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Crank it up: The beat quickens for local concert promoters

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With bar lights as the stage lights, Justice For All, a reggae-pop-folk band, plays at Wally’s House of Booze. The tavern has expanded its music scene to include a wide variety of genres.

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Town Toyota Center’s Top 10 shows

(ranked by net profit)

1. Kelly Clarkson

3,793 tickets sold

$167,104 (sold out)

2. Jeff Dunham

3,433 tickets sold

$163,419

3. Mannheim Steamroller

3,285 tickets sold

$136,568 (sold out)

4. Heart

3,001 tickets sold

$130,196

5. Chicago

2,706 tickets sold

$124,426

6. Stars on Ice

2,961 tickets sold

$119,383

7. Bill Cosby

2,898 tickets sold

$117,433

8. LeeAnn Rimes

4,025 tickets sold

$112,707 (sold out)

9. Harlem Globetrotters

3, 747 tickets sold

$94,201 (sold out)

10. Cats

2,526 tickets sold

$90,066 (sold out)

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Eight years ago, fledgling concert producer and coffeehouse owner Darren Reynolds believed he had everything in place for the dynamic debut of alternative rock in downtown Wenatchee:

Great band, punchy promo posters, top-of-the-line stage equipment and aggressive ticket pricing ($5) that was sure to fill the house. All he needed was a crowd of customers.

Oops.

Concert time rolled around and I don’t think we had a single person in the place,” said Reynolds, who owns and operates Caffé Mela, downtown’s busiest coffee shop and music venue. “Even worse, I walked out onto the street hoping to snag an audience — just let them in for free — and there wasn’t a single person, not even many cars, within blocks.”

Today, the volume’s been turned up on concert production in North Central Washington. The once sputtering scene of local bands playing occasional bar gigs has evolved into a budding industry — a multi-layered community of (mostly part-time) concert promoters, booking agents, talent scouts, production outfits, recording studios, consultants and, of course, musicians from around the valley, the Northwest and the world.

Reynolds still books bands into his 60-seat coffeehouse, but now the place is often packed as music fans from Portland, Seattle and Spokane join locals in Wenatchee to hear indie performers on the verge of stardom. Last year, he cranked up Square Productions to book, record and stage music events at varied-sized venues — 35 to 600 seats — with mixed but promising success.

But that’s not all. The number of venues — both large and small — has grown along with ticket sales as dozens of touring rock bands, folk singers, jazz combos, bluegrass groups and everything in between learn that NCW is a workable stop on the road between Seattle and Spokane. Leavenworth, Cashmere, Wenatchee, Chelan, Twisp and Omak all boast bars and stages that cater regularly to enthusiastic fans. Bigger names — legendary musicians, in some cases — play larger venues such as Town Toyota Center and the Wenatchee Performing Arts Center.

We’re finally on the (music) map,” said Reynolds. “Bands have discovered we’re here, and that we’re a viable market. Not everything works, but the right band in the right venue on the right night can pull in a good-sized crowd.”

Growing slowly, learning lots

And there’s the hitch, said local promoter Scott Erickson, who with his wife Jenny runs the scouting and booking company Two-Bar Productions. “The music scene here is growing, but it’s a slow and difficult growth,” he said. “In many ways, we’re still in the experimental stage — still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”

In Wenatchee, promoters agreed, night life hasn’t yet blossomed to provide big, roving crowds of music fans who populate bars, auditoriums and festivals week after week. “We’re still mostly a special events town,” said Erickson. Residents here “pay to see a favorite or interesting performer — maybe once a month or so — but there isn’t that constant surge of interest that feeds multiple venues and keeps them alive.”

The Ericksons know their stuff. The couple are devoted listeners of Seattle’s KEXP-FM, which spotlights new music and up-and-coming performers. They travel regularly to Northwest festivals and music events “to get a first live look and listen” of musicians and singers. They’ve hosted intimate concerts in their own home for regionally popular bands, offering food and drink, sleeping accommodations and pass-the-hat receipts as part of the payment to the performers.

Erickson estimated their Two-Bar Productions helped book about 80 performers last year into various venues. Sometimes, they booked a favorite band directly into a favorite place, such as Caffe Mela. But many times they just recommended a venue they knew would work perfectly for a band or solo performer — say, Chelan’s Vogue Liquid Lounge or the Twisp River Pub.

One good example: Singer-songwriter Andrew Vait last year played a three-gig mini-tour through NCW that included the Ericksons’ recommendations for those smaller venues in Chelan and Twisp. “It was a sort of radical idea,” said Erickson, “to bring a top-notch performer into the area and not have him play the bigger venues. It was a bit risky, but a success.”

The slow but steady growth of NCW’s music scene has resulted, said Erickson, in a hefty number of bands looking for a booking date in the area. “Some weeks, some months, it’s hard to accommodate all the inquiries, so it’s great to see new venues emerge.”

Good music finds a home

Turn to Wally’s House of Booze, the alt-rock hotspot in South Wenatchee that draws diverse, enthusiastic crowds to its mix of local and regional bands. For Andy Peart — bartender and owner of recording-booking studio Snatchee Records — the neighborhood bar’s musical transformation in recent years from ho-hum to kick-butt is, he said, “my dream come true.”

Wally’s offers Peart and his Snatchee clients a “real, ground-level venue” that’s a cross between a backyard garage and a gritty, blue-collar hangout. No fern bar decor. “The music fans love it,” he said. “And it’s one of the reasons they come back week after week — it’s authentic.”

Peart said he and fellow underground rock fans once traveled every weekend to Seattle or Portland to see their favorite bands, sometimes finding them playing in garages or basements. “But now they’re right here in Wenatchee. It’s been a huge shift — one of many we’re seeing here when it comes to live performances.”

Peart (and others) started Snatchee Records five years ago to record regional alternative bands but quickly became a promotional office and booking agent for various groups and venues. Now Peart books four to eight bands a month at venues around the Wenatchee Valley, including Icicle Brewing Company in Leavenworth, Clearwater Steakhouse & Saloon in East Wenatchee, Pioneer House in Cashmere and the now-defunct Hurricane Lounge in Wenatchee.

Biggest crowds? Fans turned out in force for Larry and His Flask from central Oregon, Koffin Kats from Detroit, Mich., and ’90s punk rockers Moral Crux from Ephrata.

This whole, new music scene has blown up huge in terms of venues and visiting bands,” he said, noting recent concert series at Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort and Pybus Public Market.

Good music is finding a home in some surprising places around here,” he said, “and it’s great.”

 

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