Hard rock, soft economy

New venues lead a live-music comeback in Las Vegas

In the last six months, the debut of new rock-themed bars on and off the Strip raised eyebrows. Were these openings “coinkidink,” or is the industry wising up to the fact that the standard “Vegas luxe” marketing of “the aughts” no longer holds in a recession? Time to finally realize not every tourist and local wants to stand in line, pay $1,000 for bottle service, and hear Top 40 selected by DJs? Perhaps the biggest sign of change ahead was the New Year’s Eve unveiling of Smokin’ Hot Aces (3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South) inside the Venetian. Billing itself as “Vegas’ only true rock ’n’ roll bar,” Smokin’ Hot Aces made good on its promise to draw real rock bands—like the Sin City Sinners. Sure, they’re mainly a cover band and Buds are $5, but on the Strip that’s about as much authenticity and thrift as you can hope for.

“Today people think twice before shelling out the kind of money you need to hit a high-end nightclub,” says Aces General Manager Marty Helfand, whose background includes, ironically, a stint with The Light Group, the top nightclub operator in town. “The grunginess, the casualness of rock lends itself to an economical approach. Not that people aren’t saving up for big nightclub experiences, but it’s less frequent.

“We definitely do better with live music than when we don’t offer it,” Helfand continues. “We’re going after a new demographic, and it’s a slow build.”

Speaking of traffic, this writer investigated Feelgoods Rock Bar & Grill (6750 W. Sahara Ave.) on Wednesday’s “Hot Rod Bike Night,” maneuvering through a parking lot of sweet autos to check out the Moanin’ Blacksnakes, easily Vegas’ most powerful blues-rock band. At Feelgoods, you get a $9 burger, a $5 Stella Artois, and kickass music without even glancing Stripward.

However, not every rock club has been winning. Consider Dead Man’s Hand (Alice in Chain’s Jerry Cantrell and Anthrax’s Scott Ian’s lounge), formerly housed inside Crazy Horse III. The concept perhaps offered too much: live music and boobs. Currently sans location, rumor has it that the owners are seeking a new spot. Then there’s the deathless Tommy Rocker’s (4275 Dean Martin Dr.), an establishment that briefly flirted with the stripper-pole format in years past before ultimately returning to its rock roots. The Las Vegas Guitar Association recently held a competition there last week, but the calendar dooesn’t offer much else live music-wise.

On the upside, Trainwrecks (35550 S. Decatur Blvd.)—formerly the Emergency Room—opened last week and boasts live music on Friday nights. On Feb. 19, watch Bad Billy, Highway Run, Duncan Faure and Bud Mickle.

Back on the Strip, the rock action is spreading, albeit gradually. Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina at the Miracle Mile Shops offers pretty decent Van Halen tribute bands from time to time. But a serious commitment to the live rock format appears to be lacking. Wasted Space in the Hard Rock is intimately banging, providing you ignore the Criss Angel clones that occasionally congregate inside. The Space has some lethal shows lined up this month, including rockabilly powerhouse The Head Cat (featuring Motörhead’s Lemmy on bass and vocals) on Feb. 21 and dark garage-rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (with The Whigs) on Feb. 28. After a stretch of rocklessness, Diablo’s Cantina at Monte Carlo will once again offer live music by original (not cover) bands after St. Patrick’s Day.

Rock may have had a rough time on the Strip during the booming, electronic aughts, but in the current recession, flowers grow in the dustbin.

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