Desi & Cody
It's no revelation to those that follow local and live music in our city that Tulsa has a deep pool of talent to draw from. Our heritage alone speaks a wealth about how fertile the creative soil is here: Not only is Tulsa the home of western swing with the Wills Brothers at Cain's Ballroom, but a wide array of talent from across Green Country has consistently colored up the jazz landscape, and rock legends like Leon Russell and J.J. Cale were at the forefront of a community of musicians that established what was known as "The Tulsa Sound" in the '70s, leaving an impression that even influenced rock icons like Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
Of course, in the '90s, we had Hanson make a splash on the pop scene and more recently David Cook has drawn attention as the winner of American Idol while Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has continued to evolve and make waves on the jazz scene, both domestically and internationally.
Historically, musical movements come in waves or cycle like the seasons, much as fashions do. It's a phenomenon that isn't exclusive to Tulsa, but seen everywhere. In the past few years, however, that cycle has brought a resurgence in Tulsa's local music scene, with a flurry of activity by a group of musicians at the forefront of what has been dubbed "The New Tulsa Sound" and a wave of new bands or artists that are simmering in the background, promising to emerge in the near future.
At odds with this growth is that in conjunction with the previous downward cycle of the music scene, Tulsa has lost a number of clubs that supported local music. Fortunately, Tulsa has seen a few new venues open up over the past year (often in old locations, with new names and ownership), but the question at hand is: Can the local club scene keep up with a growing talent pool and new swell of emerging artists?
As spring arrives, the local music scene traditionally warms up and comes to life as well, and music fans are ready to get out and enjoy the weather. With that in mind, here at Urban Tulsa we figured the time was right to take a survey of the live music landscape to see where our live music clubs fit into the equation and which artists are coming to the forefront.
Concert Hall or Live Club?
Over the past year, we've had a pair of venues open that straddle a fine line between concert venue and club, with the emergence of The Vanguard last summer, then The Shrine in the fall. If they were only booking touring acts, these rooms wouldn't have as strong an impact on the growth of our local scene, but by opening their doors and actively seeking out local bands to open nationally-touring shows and completing their schedules with local music showcases, they are giving Tulsa's local acts two very different, but equally important types of exposure. With the local showcases, Tulsa bands get an opportunity to draw their own audiences and create a local buzz. As opening acts, however, our native bands potentially get to play in front of audiences that may not generally get out for local bands, as well as build their portfolios by playing with more widely recognized artists.
When asked where he thought The Vanguard, 222 N. Main St., fit into the local landscape, owner/manager Simon Aleman said, "I see us as a post-club/pre-theater venue. The Vanguard is larger than a club, but smaller than a theater -- and I consider Cain's Ballroom to be a small theater. I think we're more of what I would consider a small to mid-sized concert hall."
Of course, if you've been to The Vanguard, you know that the room is decked out more like a small concert hall than a club. When asked about that, Aleman said, "We really just tried to do the room right, from the acoustics to the sound system to the visuals and lighting and design. When a band comes to play our room, we want our patrons to get a full-on concert experience at The Vanguard, not just a band on a stage."
Stylistically, The Vanguard is run like a concert hall, not confining itself to one particular style of music, but touching on everything from pop to country, blues, hard rock and even a little dubstep. With that in mind, you'll probably want to check the venue's concert listings before heading out, as genres can shift from night to night, but you'll want to arrive early as there is almost always at least one local act on the bill to round out the lineup.
Cairde na Gael
When asked about Tulsa's local scene and who the rising stars are, Aleman had a list of acts that he was impressed by. Once we got to talking, however, a pair of artists tended to stand out as being well rounded and having all the essential pieces coming together right now, from the songwriting to the music, delivery and performance.
The first of those was Jesse Aycock, who stood out in Aleman's mind because not only does he have excellent songwriting and delivery skills, but also because of his unique voice. The other act that came to the forefront of the conversation was Desi & Cody, based largely on the duo's unique chemistry and the fact that although the pair is consistent in delivery, every performance seems to be just a little better than the last.
