Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Danbury: Rock City

The following article appeared in the Fairfield County Weekly back on Thursday, October 18, 2007:

Danbury: Rock City
It hasn't become The New Seattle, Thurston, but the Sub Rosa Party, the Heirloom Arts Theatre and Billy Baloney's are making Danbury the best place in Fairfield County to beat the cover-band scene.

"Oasis, Jewel, Korn, Frank Black, Blink 182." Mike Mori sits in the Manhattan offices of the global Agency Group and lists the bands that played Tuxedo Junction when he was the booking agent for the Danbury club in the mid-to-late-'90s. Mori says Blink 182 "opened for about $100 a night back then."

Billy Willy, aka Billy Baloney, who ran Billy Willy's at the same time and the Empress Ballroom from 2000 to 2004, has his own list: My Chemical Romance, Story of the Year, Simple Plan, Fall Out Boy (who played for $150), plus "tons and tons of local bands."

But the most important band to ever stop into Danbury—judging by the impact of the show if not the prominence of the band—was Sonic Youth. At a 1993 Tuxedo Junction show, guitarist Thurston Moore declared onstage that Danbury (population 66,000 according to the 1990 Census) would be the "new Seattle."

Maybe he was feeling a bit jolted by the good reception; maybe the Bethel-raised Moore was being kind to his old stamping grounds; or maybe he was so impressed by locals like China Pig, Monsterland and G'nufuz that he meant it.

In any case, a Rolling Stone reporter was in the audience and Moore's declaration was to the Danbury music scene of the 1990s what cries of "Gold!" were to the California economy of the 1850s—hype that had a real and lasting effect.

Danbury bands would accrue fan-bases stretching as far as the real Seattle; local record label Mudd Industries would become as much as an industry power player as would be cool in the era of the slacker; the Gas Ball was to be elevated from yearly local festival to a "cultural event" that attracted buses of college kids; the counterculture shop Trash American Style would (literally) sell the scene; Danbury would be a must-stop destination for national bands on route from New York to Boston; and airplay on Western Connecticut State University's WXCI would be an indie-rock breakthrough.

At least some of the above was supposed to happen.

Only WXCI asserted its Thurston Moore-given right to relevance. "It was one of the first stations dedicated to alternative rock," says Mori. "These were the days before MP3s or blogs, where, if you were really into alternative rock, you had to tune in to a college radio stations." Today, the 3,000-watt WXCI is still one of most prominent college rock outlets in the Northeast, and helps gear WestConn's 5,000-plus students to shows.

On the other hand: the local top dogs provided a staple of quality musicians that have been recycled into new local top dogs. Mudd dried up. The Gas Ball was canceled due to a lack of sponsorship. Trash closed up last year. And, the concert scene...

"I remember that there was this awesome scene in the '90s," says Jay LaPierre, who runs to Heirloom Arts Theatre in the space where the Empress once was. "I went away to school and came back and there was this hardcore scene that eventually left everyone cold."

One of the blessings and curses of Danbury is its appeal to young concertgoers. Twenty-one percent of the population is under 18, and the city seems safe compared to, say, Bridgeport or Hartford, meaning parents in the surrounding suburbs may have fewer qualms about sending their kids off to a show.

So when a ticket to the Family Values Tour made you the baddest kid in the ninth grade, teen mosh pits started erupting in Danbury clubs.

"It was a tough time," says Billy Willy, who's always run alcohol-free, all-ages clubs. "Most shows went off without a hitch and even in the ones where there was an incident, it was only two or three kids causing a problem. But a few bad apples can really ruin the bunch in that case."

Everyone interviewed for this story remembers an incident at Tuxedo Junction that seemed to epitomize the problem. New Haven-based Hatebreed, on their way up through the metal ranks, stopped in and "a security guard grabbed someone who was a friend of the band and they sicced the entire audience on them," says Jeff Jowdy, whose cousins owned Tuxedo Junction at the time. "A lot of people didn't need the hassle anymore and stopped booking as many national acts."

Mori confirmed the event happened but says "that was just one show, and I'd prefer to think about all the hundreds of ones that did go well."

Besides, the other shoe was starting to drop.

"It's a blue-collar town and you couldn't always bank on indie rock," Mori says. "I love Frank Black but we lost money when we brought him in." WRKI 95.1 set up shop and became an anti-WXCI of sorts, bringing in '70s and '80s bands that were still touring but were, shall we say, low-profile enough to consider a city the size of Danbury worth their while: Ratt, Dokken, Dio...

"At the tail end of it, I was just burnt out," says Mori. "National acts weren't selling as many tickets and they were skipping us for Toad's Place." A new owner took over Tuxedo Junction and moved most of its live music nights to its sister business the Monkey Bar.

