OKC’s Musical Crescendo
Turning up the volume of our music scene
Photos by Trace Thomas
Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive struts her stuff at The Jones Assembly
Photo by Madison Rae Photos
It was a hot weeknight in May 1998, and my late friend Jimmy Hyde and I went out to a large club in northwest OKC to see a rare show by Tulsa legend Dwight Twilley. The show ended fairly early, so we made it to VZD’s to catch a new band from Austin named Fastball. After the show, we sat in the parking lot and marveled at our evening. Never again did we think we could see two such diverse concerts in Oklahoma City on the same night.
Flash forward 20 years, and what my buddy and I experienced two decades ago has been totally eclipsed by a revolution in activity, mostly due to new energy and new, smaller concert facilities that really didn’t exist (or couldn’t have thrived) back then.
For example, on a Thursday night in May this year, rapper Tech N9ne performed at the Diamond Ballroom in south OKC, while post-punk indie band Spoon played at The Jones Assembly in west downtown. And while it wasn’t a concert, that same evening also had WWE NXT (think of it at World Wrestling Entertainment’s developmental league) at the Criterion in Bricktown. The icing on the night’s cake was nearby in Uptown, as Apocalyptica played at the Tower Theatre. Apocalpytica? They’re a Finnish quartet of cellists who started off performing Metallica covers … and they sold this OKC venue out completely.
On the Road Again
The Lure of the Live Show
Changes in the music industry, as well as the digital convergence, have forced musicians and performers on the road for one simple reason: commerce. Gone are the days when a band could release a record, skip touring and sit around waiting for residuals. Most bands – even established major acts – don’t even have record deals anymore, or they simply don’t make money from recording. Stevie Nicks recently said that Fleetwood Mac will never make another record because it’s too expensive and nobody will buy it. But fans will buy tickets to see a show!
So the new emphasis on touring and performing has benefitted growing metropolitan areas such as OKC that can make available different-sized venues, with a variety of accommodations, perks and amenities – essentially, to capture a larger share of touring artists.
Thanks to new mid-size venues, some newly built, others refurbished, the concert atmosphere in OKC is better than ever. Not every performing artist can fill seats at Chesapeake Energy Arena, so smaller venues are there to handle developing artists, or performers who want a more intimate setting.
The passion of our live music fan base is being noticed nationwide. SeatGeek.com, a website that helps find concert and event tickets, recently analyzed its data to see where people across the country were tracking the most live music artists. The site found that OKC fans were the “most passionate,” based on the number of performers fans were monitoring.
From summer’s Sunday evening Twilight Concerts in the Myriad Botanical Gardens to new urban amphitheaters such as The Yard on Automobile Alley, there are more options than ever for lovers of live music. It’s a great time to take in a show.
Venues are stepping up their game, and music fans are reaping the rewards. Of course, those venues are competing for their shares of the marketplace, but based on the past year, there seems to be ample room for everyone. It seems that every major player in the game has scored a coup recently:
An extensive renovation of Chevy Bricktown Events Center, 429 E California, helped it nab an extremely infrequent appearance by Elvis Costello.
Likewise, the new Jones Assembly, 901 W Sheridan in west downtown, has been able to use managing partner’s Graham Colton’s music connections, along with its one-of-a-kind restaurant/concert venue set-up, to draw top talent, including Pixies last month – the Boston band’s only appearance ever in the metro area.
The Criterion, 500 E Sheridan, hosted David Byrne’s solo show in April, in a concert that people are still raving about.
Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd, has proven that urban theaters can thrive by being unpredictable. Big names such as Steve Earle and Irma Thomas have filled the room, but the historic former movie theater is developing a reputation for its widely divergent schedule. In just one week in June, the venue hosted an Americana singer/songwriter, a political forum between Labor Commission candidates, a concert by former Guns n’ Roses guitarist Buckethead and classic movies.
Let’s not forget about Diamond Ballroom, 8000 S Eastern. Built in 1964, the Diamond started off as a honkytonk dance hall, but has become one of the more venerable and flexible performance halls in the past decade. From Garbage to Slayer to VFW awards dinners, the old room is still breathing.
Stephen Tyler and Chad Whitehead
Taking Chances on Being Different
The re-emergence of Tower Theatre has been a boon to OKC’s live music scene. During the late 1990s, a series of hard rock and heavy metal concerts tried to breathe a second life into the historic movie theater, but an ill-fated Slipknot show that could’ve been dangerous spelled the room’s doom as a concert venue.
The theater was shuttered for years. Then, an ownership change and an extensive remodel brought the venue back to viability, and with new operating partners managing the programming, the Uptown theater with the beautiful neon sign now stays busy hosting community events, awards shows, fundraisers, concerts, comedy shows and movies.