Moving over to The Shrine, 112 E. 18th St., which is a room that was previously Pink and Rocbar and The Venue and a number of other names dating back to at least the early '90s. Based on its size and booking strategy, bringing in a number of touring acts, The Shrine is following a similar direction as The Vanguard, possibly qualifying in the "post-club/pre-theater" category that Aleman previously referenced, but doing it with its own style. The tall stage, lights and sound system give the room a concert hall impression, but the room has a distinct rock club feel.
Again, this room is booking a mix of touring acts and local talent, but has been more focused on regional touring acts and local artists to date. When asking booking manager Donnie Rich about the booking strategies and if the room had found its niche yet, he shared that intentions were not to cater to any particular style, but to book all genres, from rock to funk to Red Dirt to blues to country. "Just about the only thing we don't book here is hip-hop and rap," he shared. "It just doesn't really fit here. But then again, if it's old-school stuff like Digital Underground or someone with a more positive vibe, we'll probably go ahead and book something like that."
So far, the room has done well with rock and Red Dirt, but has found its clientele best responding to acts that fit in the jam band categories, including a reunion show by Citizen Mundi and a growing Wednesday night audience with Captain Comfy.
When talking about the local music scene and which bands really stood out to him right now, Rich again had a number of acts come to mind, but specifically mentioned All About a Bubble, making note of not only how well rounded the band is with its songs, musicianship and live show, but also the effort put forth to promote the group, everything from recording a recently released video for "Matthew" to heavily promoting its shows via social networking and fliering. Another act that came up in conversation was RL Jones, with Rich noting just how strong the band's live delivery is, even after taking a brief hiatus.
Brady Arts District
Brandon Clark Band
Over the past few years, downtown's Brady District has seen a marked growth in local businesses. With that, a handful of live music clubs have emerged, appropriately enough all within close proximity of both Cain's Ballroom and Brady Theater. Soundpony, Yeti, Hunt Club and Downtown Lounge give the neighborhood a variety of live music options without stepping on each other's toes.
Of that group, The Hunt Club, 224 N. Main St., has emerged as the figurative cornerstone of the neighborhood, centrally located at the corner of N. Main and W. Cameron streets. Initially established as a neighborhood pub, not only does the bar have a comfortable and inviting interior and limited food menu, but it also has one of the best outdoor patios in town, complete with a live stage.
Hunt Club does host smaller touring act on occasion, but generally focuses on local acts with live music inside four to five nights a week during the winter and seven nights a week once the weather warms up enough to enjoy the outdoor stage.
Although most of the other clubs in the neighborhood have found their own style, Hunt Club tends to be a musical catch all, booking a little bit of everything. When discussing the club's niche with owner Mary Ellen Slape, she explained that "our goal is to provide live, mostly local music up to seven nights a week and we book all styles. We're known for having a wide variety of music, so one night you might hear rock, another night funk and on another, country."
When discussing which band stood out in the local music scene for her, Slape -- like most others -- hesitated, if only because "that gets tricky and I wouldn't want to leave anyone out, especially since we've got so much talent in Tulsa. What I can say is that there are certain bands that play here on a monthly rotation because they always do well here and they fit in really well."
When perusing the Hunt Club calendar names that pop up consistently include Dante & the Hawks, Brandon Clark Band, Randy Crouch, The Fiddlebacks and Ego Culture, among others. That small group of artists alone creates a pretty good snapshot of what Hunt Club is about, covering pop, rock and country with ease and providing an environment that's warm and inviting for everyone, regardless of musical taste.
If you're a downtown regular, you should already know Soundpony. Located just down the sidewalk from Cain's Ballroom at 409 N. Main St., this small club is dressed in bicycle gear and hanging bikes to give it its own identity and character. Musically, it stands apart from everyone else in town as the club to go to for the best selection of indie bands. And in this case, "indie" doesn't apply to a specific sound or genre, but for bands that are truly independent in spirit.