Mori says he doesn't send many of the acts the Agency Group has a hand in managing to places like Danbury. "On a tour for a smaller or mid-sized act, you have to be very focused and I want them in all the major cities where people will want to write about them."

Still, Danbury is a blip on some rock & roll radar screens.

"When you're doing a basic track around Connecticut, you usually hit Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Danbury", says James "Fuzz" San Giovanni, who's made countless such tracks as guitarist of Deep Banana Blackout and his current band Rolla. Note that Danbury beats out the more populous cities of Stamford, Waterbury and Norwalk—which are in a 40 mile radius of the city.

No doubt Danbury has all the components needed to be a concert hotspot. But its fate may lie in the hands of a few club owners. The new Heirloom Arts Theatre, the two-year-old Sub Rosa Party at Cousin Larry's and the soon-to-be-opened Billy Baloney's—alongside old stalwarts like the City Ale House and the Monkey Bar—are vital to the revitalization of the scene.

The Heirloom Arts Theatre

Some of the kids stand back near the bar that serves only snacks and sodas and press their fingers into their ears. Some of them stand at the edge of the stage and stare at "ghettotech" ensemble Fag Muscle as if they weren't musicians but ice sculptors or contortionists—exotic performance artists whose work engenders intense curiosity. A few parents sit at the Heirloom Arts Theatre's only bench along the wall and wonder when the sound check is going to end.

Jay LaPierre, who opened the Heirloom Arts Theatre (or HAT) last summer, "got one noise-rock band and then another and decided to make a night out of it." Four acts (New Haven's Fag Muscle and florida = death, along with Brooklyn's Slasher Risk and NonHorse) will entertain, fascinate and confuse a group of mostly high school-age kids with compositions that can't quite be described as songs.

LaPierre, was raised in Newtown, "sort of fell into" taking over the space that used to be the Empress Ballroom.

"I was back from school and wasn't doing much" (indie scene-wise, he means, as LaPierre is director of operations at the ritzy Ridgefield Playhouse) "and the owner was looking someone to take over the space and I was like, 'Fuck it. I'll do it.'"

Between the closing of the Empress in 2004 and the opening of HAT in 2007, the theater, which is hidden within a mammoth business plaza on Main Street, had fallen into disrepair and the first step was clearing out trash, repainting the walls, getting the bathrooms to a point where they "half-work" and restoring the above-crowd veranda to turn it into a "beer balcony" for the over-21 set. LaPierre wants to get couches and an espresso machine and turn the Heirloom into a seven-day hang out spot with a schedule of art-film screenings. But his goal for now is "to just be self-sustaining."

So far the venue has racked up an impressive line-up of artistically viable bands from outside the area, far outside—Japanese noise-rock band Melt-Banana is playing Nov. 10 and the venue is already selling tickets. Other upcoming shows include Los Angeles' No Age, a Sub Pop?signed one-time Spin Band of the Day (Oct. 24) and Orange County-based the Blank Tapes, a favorite of the OC Weekly (Nov. 12).

LaPierre says the best event the venue has hosted thus far was August's "D.I.Y tag sale," for which the owners of Trash American Style unloaded some of their stock, a torch-passing of sorts. LaPierre has also inherited some of the problems of the old days.

"During one of our first shows, some kid made his way onto the balcony and threw paint down," says LaPierre who, when we spoke, was still in the process of renovating the venue. "I guess he thought it was funny but it's all over the [downstairs] bar now."

Sub Rosa Party

Cousin Larry's Cafe is half sports bar and half rock club, and I mean that almost literally.

On one end is a bar facing shelves full of TVs perennially tuned in to ESPN or Giants games and ornamented with neon signs from the usual breweries.

Across the room, the carpet stops and black and white tiles that comprise a dance floor begin, leading to a stage decorated with flyers from past shows. A curtained-off "bands only" area is cubby-holed to one side and a space for a state-of-the-art soundboard to the other.

This is where, for the last two years, Anthony Yacobellis, whose pedigree includes local bands Sneakthief and Human Vice Patrol, hosts acts from across the Northeast and beyond at his Sub Rosa Party (sub rosa being Latin for "under the rose" or, for our purposes, "beneath the radar).

"We're not a niche bar, never have been," says owner Larry Stramiello. "This is just a place where anyone can come and have a good time." He has a soft spot for local music and has acted as a sugar daddy to the local scene, lending Yacobellis cash to record an album and not just hosting the Sub Rosa Party but bankrolling its stage and sound system.

