capacity 450. Surely, it must have taken a lot of arm-twisting, perhaps club owner Michael Goldberg working his connections in the music business, or dangling a dollar figure that throws other considerations out the window.
None of those, really. “It happened because they called here,” said Goldberg. “They said, ‘Are you willing to pay “X” for B.B. King?'”
“X” in this case is equivalent to a lot of dollars, but not an obscene number. Tickets for the concert ” $250 for reserved seats, $150 for unreserved ” are sold out. Certainly, B.B. King could play a small club in a lot of cities at those prices and sell out quickly. But the agent offered the date to Belly Up.
There are several reasons that Belly Up’s calendar boasts more and more big-time acts. The Aspen name has some cachet. Goldberg has friends in radio and at record companies. Steve Weiss, the club’s talent buyer, has a 20-year history in the business. The venue itself ” the sound, the layout, the walls covered with handmade photos and Goldberg’s own concert photos ” is fabulous, and not in an Aspen-fabulous way, but in a music aficionado’s way. And Aspen, with its uncommon wealth and power, affords a way of pulling things off that most towns cannot.
The biggest factor, however, is that, in exactly a year and a half, Belly Up has produced a track record. The club has had successful shows by soul singer Seal (who happened to be vacationing in Aspen), with Jimmy Buffett (who has long, deep ties to Aspen) and Damian Marley. (Goldberg took special care of Bob Marley’s youngest in his first visit to Belly Up, before Damian’s career exploded with the release of the Grammy-winning album, “Welcome to Jamrock.” The wining and dining at Matsuhisa, which Goldberg co-owns, helped in bringing Marley back twice more.) Nothing breeds big names like other big names ” and August, Belly Up’s 19th month in business, is filled with eye-popping big names, including Tricky (Aug. 10), Joe Cocker (Aug. 13), Dwight Yoakam (Aug. 16) and Kris Kristofferson (Aug. 21), as well as King (Aug. 12).
“Why does Joe Cocker come here? Why does B.B. King come here?” said Goldberg, who first entered the live-music business when he opened Belly Up. (His background is in airplane leasing and air freight; his brother Steve has owned the Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif., a 30-plus-year-old club, for several years.) “The big answer is we’ve established ourselves. We put on quality acts, and the public comes and responds.
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“We hear that a lot from the artists ” that they knew the room before they came here.”
The club had a head start toward making its reputation thanks to Weiss, who was the talent buyer for a group of Minnesota venues before coming to Aspen. “He’s established relationships over his 20 years in the business,” said Goldberg. “People know, if he’s associated with it, everything from the money to the production to the promotion will be handled. There’s a comfort level.”
With some artists, it is all about the numbers. “You give them enough money, they’ll play. You give an arena act enough money ” some of them ” and they’ll come and play here,” said Goldberg. In those instances, Belly Up has a leg up, thanks to the financial resources of local concertgoers. “But you can’t build a commercial business just by throwing money at acts,” continued Goldberg. “And you can’t build a year’s calendar of six, seven nights a week just by overpaying acts. Or by charging a high ticket price.”
In some cases, the money becomes a different kind of obstacle. Two weeks ago, punk band Social Distortion played a sold-out show at Belly Up. The band insisted, though, that it didn’t want to charge more than $33 a ticket ” a difficult proposition for a band used to far bigger venues. (They had played Red Rocks the night before the Belly Up gig.) In fact, playing clubs was such a tough trick that Belly Up is the smallest room Social Distortion has played in eight years. But Belly Up had demonstrated that it could be an ideal spot for the show. (An Aspen Times editor who went to both Colorado shows said the Belly Up appearance was, indeed, far better, thanks to the better sound and, especially, the intimacy needed for a good mosh pit.)
“The agent’s been in the room,” said Goldberg, who added that the club gets turned down ” often ” by artist they pursue. “He knows the room, he knows Aspen, he knows the caliber of acts we’ve had. He knows we’re trying to put Aspen on the full-time musical map. He knows the staff here, and that the artist will be treated well.