Whether it's a touring band that is still trying to break or a local act, you're sure to hear something fresh when you stop in at Soundpony. One night it might be local hip-hop with Algebra or Dr. Freeman, followed by the punk rock of Lizard Police or St. Knicholas Cage the next, and the jittery dance rock of Guardant or the jam-infused dance party of Moai Broadcast and Vibesystem on yet another. Best of all, there's almost never a cover charge (on the rare occasion that there has been, it's usually been as part of a fundraiser show) so you can catch an old favorite or someone new every night for free.
Granted, Soundpony is a long, narrow club without a stage, so the bands are generally packed in to the front of the club, right in front of the windows, but that just adds to the ambiance of the show. Standing face to face with the band while it's playing provides a great energy and exchange between artist and audience, which is why Soundpony has become Tulsa's signature club for indie rock and a staple of the live music scene. You can even get your dance on as most Friday nights see DJ Falkirk, DJ Sweet Baby Jayzus or DJ Soulfingaz rocking the house.
Paul Benjaman Band
Just down the sidewalk, The Yeti, 417 N. Main St., is the latest addition to the club scene, opening in the fall and taking over the space that was formerly known as The Crystal Pistol. More than just a coat of paint, The Yeti has cleaned up and expanded to put a proper stage in the second room, providing a great room for bands.
Once again, independent artists dominate the schedule, but the range of genres is even more diverse than Soundpony. Everything from New Tulsa Sound artists Wink Burcham and Dustin Pittsley to the blues rock of touring act Warhorse, to the introspective indie rock of Foreign Home and the hip-hop, funk-punk of SocietySociety has graced the stage since it opened this past winter, as the bar keeps an open mind to representing all types of music and giving local bands an opportunity to play their own stuff.
Also of note is the renovation of the patio, scheduled to open in April, which will then give the club two live stages and a patio that should rival Hunt Club in space and comfort. Moreover, the focal point, when discussing the club's strategy with manager Chris Finnerty, is to provide a variety of musical styles -- and also to align its bands to complement what's going on at Cain's Ballroom on any given night, making it a natural after-party location. Also key to the room's success is the plan to keep it cover free, unless necessary to cover the occasional touring band's expenses.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the stealth club of the district, Downtown Lounge. Tucked away at 24 N. Cheyenne Ave., off the beaten path of the Main Street clubs, DTL has a neighborhood pub feel and caters to a harder rock vibe, bringing in anyone from local guys like RL Jones or O.T.S.B. to touring acts like Honky or Hell or Highwater. The secret here, though, is to be in the know and keep up with the live schedule by stopping in regularly or keeping an eye on the band's Facebook page.
Blue Dome District
On the south side of downtown's railroad tracks, live music isn't as prevalent as it used to be, as Arnie's Pub, 318 E. 2nd St., no longer hosts live music every weekend. It's still one of downtown's oldest and most colorful bars, though, and the energy of the room only multiplies on the weekends that you stumble in to find Steve Pryor, Dustin Pittsley -- or even better, the Irish revelry of Cairde na Gael or Larkin -- set up in the corner and rocking the bar.
Just across the street, Woody's Corner Bar, 325 E. 2nd St., still books the occasional country or Red Dirt Band, but instead of focusing on the Stillwater ties that the room originally played off of with previous ownership and the Wormy Dog name, the club is now establishing its own identity.
Catching Travis Kidd performing solo on a Thursday evening or with his band on the weekend isn't unheard of, but it's not the rule, either, as Woody's now captures the post-college party vibe with a mix of rock and country booking, both original and cover bands.
Fassler Hall is located just a couple of blocks down the street at 304 S. Elgin Ave. As part of the McNellie's Group and a sister to The Colony, the room certainly has strong ties to the music scene, but doesn't do live music every night. When Fassler does host live bands, you can usually count on one or more of the usual suspects from the New Tulsa Sound group to be on the bill and others to show up, as the room is a favorite spot for Wink Burcham and Paul Benjaman Band.
