Vital signs

Arts editor Peter Thompson examines the health of Reno’s music scene

Does the Reno music scene need major surgery? It seems a little exploratory slice and dice is in order.

Does the Reno music scene need major surgery? It seems a little exploratory slice and dice is in order.

At its best, the Reno-Sparks music scene is a diverse network of musicians supporting each other and pumping out a kaleidoscopic array of high-quality music, from rap rock to sap pop. At its worst, the local scene basks in the degradation of its own worst taste—like a turd trying to eat itself.

There are now more bands than ever putting out more product but competing for the same finite share of local resources. While art historically tends to thrive on high drama and tension, constant low-grade stress results in little more than the occasional tantrum, dumb gossip and general rot of an MTV-scripted reality show. One band won’t play this one club because the club won’t guarantee them $750, and this other band that’s never even played live wants their friends to be able to drink top shelf White Russians for free all night, and these other guys want velvet toilet-seat covers …

Slicing off the crass ends of the bell curve, it doesn’t seem a generic greedy land-grab mentality that haunts the local scene. Surely, there are turf battles. Surely, there is unearned arrogance by bands and hoops to jump through in order to please club owners, but things haven’t gotten that bad. Have they?

As a people, we now live under a constant sensory bombardment of information, a monsoon of bits and burps, much of which is in the form of music. But excoriate the thicker skin of modernity and despite anything the record labels say, there are no signs that people are growing tired of music, and if anything, they seem to be more deeply incorporating bands into their lifestyle the way NFL fans do—having a kind of pride of ownership in their team.

Diagnosing the Reno music scene is like dumping a Hefty bag full of dissected frog parts onto a table in a pitch black room and trying to piece the frogs back together. We may swim in the biggest little pond in the world, but like most little desert ponds, every few seasons we dry up and get sucked down to the muddy bottom of our lowest impulses. Eventually, one of the local tadpoles grows some feet and hops out of the pond. That’s the good news: The music scene doesn’t just die off.

Every local scene goes through highs and lows, and sometimes, as any decent heroin addict will tell you, the highs aren’t really highs anymore but just fleeting periods of normalcy. It’s not like the lunatics are actually running the asylum, but they have definitely taken over Movie Night. Add to that the three-edged sword of new technology, and you have an already turbulent present being forced into a narrow chute of a turbulent future. This has created the prediction that the Reno music scene is in a terminal crisis of some sorts. It’s doubtful, but definitely worth investigating. While I’d rather blow a dead dog than try to predict where the Reno music scene is headed, I’ll sure as hell try (the scene, not the dog).

So I set about the city, looking for signs of disease within the music scene and all its complicated, pulsating parts.

First opinion
It’s the middle of the day, and the sirens twirl, blasting their laughing agony all over town. As they race by, their invasive wails temporarily wash out my thoughts, leaving me tense, silent and pissed-off.

I’m on Fourth Street, passing Arlington Avenue, walking east by the old Sundowner casino. The moon is full in the bright-blue fall sky, drunk with light and pasty as a cream pie.

Downtown, the fat and the feral are at play. Flossy tourists slap at slot machines and dream of sneaking off for 12 minutes of $500 sex with a miserable $5 blonde, while their glamour-starved housewives, already circling the drain, sip on foot-long margaritas and wear stacks of red and gold Mardi Gras beads.

Johnny Fingers performs at the Zephyr Bar.

Photo By David Robert

There’s no music in the air save what little comes piped from the casinos and out of the windows and trunks of cruising cars. Not even a Black Flag/Lenny Williams ska cover band at the Silver Legacy. No Crystal Gayle’s sister-in-law at Cal-Neva. If this were Hot August Nights, I’d surely run into an original Platter or a cousin of a Coaster. Maybe even a Sha-Na-Not tribute show.

I call up local legend Johnny Fingers, talented guitarist and long-time veteran of the music scene. Fingers had played in the wildly successful band Gunshot Licker during what he remembers as one of the heydays of the local scene. He was a member of the well-traveled Saddle Tramps. If anybody knows what’s up with the scene, it’s Fingers. Now he’s playing with a “scumbag country” outfit called Hellbound Glory. Maybe scumbag country will be Reno’s defining sound? But Fingers is rather sour about everything; down on the local scene.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said. “I think it’s everything … A total lack of support.”

“I mean, the ‘80s were a pretty amazing time to play,” he says. “It was the Golden Era, if there is such a thing in Reno. Maybe the Zinc Era. There was the punk scene and a great blues scene. There were lots of big venues like the Grand Ballroom, Hearts on Fire, DelMar Station. I’ve been complaining about it for a while, but I just don’t really know what to say.”

Fingers had been planning on leaving town at the end of this past summer, but his new band had gotten signed to Gearhead Records.