The Pivot Partners rebuilt the building, but the developers were still seeking a team that could fill the room. That’s when they were approached by Chad Whitehead and Stephen Tyler.
“As an Oklahoma native, I thought on and off about the Tower forever,” says Tyler, operating partner and movie manager. “The Pivot guys wanted to know what kind of shows we could book, what kind of events could we book, and through our connections in the community, we just laid it out page by page. This is the vision we saw for it. It was very much in line with what their (Pivot’s) vision was, and the mixed use of it was a big part of it.”
“Venues stay pretty busy in other cities,” says Whitehead, who is the talent buyer for Tower. “Our case was special, because it was an opportunity for two guys in the neighborhood to bump into the owners of the building and to bend their ear, and to sit down with a business plan and pitch it. That to me is unique to Oklahoma City, and is what makes this place so special.”
Tyler added that, as promoters, they don’t have to worry about infrastructure issues that most venue promoters have to deal with. “The Tower is set up to exist for decades now, without major concerns to the building. It’s effectively a brand-new building when we walked into it. It’s crazy to think that it’s an 80-year-old building, but we can have the confidence in knowing that the roof isn’t going to collapse.”
Still, even with a refurbished venue and high energy among the partnership, Tyler and Whitehead had to bring performers to the showroom.
“We had a brand-new room, brand-new operators – and we were brand new to this,” says Whitehead. “We took chances and started bringing in acts that had a niche, or a name or could put on a professional show.”
Within the first month of operation, Tower Theatre hosted a disparate group of performers ranging from Asleep at the Wheel and The Mavericks to ex-Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman.
“Marty Friedman was a great way to show that we were open-minded with our booking,” Tyler says. “I think every guitarist over the age of 30 was there.”
Whitehead concurs that diversity is key: “We do not have a dense enough music-appreciating crowd in the metro to just be one style of music all the time. And at a 1,000-seat capacity, there’s not enough bands in any one genre to make a go at it, so we have to really be committed to a lot of different genres and ideas.”
Q and A with Chase Kerby
OKC native Chase Kerby got his 15 minutes of fame early, but he’s holding out for more. Appearing on “The Voice” Season 9 in 2015 (he was selected to Gwen Stefani’s team), Kerby has remained busy, working on new music and performing whenever he can. His day job as Director of ArtMoves – an initiative of Arts Council OKC that provides free arts events in downtown each work day – allows him to schedule art demonstrations and live music to a wide audience.
Who is Chase Kerby? I’m 33 years old; been a musician since I was 10, playing shows since I was 15, started touring at 19. I sing, play guitar and piano, and I’ve been in a thousand different bands.
ArtMoves is a great program for downtowners. How many acts do you manage? We have hundreds of artists. We average about seven new artists a month, and I anticipate that number growing as we expand to different venues and places where we can perform.
How many venues do you have? Right now we have about 15 venues, and that should expand this summer. We’ll have 20 venues by end of year, and artists of every description and genre.
What are some of the opportunities that musicians have today that they didn’t have in the past? We didn’t have Facebook when I started, and I used to hand out flyers for my band. I would “flyer” every car in school parking lots pretty much every week. I never see kids these days passing out flyers anymore. Opportunities are out there, but luck isn’t. You still have to work hard.
What are some of the challenges? Touring is really expensive. Opening bands don’t get a guarantee. Some venues take a percentage of merchandise, which hurts the bands. Oversaturation is a huge challenge – there’s a ton of bands now, and they all think it’s “their time.” You have to stay in your lane, be kind and wait your turn.
What’s the future for Chase Kerby? After I was on “The Voice,” I was thinking about touring more, but then the buzz started going away. That’s when I realized that I was writing songs for the wrong reasons. I learned that the smartest decision I made with music was to stop pursuing it professionally, and just have fun and play music and write songs (for me). I’d rather stay here and improve Oklahoma City, as opposed to going to another city. There are ways to positively impact OKC, I just don’t think moving is always the right answer.
The Phil Is Thriving and Giving Back
One of the best examples of how an investment in infrastructure has reaped bountiful rewards – not just through economic development, but also through community development in the arts – is one of the original MAPS projects that people have somehow taken for granted. Perhaps the remodeling of Civic Center Music Hall went so smoothly that people didn’t realize what an enormous catalyst it has become to our community’s capacity for arts and education.
A total reconstruction of the interior of the Civic Center was completed in 2001 at a cost of $53 million. The “new” Civic Center has been home to Oklahoma City Philharmonic since it re-opened. Thanks to the beautiful digs, the OKC Phil has prospered over the past two decades, and its economic health is having a positive impact on its members and the community.