The shows that have really set the bar and established Fassler's identity as a live music room, however, have been special engagements like last year's Other Lives concert or last month's Samantha Crain gig, which served to kick off her album release tour. Regardless, on a night that Fassler Hall is hosting live music, you know it's going to be good.
Headed to Boston?
At one point, the corner of 18th and Boston was the place to be if you were a music fan. Even though styles changed and venues changed hands, live music was a constant presence, with up to four rooms hosting live bands. That number dwindled as The Venue became Rocbar and then Pink, reverting to a dance club, making the emergence of the already discussed Shrine all the more appropriate when it finally opened its doors and started booking local talent again.
After a few false starts, flirtations with DJs and the dance scene, and multiple management changes, The Treehouse, 1738 S. Boston Ave., is renewing its commitment to live music once again, and most local music fans are hoping it will stick this time. The one time home of Hoffbrau (then Steamroller Blues and Boston's) has hosted a number of great bands over the years, including Cross Canadian Ragweed in its early stages and Blue October, before the band signed its major-label record deal. A little over two years ago, the room got a total remodel, including a new stage, lights and great sound system, making it a near perfect room for live bands.
Just recently Momo Caine took over the bookings with a renewed commitment to bringing live music back to the room with a mix of original and cover bands. The calendar is just beginning to take shape, making us hesitant to get too excited just yet, but there's plenty of potential here for this room to finally return to form and become a key player in the local music scene.
COURTESY OF WHIRLIGIG
The anchor of the corner, and, in many respects, at least a segment of our local music scene, is Mercury Lounge. Located in a former gas station at 1747 S. Boston Ave., Mercury Lounge has been a long-standing favorite of many live music fans and has established its own unique identity as Tulsa's haven for Americana and alt-country with a rock twist.
If you're looking for the hottest rising acts from Oklahoma and Texas, owner/manager Reggie Dobson has a great track record for finding hot bands on their way up. Turnpike Troubadours and Dirty River Boys both got their first break in Tulsa at Mercury Lounge and now they're playing Cain's Ballroom. Nevertheless, they still make time in the schedule to come back and play the bar where it all started.
By fostering a home for great music and treating the bands well, Dobson is not only getting smaller bands on their way up, but also locking in seasoned veterans as well. Artists like Dale Watson, Billy Joe Shaver and The Derailers have all played the Merc and keep it on their radar. Meanwhile, rising acts like Sons of Fathers, American Aquarium, Ben Miller Band, Chuck Mead and Jason Eady season the spring calendar with local artists like Brandon Clark Band, Electric Rag Band and John Moreland making regular appearances and standing right alongside the big names.
Every once in a while The Mercury mixes things up, bringing Sam & the Stylees or a punk band in to keep the audience on its toes. Most of the time, though, Mercury books the best Americana artists from all over, building a reputation for being a tastemaker and always having good music.
If you know your local music lore, you know that The Colony was at one point owned by Leon Russell, making it not only the home of the original Tulsa Sound, but also the club that Eric Clapton and George Harrison made now legendary appearances at. Times have changed and Leon Russell no longer frequents the little bar located at 2809 S. Harvard Ave., but the room has been fostering a new legacy over the past few years, hosting live music nearly every night of the week.
Although you can hear a wide variety of styles come through, touching on everything from jazz to folk to groove-heavy rock and Red Dirt depending on the night of the week and who's visiting, most of the time you can count on a relaxing evening and community vibe amongst the artists.
Most of the artists that are part of the current New Tulsa Sound cut their teeth at The Colony and still stop back in to play, with Pilgrim, Wink Burcham and Paul Benjaman still making regular appearances. This is also the current home of Tom Skinner's Science Project on Wednesday evenings, keeping the room in touch with the Red Dirt Scene and bringing in rising acts like Parker Millsap alongside regulars like Brad James Band, Whirligig and Big O Show.
