"New carpet," AJ Gross says, a tad wistfully, as we enter Ancient World Imports on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. "Ah, they repainted the walls. Brick motif. Nice."
Not what you'd expect to hear, except from a decorator, as you stroll through an antique retailer, but Gross is hardly the store's typical patron. During 2002 and 2003, the longtime Southern Nevada concert promoter operated a live-music club in this very same space at 650 W. Sunset Road in Henderson. Under Gross' management, the Castle—aptly named for a replica medieval fortress—hosted dozens of all-ages shows, ranging from the pre-signed Killers to hard-core veterans Hatebreed to country outlaw Shooter Jennings. And then, as quickly as it appeared, it vanished, joining the ever-expanding ranks of defunct music venues that have become as much a part of Southern Nevada's skyline as its hotels, billboards and palm trees.
Sanctuary. Tremorz. The Rock. The Huntridge. Café Roma. The Boston Bar & Grill. Club Live. The Alley. Ozone. Pink E's. Doggystyle. The Junkyard. Skate City. The Clubhouse. The Roadhouse. Calamity Jayne's. The Brick House. Fremont Street Reggae and Blues. Fat Daddy's. Tongue and Groove. Balcony Lights. The Shark Club. And on and on and on. Each once full of hope and promise; each destined to serve as a cautionary tale.
"It's all good intentions," says Kim Garcia, former marketing director at the Huntridge, Sanctuary, the Castle and Tremorz. "Anybody that opens up a small club is not gonna get rich. We all know that. They do it because they love music."
Gross certainly does. At age 40, his fire still burns for favored artists, so much so that he recently flew to New York City to catch two David Gilmour shows at Radio City Music Hall. He's booked acts for Sanctuary, the Huntridge, Tremorz, Celebrity, even Sam's Town. And for a time, he believed the Castle could succeed where others had not.
"It was a beautiful, small space for live music, the type of place Vegas needed," Gross says, staring off nostalgically as he stands between two pillars that once penned in the Castle's stage. "I think this could have finally been the Vegas live-music venue everyone's always wanted."
Despite considerable damage to his personal finances, made worse when partner Tom Anderson pulled out of the endeavor to book exclusively for the Huntridge, Gross remained intensely committed to the Castle to the end, even when he had to lay off close friends to reduce expenses. Then, 12 months in, the property's owner informed him she would not renew his lease—an unexpected revelation, he says—due to complaints of uncollected trash, graffiti and spillover parking in nearby lots. Just like that, the Castle had been breached, permanently.
"My credit got ruined through the whole experience, but I was ready to renew the lease anyway," Gross says. "I was hemorrhaging money, but we were getting by, and I felt we were just about to turn the corner."
That last sentence has doubtlessly been a common battle cry for local venue operators believing their pet projects can succeed where others have fizzled. Drive down almost any major street, though, and you'll eventually pass a reminder of the odds Vegas stacks against independently owned music venues.
Sanctuary, an all-ages facility adjacent to the Huntridge that showcased the likes of Weezer, and Staind from 1999 to 2001, closed after losing its license to serve alcohol. The west-side 21-and-over mainstay, the Boston, shut the doors of its Jones Boulevard location in 2002 in the face of costly air-conditioning repairs and other financial constraints, reopening at a new, East Flamingo site a year later, only to shut its doors permanently when the new site failed to attract a loyal following. The Rock, a briefly popular Maryland Parkway spot near UNLV, called it quits in 2003 after two men were shot to death in the parking lot. The Roadhouse Casino on Boulder Highway halted its all-ages shows, then went out of business altogether following a shooting on its property. Teen-friendly hangout the Alley succumbed in February, reportedly after complaints from a disgruntled parent scared the proprietors of Family Music, from whom the makeshift music venue leased its space.
Venues fail in all metropolitan cities, for a variety of reasons. But for close to a decade, Las Vegas has endured an usually high rate of aborted, deserted and botched attempts to fill an obvious and significant void in the local music scene. Beginning with the abrupt 1992 closure of Calamity Jayne's—the Fremont Street club that brought alterna-rock acts Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among many others, to town, before it was seized by federal drug marshals—Southern Nevada has seen more than 30 music-dedicated spaces come and go, in rapid succession. For some, it was a matter of mere months. Others, such as the converted Huntridge Theatre and the original Boston, sustained for years before bowing out. But, ultimately, only the Double Down Saloon on Paradise Road and North Las Vegas' Cooler Lounge have persevered as proof that a noncasino music venue can actually survive here.
"I've been in this town for 15 years, and during that time there have been stable venues all around the Phoenix and LA areas, but not here," says Shoestring Productions founder Nicole Sligar, who knows firsthand how tough promoting local talent can be without stable venues to showcase those acts. "As for why it keeps happening, if I had the answer I'd probably have a successful venue of my own."