“And it probably didn’t hurt that I promised to take [frontman] Mike Ness to Matsuhisa, because he loves sushi.”
Another artist Goldberg took to Matsuhisa was Chris Isaak, who was the first notable big fish to play the small pond that is Belly Up. Goldberg has also worked his radio connections to help get big acts in the room: Ben Harper’s two-night stand in April, which coincided with the release of a new CD, was broadcast live on Sirius, the satellite radio network.
A lot of concertgoers assume that the lure of playing Aspen can, by itself, bring prominent musicians to town. There is some truth that Aspen can help, in a variety of ways. As Goldberg said, “We couldn’t do this if it was Rifle.”
Cocker, who lives in Crawford, will be singing at a wedding in Aspen next month, making the Belly Up date possible. It’s got to be assumed that Cocker doesn’t regularly do weddings, and that whoever’s wedding he is playing has Aspen-scale resources. Aimee Mann, the Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated songwriter who plays Belly Up on Friday, Aug. 4, is being brought in by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, a demonstration of how the club benefits from the presence of other local organizations. (Jazz Aspen Snowmass frequently partners with Belly Up, and brought in jazz bassist Christian McBride last week.) Gov’t Mule, a headliner on the jam-band circuit playing Belly Up Sept. 3, was booked in part because an Aspen music lover arranged to buy a block of reserved tickets at a premium price as a birthday celebration. The club could then sell the remaining tickets for the very reasonable price of $35.
Aspen can also hurt. The perception of Aspen as an exclusive haven for the wealthy, white and long of tooth can make younger, harder-edged bands dismiss it as a potential tour stop. The absence of a prominent club in the year and a half that the Belly Up space sat empty confirmed that image, and took Aspen out of the minds of some agents and artists.
“We had to get past what they used to know, that Aspen wasn’t a town that supported music,” said Weiss. “But now they know, we’re a club and a town that is supporting music in a big way.”
That public support is perhaps the Belly Up’s trump card in being able to book acts. The right paycheck might attract an artist to come once; the package of a cool room, great sound and the right treatment might bring him back a second time. But without a positive response from the crowd, that act is not likely to make Belly Up a regular stop.
A prominent musician, spending time in Aspen recently, found his way to Belly Up for a well-received show by young soul-rock singer Grace Potter. Goldberg, naturally, sought out the musician and invited him to come play Belly Up sometime. The artist demurred, saying that he had outgrown clubs of that size.
Four nights later the musician returned to take in yet another well-known act, bluegrass picker Ricky Skaggs. This time, the packed house, the sound, the whole vibe of the place seems to have opened his eyes. He sought out Goldberg to offer a different sentiment ” that he was going to have to find a way to play the club.
Aimee Mann, who earned fame in the ’80s band ‘Til Tuesday and an Oscar nomination for her musical contribution to the film “Magnolia,” plays in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Lyrically Speaking series Friday, Aug. 4.
Next weekend is for the Deadheads: Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra plays Saturday, Aug. 5. The following night brings the David Grisman Quintet, led by mandolinist Grisman, a favorite picking partner of the late Jerry Garcia.
Tricky, the British trip-hop pioneer who has recorded with Massive Attack and released the 1995 classic “Maxinquaye,” makes his Aspen debut Aug. 10. New Orleans instrumental jazz-funk quintet Galactic plays a two-night stand, Aug. 22-23.
Other notables on the Belly Up calendar: Texas swingers Asleep at the Wheel (Aug. 17); rock band Cracker (Aug. 25); dobro master Jerry Douglas (Aug. 26); New Orleans’ Radiators (Aug. 31); singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo (Sept. 7); hip-hoppers Jurrasic 5 (Sept. 8); and reggae singer Buju Banton (Sept. 21).
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org