Up Close and Personal: Fans Here Get a Front Row Seat 0
Originally published in Salt Lake magazine

Up Close and Personal: Fans Here Get a Front Row Seat

SLC’s MUSIC SCENE has flourished in the last decade because of a few promoters who put quality before quantity. As a result, bands love to play here and fans get a front row seat, every show.

Thirty-eight years ago, Robert Plant’s howling vocals reached an audience of more than 77,000 when stadium rock supergroup Led Zeppelin’s fans overstuffed the Pontiac Silverdome. Early last summer, Plant’s voice seemed no less powerful when he brought his latest band to Salt Lake City’s Depot and played to a house of…1,200 people.

And that’s why being a music lover in Salt Lake City in 2015 is the best thing ever.

The city’s location—like a desert gas station—has always been a logical stop for bands crossing the country. Gotta take a break somewhere between Denver and the West Coast. Venues in SLC, except for USANA and Energy Solutions Arena, don’t necessarily bring in the big bucks for bands, but they are  wonderfully personal, accessible spaces in which to play. And fans get to be a part of it here, to be insanely close to live music.

Salt Lake has seen the likes of monster bands like Led Zeppelin, the Stones and U2, but it’s the little shows that make this a notable music town: Iron and Wine playing at Kilby Court before anyone had ever heard of them (or Jonathon Richman playing there even after everyone had heard of him); David Byrne jerking around the stage at Red Butte on a summer night; Willie and the family serenading what was essentially a large picnic at Gallivan Plaza and Jason Isbell growing from the infamous Drive-By Truckers shows at the Zephyr into the earnest songwriter with a loyal Utah following.

“Like do you even want to go to a stadium show anymore?” KRCL’s midday DJ Eugenie Hero Jaffe asks. “I mean we had Robert Plant at the Depot. You could just tell he’s having a great time. He told the crowd, ‘I feel like this this is the mid-’60s. I don’t want to be in a stadium, it’s so much better to have you right here with me.’ That was so cool. I don’t want to go see Robert Plant on a jumbo screen. I want to see him right in front of me.

“There is so much more music being produced today than back then,” says Jaffe. “Bands like Blitzen Trapper or My Morning Jacket, I think they’re the same caliber as the Led Zepplins or Rolling Stones, really, but there’s just so much more to choose from and our interests are so diverse. Salt Lake really gets to benefit from that. Because of our size and location, we get these high-quality acts in these small venues.”

Bad Brad Wheeler, musician and a music host at KRCL radio, says the city’s popularity among traveling musicians is a combination of SLC being a convenient stop­over between Denver and the West Coast, great venues and grateful Utah audiences. “The bands love the people here—they’re so enthusiastic,” Wheeler says.“Probably because we’re 500 miles from a another major city that has concerts.”

It took took people with vision to make these venues, a few folks who saw it coming, who realized that the old mode, the stadium mode, had burned out. And they set out to create places where small could thrive. Spaces where small didn’t have to feel second best, or half-assed, or well, small. Small could feel big, could feel special, insider-y and clubby. (And actually, big can seem small here, like when you pay $5 to hear Beck at Pioneer Park.) These are the guys behind The Depot, the small-ball players who run Urban Lounge and Kilby Court and the Triple-A folks at the State Room. Within this narrow bandwidth, this small hierarchy, we can find our music, like what we like and forgo the huge one-size-fits-all stadium shows. These shows belong to us.

Let us introduce you to the men behind the curtain, the three promoters who have, perhaps more than anyone, made Salt Lake a great place to see music.

The Old Head: Dave McKay, United Concerts
Venues: The Depot and USANA

After 45 years in NYC, Denver and Salt Lake, Dave McKay knows rock ’n’ roll. In 1989, he arrived in Salt Lake to find a musical blank page.

Listening to McKay talk is like auditing a survey course on rock ’n’ roll in SLC. He name-checks ParkWest, KJQ, The Zephyr and other bygone signifiers.

“It was a great time for music,” McKay recalls. “We used to do shows at Saltair and those were some crazy nights. For some reason, Salt Lake City audiences really tagged onto that grunge scene. I think the everyone was tired of the hair bands and all that and this whole new energy and style coming out of Seattle was really embraced by Salt Lake youth.”

Salt Lake he affectionately describes as a “truck stop” for bands. “It’s a good stop for a band, they can refuel and pick up a couple of bucks and move on,” he says. “But we have great crowds here and after bands play here once, they come back.”

They return, McKay says, because audiences respond so well to performance. “For some reason Salt Lake audiences, I don’t know, are less jaded, more enthusiastic. Bands are often taken aback by the response they get here. It makes an impression.”

McKay is the mastermind behind the Depot, United Concerts’ mid-size venue that is the biggest small venue in Salt Lake. Holding 1,200 fans, the place was designed to fill the niche between clubs like Urban Lounge and The State Room. It’s a general admission space that can hold 1,200 fans and it’s attracted the likes of Chrissie Hynde, Morrissey and Robert Plant. Hynde herself was a great example of why the Depot attracts big names. “Look at this place,” she gushed during her performance earlier this year. “Doesn’t it beat a big stadium?”

The Curator: Chris Mautz First Tracks Entertainment
Venues: The State Room and O.P. Rockwell

Any discussion of the SLC music scene leads to Chris Mautz. The 44-year-old has been behind great shows here for nearly 20 years. He’s co-owner of the State Room and part-owner of O.P. Rockwell in Park City, and the approach he takes in making the music happen is at the heart of SLC’s less-is-more style of show.

