As We See It

Vanishing vanguards: Bunkhouse joins the casualty list of venues that offered something different

Built to Spill plays the Bunkhouse.
Photo: Spencer Burton

After two Downtown shutterings over the past two weeks—Insert Coin(s) and Bar+Bistro—and a handful of notable closures in the tourist corridor in the past month (Book & Stage, Body English, Hard Rock Hotel’s Center Bar and the temporarily dark Life nightclub), the surprise factor of the Bunkhouse joining the casualty list might’ve been low for some.

Nonetheless, when owner Downtown Project suddenly announced on July 20 that the performance space/kitchen/bar was now closed, the shock was palpable on music fan and Downtown social media feeds—followed by predictable commentary, anger and mourning for one of the few remaining Vegas venues that booked touring indie rock acts, local hip-hop shows and drum ’n’ bass events. DTP invested considerable capital in the purchase, renovation and programming of the Bunkhouse, only to turn out the lights less than a year after its grand opening—a quick surrender by anyone’s standards.

The venue wasn’t without its troubles. Last November, a beleaguered DTP brought on Corner Bar Management, owners of Commonwealth four blocks away, to take over operations. Some events struggled to draw; friends at a recent show headlined by the LA-based Cayucas counted no more than 30 attendees. Conversely, infrequent Vegas visitors such as Panda Bear, the Breeders, Blonde Redhead and Built to Spill sold out the venue—the latter band twice—to say nothing of healthy showings for local showcases, such as the hometown farewell gig by Caravels in January.

You have to wonder how the 25 now-cancelled shows—including Savages, Mew, Deerhoof and Melt-Banana—would have fared. Booking left-of-center live and DJ events in Vegas remains a toss of the dice, as the recent wave of padlocked doors demonstrate, even if the circumstances ultimately vary.

Insert Coin(s), for instance, flecked its calendar with indie urban fare, from hip-hop royalty De La Soul to buzzing act Hiatus Kaiyote, the latter a theater act in other cities and final concert coup for the Fremont East barcade. It also enticed DJ talent like KCRW’s Anthony Valadez, who occasionally educated Insert Coin(s) patrons on the eclectic LA underground.

Bar+Bistro's patio was a nexus for cultural happenings.

Bar+Bistro might have been a restaurant and lounge first, but the former Arts Factory venue will always be best known for its substantial patio, once a popular groove locale for revelers of various alternative stripes. It used to be the only Vegas spot house music pioneer Jesse Saunders would play. Its Bluegrass Hangover Brunch—with live bluegrass acts—was a longtime Sunday staple. And yet, the venue apparently didn’t bring in enough money to cover the costs of city-mandated permits, which led to its demise.

It’s hard to imagine acts like Mates of State, KT Tunstall, The Wombats and Rachael Yamagata getting scheduled in town, but the Cosmopolitan’s no-cover Book & Stage took those risks, until the underperforming casino could no longer bankroll them.

Even DJ acts falter in Las Vegas. If EDM fans hadn’t totally given up on Life, house and techno fans sure did upon the elimination earlier this year of its Underground Sundays industry night, which brazenly featured bottle service-unfriendly acts like Hot Since 82, Apollonia, Art Department and Richie Hawtin—the latter being one of the rare big draws for the promo. And while Body English was largely a mainstream club, it still took chances with Bassment’s Friday night bass-music events in 2013 and ’14 and hosted midweek pre-EDM house promo Godskitchen. The latter party especially struggled; I saw paltry crowds for the traditionally progressive James Zabiela and indie-disco favorite Hercules and Love Affair. After two-plus years, Godskitchen was euthanized in 2009.

Turned out Las Vegas wasn’t as supportive to the alternative then as we’d hoped. Maybe we still aren’t.

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