First Fridays’ evolution from the little arts festival that could to Zappos-backed civic touchstone is an understandable progression. An earnest arts community hits a financial rough spot, and a white knight sees value, rides in to save the day, and in the process broadens the scope of the event to make it a little more mainstream. Story old as time, right?
When Sheryl Crow headlined First Friday on April 4, though, it pushed the event into unexpected territory. Here was a national-level headliner playing an event that, just a couple of years ago, was a relatively laid-back street fair.
The difference-maker in that case was Container Park, which had opened four months earlier. Suddenly, there was a venue where these acts made sense, and an entity, Downtown Project, with the will to make it happen.
For all the expansion that’s happened Downtown and the already plentiful music venues there—Beauty Bar, LVCS, the old Bunkhouse, Triple B—we’re on the verge of a Downtown music explosion. The common refrain is that Downtown is “the next Austin.” But what does that mean, and when will it happen?
If Sheryl Crow was the first shot across the bow, it’s only because Fremont Country Club ran into a bump after opening in February 2013. Because of the nature of their tavern limited license, the venue—owned by Triple B owners “Big Daddy” Carlos Adley and his wife, Ava Berman—weren’t approved for 18-and-over shows. Something Adley says forced him to pass on booking numerous national acts.
In April, the Las Vegas City Council gave special dispensation for Fremont Country Club to host 18-plus shows, something Adley says will allow the club to operate regularly, instead of its past sporadic bookings.
“We don’t want to alienate that 18-and-over demographic. They’re vital in the overall big picture,” he says. “We’re reaching out to bring in fresh meat. The way you do that is by creating more world-class venues that bands that come Downtown have an option to play. In the past there’s been one or two locations Downtown, and that’s it. So you limit your clientele. With the selection of these locations, this will open the horizons in every aspect.”
Adley expects to start announcing national-level bands—primarily rock, country and alternative—in July, with the first show about a month later.
But Fremont Country Club is just one piece of the puzzle. Downtown Project’s booking maestro Mike Henry—who came to the organization after 25 years in, where else: Austin—has his fingers in a number of pies in the area.
The focus on programming at Container Park is on indie rock with local and up-and-coming touring bands and the occasional ticketed show with national-level acts. Cults is up next on June 20, and the park will be doing two more this summer.
“Container Park is finding its niche,” Henry says. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see Mogwai at Container Park. It’s a place of discovery. As a programmer it’s really interesting. It’s a sandbox to play in.”
Downtown Project is also involved in the former Azul, which in its new incarnation as Place on 7th will be mostly an events space that does occasional shows, like The Foreign Exchange on July 14. Not to mention the performance-oriented Inspire Theater and Scullery in the Ogden, which will take on more jazzy, arty fare. Henry hints at even a couple of other unnamed venues yet to come.
The other big gun in Downtown Project’s arsenal is Bunkhouse, the old-school haven for local bands that’s expected to finally reopen in the fall.
“I don’t think Bunkhouse will change that much from what it was before. There will be touring bands that come in, as it was before, but its heart and soul is local music,” Henry says.
Adjacent to Bunkhouse will be Wheel House, the last in the wave of new venues. (Wheel House is a collaboration between Downtown Project and Commonwealth/Park on Fremont co-owners Ryan Doherty and Justin Weniger, owners of WENDOH Media.) When March rolls around, Wheel House will have country nights every Thursday and focus on national and local rock acts for the rest of its schedule.
If there’s an Austinization process, it’s that so many venues will offer variety as each settles into a niche. Even the old warhorses, such as LVCS, already pursue programming largely defined by metal and rockabilly. It will be up to programmers to figure out what works in a suddenly competitive ecosystem.
But Henry isn’t worried about Downtown music eating its own—yet: “The fear would be that you’re overbuilding too fast. All of a sudden there are too many venues and the audience—which is an evolving, emerging scene—can’t support it. I don’t think we’re there. What I see out there is a good mix. We’re not going to be cannibalizing. Then the fear becomes once you’ve got something going on, people come in and try to jump on it. I think it’s exciting. It’s going to be unrecognizable in a year.”