“It has to be about the fans’ experience,” Mautz believes. “Without giving people a way to connect and engage with the music, there is no show.”

There are no gaudy beer signs or TV screens at The State Room. A riser of seats backs a decent-sized dance floor and all the focus is on the stage. The outside lobby is separated acoustically and physically from the performance space. Small touches like a coat check and mercifully priced drinks elevate the experience. And what you don’t see is what you hear: The State Room has a killer sound system and its acoustic design has musicians flocking to play there.

“You can have many different types of experiences here,” Mautz says. “You can hang out in the lobby and visit with friends, stand at the bar up top and take in the show, grab a seat or hit the dance floor and crank it. There are no barriers between you and the music and you can enjoy it however you like.”

Mautz started in the biz in 1997 as a Red Butte Garden intern. But his tenacity, charm and smarts led him to where the action was at in the botanical garden—booking the shows in the amphitheater. As Red Butte shows grew, Mautz grew with them. He got to know bands, roadies, agents and managers, got to know music production and the hows and whys of what makes a good show. After nearly a decade, he started thinking about going out on his own. He and Darin Piccoli were bouncing ideas around over beers at the Bayou and saw the “for sale” sign on the former children’s theater across the street.

“It had been closed for a while and there was a lot of work to be done but man, it was a pretty unique spot—so we went for it.”

They took the theater’s bones and built The State Room  with music in mind. And Mautz acknowledges some responsibility for making Salt Lake a great place to see music and for helping convince musicians that it’s a great place to play.

“We’ve all benefited from the fact that Salt Lake is a logical place for a band to stop over and play a show,” he says. “But we’re leaving that stop-over mentality behind. We have interesting, eclectic venues. Bands are coming here because they want to, not because they have to.”

The Whiz Kid:  Will Sartain, S&S Presents
Venues: Kilby Court and Urban Lounge

In the before times, Will Sartain was just like us, a 16-year-old misfit, lurking in the back at the shows at Kilby Court. But unlike us, this former wallflower got into the fray, first helping Kilby become a strange incubator for a whole host of bands in the first decade of the 2000s. Now he’s one of SLC’s main promoters and a businessman who takes the business of music seriously.

“It’s important to treat people well,” he says. “You can be a jerk once in this business and you’re done. So we understand how to treat the bands and to make things smooth and we want the same for the fans at our shows.”

Sartain and his partner Lance Saunders keep it going with its friendly vibe. Kilby Court personifies SLC style; many bands that count now as “big”—like Death Cab for Cutie or Iron and Wine—passed across its stage.

These days, Sartain’s focus is on Urban Lounge. In the Salt Lake venue hierarchy Urban is the scruffy space with an eclectic lineup that runs the gamut from wizard rock death metal to indie singer-song writer types. It’s a standing venue with minimal seating, it’s loud and raucous, but there isn’t a bad spot in the house and you feel close, really close to the bands.

“We’re often the spot for bands on the way up,” Sartain says. “We’re sort of the entry into the Salt Lake scene for so many artists. They come here and see how great our crowds are and a couple of years later they’re playing the Depot.”

Social media, Sartain says, has changed the way music is promoted and how bands connect with their audience and, in a way, it makes his job easier.

“It’s so influential for a band,” he says. “People are finding out about good bands faster and because of that there is more touring music than there was 10 years ago. It used to be you’d have these agents who would run marketing for a band, now it’s a guy with a laptop.”

SLC Punk

Salt Lake City upped the Reagan-era ante with its extra sheen of squeaky clean Mormonism and bred an especially virulent antibody to the cultural vaccine: SLC Punk.

“As an old guy I look back at the ’80s and I see why we were so pissed off,” says Jerry Liedtke. “Reagan was working with the Taliban, the CIA was working with Pablo Escobar, there was talk of a draft, Russia had nukes pointed at us. So we took a lot of drugs and there was a good amount of hooliganism, but here in Salt Lake it was different because you’d have these Mormon kids and straight-edgers, who didn’t do drugs, in the scene, too.”

Now Liedtke, ­his wife Kestrel and their partner Robin Fairchild own Tin Angel Cafe. But he came up in the heat of the punk scene in SLC and ran with a punk crew called the “Fry Gods.” The music and mayhem was centered around a host of small and medium-sized ad hoc all-ages clubs like the Palladium, DV8, The Bar and Grill, Maxims and the Pompadour, to name a few. Ken Sanders’ Cosmic Aeroplane had grown out of the trippy-dippy ’70s and was the record store and head shop where Liedtke and his fellow skaters (disparagingly called “grommets”) gathered to hear about new shows and mingle with older “legit” punkers—“legit” because they were 21 and could buy beer.

But the pinnacle of the scene was the Speedway Cafe, a truly subterranean venue buried underneath the viaduct at 500 South and 500 West. Liedtke’s punker cousin Paul Maritsas co-owned the Speedway with the aptly named metalhead Jay Speed, and Liedtke got the coveted job of running the beer room.

“By then I was 21 years old and I basically had carte blanche,” Liedtke says. “The beer room was a great gig. You could BYOB into this room and we’d keep it cold for you and you could come in and drink it and go back out into the all-ages area.”

Punk and hardcore legends like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, The Stench, the Box Car Kids, GWAR and more sweated it out on the stage and Liedtke had a front row seat.

The Speedway closed in the early ’90s and the building is home to a produce warehouse next to the Lewis Brothers Stages bus depot.

“I really want to go in there,” Liedtke says. “I’d love to just look around. One time we all went down into the crawlspace and found all these horse head skulls. I wonder if they’re still there.”

Originally published in Salt Lake magazine, September 2015