After the old guys in flannel jackets pay their tabs and the long-haired kid in the WXCI shirt starts taking a cover at the door, the vibe is loud. Rolla, Boston's Ben Crespo, Danbury's Chris Kiley and Stratford's the Way Up complete with college kids playing pool and downing drinks and a chatty waitress approaching each patron to offer a $2 fruity shot that comes in a plastic test tube.

It's a far cry from the my-first-rock-show crowd of the Heirloom Arts but it can't be said that Sub Rosa doesn't introduce crowds to new bands.

"We had the Mathematicians, a band from upstate New York, in and everyone left a Mathematicians fan," says Yacobellis, who wears a t-shirt of Greenwich punk band Elvis McMan. Other favorite shows from Sub Rosa's first two years include Kiss Kiss, also from upstate N.Y., and Earl Greyhound and the Outside from New York City. (An anniversary show is booked for Nov. 17.)

Sub Rosa started as a weekend showcase but it was so well-recieved, Yacobellis took over all of Larry's booking and now plans up to five shows a week—featuring mostly indie bands from Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts—and hosts a WXCI show previewing the upcoming week. In addition, Yacobellis is a math teacher at the progressive Calhoun School on New York's Upper West Side (a two-hour commute).

The same things that make Yacobellis an exceptional teacher make him an exceptional concert promoter: He never tires out; he's relentlessly positive; and he gives everyone individual attention.

"Tony is very good about caring for bands," says John Pioli, guitarist-vocalist of the Way Up. "He's good at compiling shows so you're always on with acts that match up well and he makes sure everyone gets paid."

Yacobellis can and did talk at length about the painstaking care by which he divides profits. In short, every band gets what they were promised, even if the club doesn't make a profit, and bands are not responsible for selling their own tickets.

"Most nights we do well but there've been dry spells that have lasted for weeks," he says. "If I added up all the money I've made and all the money I put into Sub Rosa, no, I probably have not made a profit."

He says he does it for Danbury, his hometown where he still went regularly for band practice when he lived in a $2,000-a-month box in Manhattan.

"If a band comes through and is treated well and has a really positive experience, they'll remember it and word will get around."

Billy Baloney's

The Danbury music scene has eaten up and coughed out the man known as Billy Willy and Billy Baloney more than a few times but it's only made him stronger.

A perennial member of some local punk band, Billy opened Billy Willy's on the Brookfield border in 1996. "It was a dance studio during the day and a rock club at night," he says with the relish. "The overhead was ridiculously cheap and we'd have killer shows for $3 or $5 a person."

In 1999, he moved on up to the Empress Ballroom downtown. The bigger space allowed for bigger bands and bigger crowds, but also a bigger rent. "I'd have the bands sell the tickets and say, 'Okay, you sell 50 tickets and you're on the bill.' They'd come back selling 10 tickets and I'd still let them on, but I picked up the difference." He adds, "It could be hard to make a profit when you are selling no alcohol."

It wasn't just about rock and roll anymore; it was about business, and that's hard for someone who goes by "Billy Willy" professionally. He'd see large crowds come to the Empress and didn't see a scene blooming. He saw potential liabilities because of that one "bad apple." Bands, audiences, musical genres—these things he loved had to be factored into a budget now. "It seemed like I was getting whacked on all sides, trying to improve the Empress, get the acoustics better, pay rent and promote the music I loved and I didn't think I could do all of that," he says.

After the infamous 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire, his insurance skyrocketed and the Empress closed.

Recently, he's put together Billy Baloney's, a club on Ives Street and amazingly, after what he's been though, he's operating the same way, keeping the booze out, inviting the kids in and lining up a mishmash of punk, hardcore and ska bands.

"You can't keep me away from this stuff," he says. "I love putting on shows and promoting shows." Billy is still wading through zoning permits to start regular operations but he's booked a few lineups that show he kept a Rolodex through his decade in the scene: The Toasters played the venue's maiden show in September and the Color Fred, featuring Fred Mascherino of Taking Back Sunday, headlines Oct. 28.

Asked if he has any advice to new promoters, Billy keeps it simple: "Bring music, man. Don't let anyone get in your way or any stipulation stop you, just bring the music back to Danbury."

nkeppler@fairfieldweekly.com (The writer would like to thank Weekly contributor and Danbury musician Bruce George Wingate for his invaluable assistance.)


Anonymous said...

There are other venues that you left out, but they are mostly frequented by teenagers and college kids. Have you heard of The Space in Hamden? Indie bands play there quite a bit. It's probably one of the coolest venues I have ever been to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, I'm from Ireland and I'm moving back to Danbury where I was born this month. I'm looking for venues to go to and see shows and possibly play, I play in a band here called Music for Dead Birds (www.myspace.com/musicfordeadbirds)