“One of the things I love about my job is that the Phil performs at a super high level. Our members spend their energy enriching the community – helping grow our cultural community,” says Susan Webb, director of marketing and public relations.
“For them (the musicians of the Phil) now to live here, be able to play music, be professional and make a living is a great testament to how far our city has come. Because our cost of living makes things affordable, our members can buy homes, raise families and thrive economically. There’s a trickle-down effect with working with other arts organizations that need professional musicians, such as Lyric Theater and Ballet Oklahoma,” Webb says. “All of these opportunities provide a consistent paying gig for them, so they can have a good high quality of life.”
At one time, the Oklahoma City Symphony was shuttered because the funding wasn’t there. Musicians had to scatter, move to other cities or find other careers. Now, the prospect of closing down shop is no longer a threat – the OKC Phil is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a financial surplus.
And the future for the Phil is even brighter with the prospect that Scissortail Park is offering. The downtown park, which is currently under construction, promises another gateway of opportunities. Its enormous main stage will be able to accommodate the full orchestra, approximately 80 members, and expose people to classical and pop music arranged in a way that they’ve never heard. Webb says the possibilities are enormous.
“As there is more and more demand for music, people become more enculturated, which signifies a hallmark of a burgeoning arts community. Over the past decade, Oklahoma City is truly becoming a hub of music – and art and creativity.”
Soothing the Monster
Surviving Band Membership
If you’ve ever seen the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, you know that being in a band is difficult. The movie takes place after singer-guitarist James Hetfield leaves for rehab, and after bass player Jason Newsted quits the band. Sensing disaster, management brings in a “performance enhancement coach” named Phil Towle, who becomes the giant fly on the wall as the band works out its angst.
The band members have their group therapy sessions in the recording studio break room, and it’s as uncomfortable to watch as any scene from “The Office.” During one particular fight between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett goes into full Captain Obvious mode: “You guys have issues,” Hammett says. “You have a long list of issues you need to go through.”
Vicki Mayfield, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Oklahoma City, knows the scene all too well. She is available to help local bands and musicians through trying times.
“I’ve always been a big music fan, and I enjoyed going to concerts,” she says. “When I had the opportunity to help bands overcome their problems, I realized it was a natural extension of family counseling. Bands spend so much time together, they essentially are like family, and you’re going to have similar problems that families experience.”
Mayfield had a client who became the manager of a band. On hearing about the myriad problems that the group was enduring, Mayfield asked if it would be helpful to bring the whole band in to see if they could find some middle ground.
“The band started talking,” she says, “and soon we were meeting regularly. They had a lot of issues: substance abuse, depression. There were a lot of complaints. One of the members was chronically late for practice. It got so bad that the friction was hampering their creativity. All of these issues were impacting their ability to play and perform.”
Touring and long road trips in a van together can also become problematic for musicians. “There are times when simply not talking can be therapeutic,” Mayfield says.
Happy with her success and wanting to reach out to more musical performers, Mayfield made flyers and started actively seeking new clients at music stores and places where musicians could be found.
“I want to work with more musicians. I think I can help musicians, and therefore, help them make great music. I’ve been around musicians for a long time, so they know that they can trust me.”
Got a band with some issues? Mayfield can be reached at 405.620.4597.
The Diamond's Biggest Fan
Vernon L. Gowdy III has been photographing musicians for more than 40 years, and is the author of two books on the Diamond Ballroom: From These Walls: The History of the Diamond Ballroom in 2016, and From Country Swing to Heavy Metal earlier this year.
You wrote not just one, but two books on the Diamond Ballroom. What is it about the place that inspires you? When I walk inside the Diamond and see all the photos on the walls, it makes me want to look a little closer. After I see who the performers are, then I get inspired. Looking at those photos is like going back in time. You see Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Johnnie Lee Wills, Fats Domino, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Jr., The Cramps, Wanda Jackson, Kings of Leon, Peter Frampton, Buddy Guy and Pantera – the list goes on and on.
Do you recall the first show that you ever saw at the Diamond? I always thought I saw Bob Welch play there in 1978, but couldn’t provide documentation to prove it. I didn’t begin going to the Diamond Ballroom really until 2006, and some of the first shows included Bullet for My Valentine.
Is there one single iconic photo that you’ve taken that symbolizes the Diamond Ballroom? Probably my cover shots on the two books about the Diamond would be my iconic shots. The first was taken at night, highlighting the marquee [with] people outside. The other is a crowd shot taken from the back of the stage.
A lot of new fancy venues have been built over the past few years. Do you think that fans and bands understand what a gem they have in the Diamond? I have been to newer places, but there is no history there. The bands definitely know the Diamond is something special, and I think the fans know that, too. Word gets around. When a band finds out that Willie Nelson played there or Pantera played there – well, they want to play there, too.