Fingers’ bandmate, 26-year-old Leroy Virgil, was much more talkative. He had heard the rumors that the Reno music scene was on the downward tilt but didn’t, for a rockabilly second, believe it.

“The coolest thing about Reno is that it’s one of the few places in this country that you don’t have to be big to make a living playing music. Basically, you can pay your rent playing music.”

I read the lyrics to their first song off their upcoming CD, which will be called something like Real Deal Scumbag Country. They sing about stuff like “snortin’ coke in the bathroom stall and raising hell.”

“The underground country scene is actually starting to pick up,” he says. “Reno is a pretty cool place to play ‘cause you can travel to San Francisco, Sacramento, Vegas.”

What brought him to Reno?

“I grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., where there wasn’t a scene at all. There are some really cool clubs here: The Green Room, Satellite, Great Basin Brewery. We’ve got national acts coming through at Stoney’s …”

Leroy Vigil of Hellbound Glory says Reno has been very, very good to him.

Photo By David Robert

Virgil estimated that Hellbound Glory would probably play 100 shows this year.

A rough schedule.

“You gotta do what you gotta do. Everybody else is getting up at 8 a.m. to go to work. I’m playing guitar in bars—I’m not complaining.”

Virgil and Fingers mention something about an event they’re trying to organize, a “Scumbag Country Fest” with local acts and bands from Seattle to San Francisco.

Virgil says the only trouble he’s seen with the local scene is playing the casinos, and mostly because of his band’s lyrics. “They liked the music but said we couldn’t sing about drinking and drug use. They want us to play country covers like Keith Urban. I think people are tired of having ‘slick’ shoved down their throats. They want something that’s real.”

Virgil’s diagnosis: “I say Reno should just be Reno and stop trying to be Vegas.”

Step 2: get a second opinion
Jason Sims is a DJ on KRZQ who does a local music showcase on Sunday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. called “Wake the Neighbors.” He didn’t think the Reno Music Scene was doing too bad at all. “It’s actually growing and growing very well,” he said. “The [band] quality is getting better, and the resources are great. Technology-wise, you can record your own CD for very little. The Stops recorded a whole EP in their kitchen. They have a Myspace page in Japanese and one coming in Spanish.

“I think bands themselves are very picky on what shows they play. They want to book shows that they can draw a crowd to and get an audience. They want to make the venue happy. A band that plays two shows a month [is] likely to get a pretty healthy bar tab and a percentage of the door. It’s great watching a band play their very first show and seeing how nervous they are and then four months later seeing them and they’re pros.”

Dr. Sims gives the scene a strong bill of health. “I have no complaints,” he says.

Nursing the local scene
Todd South heads the Reno Music Project, a minimal-frills nursery for young musicians. “For original music, I’d say the biggest problem is finding people who actually want to hear the music,” says the yeoman of the scene. “Ninety-nine percent of people who bother going to shows do so to hang out and socialize, not listen to the music. There are still very few of us (apparently) that are really there to listen. And hey, I’m still fond of the social aspect.

“For years we’ve heard the complaint, ‘Reno lacks a decent music scene. Our aim is to help develop the local music scene and do our best to share Reno’s music renaissance with the world.” Maybe South will help hatch the defining chords and put the Northern Nevada sound on the map.

Booker Rob Brooks directs entertainment at John Asucaga’s Nugget.

Photo By David Robert

Hmmm. “Renaissance?” Are we getting ahead of ourselves here?

Talk to a specialist
I called on Rob Brooks, entertainment director for the Nugget. His latest coup was getting the resplendently finicky Morrissey to play his casino instead of the Coachella Festival in Southern California with all the indie cred that goes along and playing what has become the most important music festival going. (Of course, Morrissey hardly needs the approval.)

In terms of the local music scene, Brooks says we’re spoiled. “Live music has never been more accessible. The local scene is getting better and better,” he says. “We’re getting more venues down here in Victorian Square all within two blocks. They’re bringing in local talent, and the clubs are learning not to charge covers, just to pay the band. Covers are for titty bars.

“We just brought in Social Distortion to a sell-out crowd. We’ve had Chris Cornell, Black Crowes … Reno is raising its profile.”

He says a venue like Lawlor Events Center, while it has lots of seats, “Rips your legs, arms, eyes and toes off if you want to play there.”

“But now the casinos are realizing there is a younger demographic that also has disposable income; young people who want to get dressed up, have a nice meal and go see some music. Anybody who says there’s something wrong [with the Reno music scene] needs to get a new hobby; they’ve got too much time on their hands. Go get married and have kids or something.”

A drastic measure, probably, like cutting your finger off because you broke a nail.

Brooks admits that the music industry itself has changed, but that fact alone is not enough to hurt local music. He sees glory now that the days of the big “skim off the top” record labels are over. Will the casinos cash in on the new numbers of young people by giving them the kind of shows that inspire them to start their own bands?