Actually, Sligar and Garcia say they considered partnering in an attempt to solve the area's vanishing venue dilemma. After visiting city planning offices, scouting potential sites and meeting with attorneys to draw up business plans, however, the two women opted to pass.
"It's scary because I'm willing to come up with the money and so is she, but in the back of your head you know it's been a never-ending cycle in this town," Garcia explains. "I want to do it because it's what I love to do. But at the same time you do think, What if? What if people don't come out? What if you have that one fight [on property] and someone sues. And how can you really go up against the Joint [at the Hard Rock Hotel] or the House of Blues [at Mandalay Bay] when those venues know they're not even going to break even on their shows?"
Ah, yes, Las Vegas' 800-pound gorilla. Is that really what it comes down to? The little guy, aced out by the big, bad casino, both for quality acts and consistent crowds? Have Southern Nevadans grown so enamored of the glitz and gleam of million-dollar halls, they refuse to set foot in a good ole seedy dive anymore?
Jeff Higginbotham, owner of local music website yourlocalscene.com, suggests that while the city's changing landscape is responsible, the venue predicament has less to do with casinos specifically than widening entertainment options in general. "The original Boston was a shithole, but they were packing in bands and making money. Every Friday or Saturday night you could go there and see a quality band," he says. "But now, there's just so much competition in this town to do different things."
To an ever greater extent, Southern Nevada's peculiar liquor-licensing policies are at the root of persistent venue collapses. While casino theaters such as the Joint and House of Blues are permitted to host all-ages shows while simultaneously serving alcohol in those very same rooms—often with little or no division between alcohol and no-alcohol zones—independently operated clubs are typically denied all-ages privileges if they serve any alcohol onsite, even those willing to restrict or prohibit the sale of alcohol at all-ages shows.
"In Phoenix, for example, a venue doesn't have to be designated for all-ages all the time," Gross said. "You can have a space set aside for people drinking, and space for those who aren't. Or you can have a 21-and-over show in the same space. Or an all-ages show with no alcohol. Unless they change the laws in Nevada, it's going to be tough for someone to make a venue work here."
Garcia points out that, theoretically, alcohol shouldn't be a requirement for a memorable concert experience. Then again, in Las Vegas, it seems a prerequisite for adult involvement in almost anything, as is the presence of gaming.
"At the Castle, we didn't have a liquor license, and people would complain about it. I used to hear it all the time," Garcia says. "Why? Go see the band. If you're really a music fan, it's about the music and seeing the band. Who cares if there's no alcohol or gaming?"
But she concedes venue operators have to care. "They know that they can't really make their money off admission, so they need to really depend on alcohol," she says. "At the House of Blues, for instance, you take away the alcohol, and it's gonna be a big issue. That's where everyone makes their money, off alcohol and gaming."
On the flip side, certain rock acts may decline to play 21-and-over clubs, even if it means opting for a makeshift arcade venue like Jillian's in Downtown over a swankier bar setting.
"It still surprises me when a band like Bowling for Soup or Taproot calls and chooses us because they don't want to shut any of the kids out," Jillian's general manager Kenna Warner says. "When we started doing shows here, I had no idea it would be this popular with the bands."
Jillian's also has an edge over most other all-ages hopefuls: its ability to serve alcohol in its front restaurant/bar area, established long before the multipurpose facility began hosting live music. "The city's been helpful," Warner affirms. "They've been happy with the way we've complied with their wishes."
Poizon Ivy, a longtime local scenester, would love nothing more than to provide a steady all-ages music option to go with Jillian's and the Rock N Java in Henderson. Instead, she books and promotes shows at 21-and-over Divebar on East Tropicana. "I don't see how you can make money, or even break even, doing a $5 all-ages show," she explains.
As for running a successful 21-and-over venue, Ivy says it's a matter of knowing the business and giving it time. "A lot of times it's a guy with a dream, but they don't think about how much they'll be paying for things like air-conditioning in the summer," she says. "We paid our dues at Divebar the first few months, but now we're packing them in. It just takes a few months to get on the radar."
Whether Divebar, or the latest Downtown quartet of Celebrity, Beauty Bar, the Bunkhouse and the Ice House, are still running in 2007 or 2008, or if their doors are barred and their windows covered with newspaper, remains to be seen. History, sadly, suggests the latter, but the Ice House, oldest of the bunch, will celebrate its third anniversary this summer, a signal that perhaps trends can be reversed.
Gross remains hopeful to a stunning degree for a man with venue heartache so recently in his past. When the owner of Ancient World Imports informs us he's liquidating his shop's merchandise, Gross' eyes flicker excitedly for a moment, until the man unveils his plan to turn the space into a meeting and banquet facility.
Outside, as he fishes his car keys out of his pocket, Gross glances back toward the castle that was once his Castle. "In spite of everything," he says, "if that guy had said he was moving out and the owner had been here and offered me a lease, I'd have signed it right there. And yet, when I walked out, I felt like I never wanted to see the place again."