If you want a laid back, relaxed vibe, The Colony is not only you springboard into the current New Tulsa Sound, but also your introduction to a whole community spirit that keeps the local music scene growing.
Of course, tastes vary, and although there aren't many clubs that cater to Tulsa's commercial hard rock and metal audiences, there are a couple that are serving as staples to the local scene. While neither club is strictly a hard rock or metal venue, both rooms cater to local music that's a step off what may be considered a more mainstream format, and especially to those who don't fit the indie-rock mold.
Tankz, 1619 S. Memorial Drive, boasts a schedule that may be a bit evenly spread, touching on alt-rock and even a little bluegrass at times. But for the most part, this is the room where bands like For The Wolf and Madewell can get a foot in the door and build their chops. Moreover, this is one of the two rooms where you're most likely to get your metal fix, hosting everyone from Firstryke and Southern Lush to groups like SoGen and Death Inquisition.
Just down the street, Ole Memorial Lounge, 1133 S. Memorial Drive, touches on rock and blues, but tends to play home base for the local metal scene, with a March and April schedule of Tulsa rockers like Fist of Rage, Joint Effect, Searching For Sanity and Forsaken Few.
Of course, metal isn't the only niche market in Tulsa. In a state known for producing country artists, there is a distinct lack of live country venues. With the arrival last fall of Red Dirt Dance Hall, 6214 S. Sheridan Ave., not only do we finally have a country venue, but also a room that's bringing original live music to south Tulsa. After catering to the cover crowd for years as Fishbonz, a management and format change has given the room a fresh feel and, after a slow start, it is stepping up its game. Although its moniker hails Red Dirt, the format really caters to Texas country without stepping into the alt-country and Americana arena that Mercury Lounge operates in. Initially, booking Oklahoma artists like Jay Falkner, Travis Kidd and Brandon Clark helped the room get its footing, but it's now hitting its stride, having recently brought in acts like Mickey & the Motorcars, Casey James, and Roger Creager. Boasting live music every Thursday and Friday night (and other evenings as bookings dictate), the coming schedule includes touring acts like Gloriana, Greg Bates and Thieving Birds, assuring south Tulsa that this isn't a flash in the pan room. Now, if the room can start tapping the Stillwater vein, south Tulsa could have a club that even draws mid-towners out of their element.
What are we missing?
For the sake of argument and space, we've just glanced over some of the major players on the live music scene. if you're out on weekends, however, you know that we've also got a thriving cover scene as well with bands like Crossland, Amped, Jumpshots, M.I.C., The Sellouts and even old staples like Imzadi and Mid Life Crisis still bringing crowds out. While Brookside is anchored by Crow Creek Tavern , 3534 S. Peoria Ave., the Gendron group of clubs spreads the love around the Tulsa metro area with Fishbonz Owasso, 106 S. Atlanta St. in Owasso; CJ Moloney's, 1849 S. Aspen Ave. in Broken Arrow; Rooster's, 8215 E. Regal Court in Bixby; and Bounty Lounge, 6529 E. 31st St.
Furthermore, we've got a restaurant scene that is feeding our live music community with Blue Rose Café, 1924 Riverside Drive, bringing in live acts in a variety of formats five nights a week; The Rusty Crane, 109 N. Detroit Ave., stepping into the fray with Jesse Aycock on a weekly basis and some hand-picked weekend shows, and Baker Street Pub, 6620 S. Memorial Drive, bringing live music to south Tulsa and transitioning to a club atmosphere in the late evenings, especially with the weekend crowds.
After scanning the landscape, it's clear that Tulsa has a variety of rooms across town. Although we still need a couple of smaller original music venues in the 125-200 capacity range for young bands to cut their teeth in, the question may not actually be whether or not the clubs can keep up, but whether or not the venues and acts can find the correct match and synergy to both foster artist growth and generate the audiences and business to keep venue doors open. In the end, it lies in the hands of music fans to step out, enter the club doors and put their support behind their favorite artists and rising bands alike.
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