Investigate a controversy
Allegations that a band had played the Green Room and not been paid sent me over to visit owner Kevin McGehee down on West Street. McGehee is an art dealer and former political lobbyist, and was one of the partners in the now defunct West Third St. Blue Lamp, known to some as the Studio 54 of Reno. I checked the place out and waited until five minutes after 4 p.m. when McGehee pulled up in his SUV. After showing me the million dollar investment he was in the middle of making for expansion of the place, he stood behind the bar and answered questions.

Regarding the band situation, “It’s my own fault,” he says, looking down at the black bar top. “I spoiled them.”

McGehee had just come from a lunch with 7Seconds’ Steve Youth, and they had been talking and agreeing about just this issue. “I’m in a position where I can help all these kids get further,” he says. “And Steve Youth, he’s been in the business 27 years, and he says these kids have no right to make demands because they haven’t earned it. They want rooms at the Sands and dinner. These bands, most of them don’t know the concept of reciprocity. I was giving these kids 100 percent of the door and letting them drink for free. They took, but they never gave back. Then this band, a band who’ve made thousands off of me, came to me and said they needed a guaranteed $750 to play a show.”

Kevin McGehee takes care of business at his Green Room.

Photo By Carli Cutchin & Mary Henry

While McGehee tends to a customer, sound engineer Matt Giebitz sits down at the bar and talks about the price drop in hiring session musicians these days.

“I’ve spent 30 grand in sound equipment for this place,” says McGehee. “The jazz kids are the most spoiled. They can’t get 40 people to show up. I still put up fliers. Jazz doesn’t work without a base community of 500,000. We have at most, 300k. It just doesn’t pay off.”

McGehee walks over past the guts of a room where he said Donna Summer and Lionel Ritchie recorded “Endless Love.”

Now, he says, he’s back in charge of booking the shows.

“My faith in humanity was restored last week when Jared from AllDivide came up to me after the show and said, ‘Thanks.’ That simple. Thanks for letting this all come together.”

“Music has to constantly reinvent itself. Myspace makes it easy. I don’t have to wait for sample in the mail to see if I want to book a band. The business is simple —it’s the human beings that make it complex.”

Well, one doesn’t invest money in a sick person.

The kids are alright. Right?
Britt Curtis is a co-founder of The Holland Project, a youth-oriented cultural development center which recently had to close the door on its Keystone location because the building was unfit for occupancy. There were problems with bringing the building up to code, a process that would be expensive and only a temporary fix, as the building was ultimately still going to be torn down in a matter of years. “It’s tough to put a lot of money and time for temporary space.”

“It’s really difficult for an all-ages community. You need a cabaret license, which is expensive. People started playing in little punk rock houses—in the basements. In the end, the police started scanning the internet, they even admitted it, to find out where a show was going to be and then to go shut it down. These houses can’t afford to bring legal action. The extra enforcement took its toll on the all-ages scene. Now benefit concerts have no place to do it except a bar, which is great if you’re 21 or over. So some bands draw only 30-50 kids who would normally play for 200-300 people in a healthy music scene.

“All these things are intertwined in terms of pushing a community forward … we have really dedicated people, great musicians, great bands; a lot’s happening here. But if you don’t give them a place to grow they’ll die. Last year at this time we could throw a show in a basement, but now we can’t.”

After a health check, a prognosis is in order. Stat. The patient is the music scene of a 200,000-plus population city both like and unlike any other city in the country. While life expectancy of any music scene is dependant on a healthy death of certain segments of its population (usually achieved organically in the form of old ideas being pushed out to pasture by the marketplace), Reno tries to adhere to its traditions while slowly embracing new ideas. Physically, Reno has an excellent skeletal system strengthened by a vertebra of many venues. Its muscle is its will to survive, which when pushed, only furthers its growth. All emotional organs, including heart and liver seem vital and healthy, while the arteries are occasionally jammed with the cholesterol of artistic gridlock. The patient seems to suffer from identity crises and bits of monomania and mild schizophrenia. It’s the Biggest Little City in the World, so it expects a lot of itself. Sometimes too much. We are not Austin, Texas. And we’re not Austin, Minn.

Reno is engaged simultaneously in a building and rebuilding process, a binary structure with a beginning and an ending. Live music needs to be more than a mural of noise for people to look up and glance at while they’re gambling.

To maintain and increase health, Reno needs to expand its level of diversity. Getting away from the stinking effluvia of corruption and decadence of our past will help. There is a rich vein of material to mine in the Truckee Meadows, in all art forms. This current generation was weaned on satire. This is no time for recrimination—we must gel together to achieve a system that works for Reno. Don’t drink and drive. Wear a condom. Smile at strangers and always tip your driver.