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Downtown’s indie dance scene flourishes with new venues and fresh energy

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The crowd gets down during ‘80s night at Oddfellows.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

It’s 1 a.m. on a Saturday night and the dancefloor at Oddfellows is alive with pulsating rhythm. The music shifts from the house-tinged R&B of Shamir to the poppy synths and guitars of Bloc Party to the airy falsetto of Grimes, the lights from the video projector flashing off 100 or so glistening, sweaty bodies. There’s no bottle service, no celebrity DJ and no fancy dress code, but this is still a Vegas club.

Something about this scene and these recurring dance parties has attracted a different party crowd Downtown, week after week for almost a year. Oddfellows is one spot locals can go tonight to get lost in this dizzying, vibrant energy, but the alternative dance scene has been reinventing itself since the early ’90s and ’00s. At Oddfellows, the music, the crowd and the seemingly overnight popularity recall those early days. It’s the ideal flipside to Strip nightlife, where drinks are cheap and the vibe is rocking—and the party still goes until the early hours of the morning.

Downtowners dance inside Oddfellows.

Billed as the club for people who don’t like clubs, Oddfellows opened in August 2015, though it took a few months for the venue to take hold. Once it did, it grew roots quickly.

“It’s been about the same trajectory for all the [bars] I’ve done,” says Oddfellows owner Harvey Graham, an Austin, Texas, resident. “There’s a three-month period [where] you’re terrified, and then just all of a sudden, it’s on.”

Oddfellows also hails from Austin, where Graham co-opened related bar concepts Barbarella and Swan Dive. When he heard about revitalization along Fremont East, Las Vegas became his next frontier. “I noticed there was just an absence of anyone doing what we wanted to do. … We looked at a few stops, and they weren’t right, [then] walked in [here] and I was like, This looks exactly like a dance club. This is perfect. It was turnkey.”

Housed on the ground floor of the Ogden residential high-rise on the corner of Sixth and Ogden, Oddfellows took over the space formerly occupied by Scullery, a more traditional bar geared toward an older set. With its narrow bar at the entrance, a large room in the back and an upstairs area with a private room for guests, it provided an ideal home for Oddfellows, named for an 18th-century fraternal society. Graham ramped things up by bringing in occult-influenced décor, like Ouija boards and a large painting of the Pagan goat deity Baphomet. “It kind of weeds out close-minded people,” Graham says. “We’re definitely open-minded.”

By the fall, the video dance bar had become the buzziest new venue in the hip Downtown drinking district, particularly with its indie New Noise night every Saturday. Since then, Oddfellows has programmed ’80s, ’90s and soul nights, with Fridays and Saturdays consistently packed. The newest concept is the LGBTQ-friendly Thursgayz, launched just over a month ago with DJ Pei Maeder (aka Panda) on the decks and manager Tim Kam donating proceeds to local LGBTQ charities.

Oddfellows isn’t the only dance-focused Downtown venue, nor is it the only party fueling the indie dance scene.

Fourteen years ago inside the Thunderbird Lounge, DJ John Doe launched the funk and soul party known as the Get Back. Arguably the genesis of Downtown’s dance scene, the Get Back soon moved to former venues Saloon and Icehouse, then to Beauty Bar in 2005, and then, nine years later, to its current home every First Friday at Velveteen Rabbit. “[There’s] something about that Downtown vibe. Nobody judges you; you don’t have to dress up in a collared shirt. You just come and listen to music and dance,” says Daniel Martinez, aka DJ Danny Boy in the documentary short The Getback 10+. Around the same time, groups like the Bargain DJ Collective and Rawkerz—and later, IndieKrush—all began throwing dance parties at different venues.

Dj Fish spins '80s and New Wave inside Griffin.

Punk rock/indie musician and DJ Mike Fish has been spinning New Wave and ’80s tracks inside the Griffin’s back room every Friday for nearly a year, and, beyond Downtown, he also heads up the monthly TV Party at Double Down Saloon. “I grew up when Bargain DJ first started,” Fish says. “When I first turned 21, I was friends with all those guys, and we’d be at Champagnes all the time. They finally moved to the Double Down … [and] were like, ‘We want to do it on the deadest night and for no money; we just want to play records.’ Monday night started there and [DJ Rex Dart is] still doing it [more than] 12 years later.”

For Fish, it’s all about creating the right vibe, having fun and geeking out over rare records. “I like when random people walk to the back room [at the Griffin] and hear stuff like Joy Division or The Ramones. They walk in and go, ‘Where did this place come from?’ Even a newer generation of kids are coming in, like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I try to keep people dancing all night.”

Allen Miller (aka DJ Style), a member of local DJ crew Rawkerz, remembers just how wild those early indie parties could be. “There was really nobody else doing indie” besides Rawkerz and the Bargain DJ Collective, he says. “When that ended, there was nowhere really to go to hear that.”

Back in the ’90s, Miller was playing house music “at all the raves” before he began producing goth and darkwave parties, beginning at the long-shuttered Angles and Lace (now Piranha) and leading up to his current gig, Scarlet, with DJ Morpheus Blak at Artifice. In November, Miller will celebrate five years of that successful goth night.

Allen Miller at his goth party, Scarlet.

Allen Miller at his goth party, Scarlet.

For house heads, the six-year-old Vanguard Lounge has routinely booked underground electronic dance music, including well-respected monthly Soulkitchen, and the Griffin continues to throw electronic dance parties in its back room on Saturdays. Despite its small dance space, Downtown Cocktail Room has been a go-to place for soulful house and downtempo grooves since its 2007 opening, and the indie-focused Totescity can still be found spinning at Gold Spike’s Down & Derby Disco Paradise.

If you need more proof of Downtown’s dance renaissance, another video-focused club, Red, is slated to open on Fremont at the end of the month. Owned by former Oddfellows DJ Bruce Perdew, Red will take over the former Insert Coin(s) spot—which also attracted hip shakers at its pinnacle—and could draw even more indie- and electro-seeking locals. Perdew, who has hosted and spun at numerous LA clubs since the ’80s, says he wasn’t interested in the Vegas market until he started DJing there.

“It really got me in the mode of, ‘Wow, Vegas isn’t that different from LA,’” Perdew says, adding that at one point he actually tried to buy Oddfellows. “They react to the same types of songs. I was looking for a club in LA, everything was super-overpriced, the licensing was hard to get. … I just wasn’t really up for that … so why not extend what I do in LA out to Vegas?”

Perdew says Red will be similar to what he does in California, with a focus on themed parties including old-school hip-hop, music from 2000 on—which he calls “Y2K”—and possibly some electronic afterhours programming. “Being close to Oddfellows, I think that it will draw a complementary crowd to the Downtown area that will be good for everybody.”

Just a year ago, it would have been difficult to imagine venues like these thriving in the fast-moving, bar-hopping environment surrounding Fremont East. “It kind of reminds me of when East Fremont first opened—all the kids that were coming out when we were starting to build it,” Fish says. “It got really big, and now there’s a newer generation of kids coming up. I’m stoked to see what comes out of it.”

At the center of this dance development, Oddfellows is gearing up for its first birthday party on September 4, and for slight renovations—knocking down the walls upstairs and making the DJ booth more open—that should help it build on its start.

“I think in every major city there’s always a counterculture,” Graham says. “I’m excited to see what happens with Downtown. There’s a lot of potential.”

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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