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Sunday, 03 August 2014 22:00

Venues transform Kalamazoo and Battle Creek music scenes

Written by  Jayson Bussa and Lindsay Patton-Carson
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Music Factory (formerly known as Planet Rock). Music Factory (formerly known as Planet Rock). PHOTO: QUINTON MOOREHEAD

Call it the circle of life for any local music scene.

In the wake of one of the state’s worst economic recessions, some of the region’s entertainment venues were forced to shut their doors, but now others have launched and are inviting musicians to new stages.

No area is immune to the cycle. Case in point: Grand Rapids recently saw Juke’s, The DAAC and Mixtape close down.

In a bigger city like Grand Rapids, there are still other venues to keep the entertainment scene going. But in the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek areas, one closed venue can have a more dramatic effect on the local scene.

Southwest Michigan has cycled through more venues than most local musicians probably would have liked or expected. Arguably the biggest blow in the last couple years came when The Strutt closed down in Kalamazoo. As a hub for local and national acts, this left many groups scurrying to find a musical home.

But don’t count the scene out just yet. While venues have closed or downsized, others have needed to think quickly, getting creative with offerings and taking a closer look at consumer demand.

The venues that now comprise the local music scene include places such as Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, Louie’s Trophy House, 411 Club, Old Dog Tavern and District Square, which is located in the Entertainment District in Kalamazoo.

More importantly, these venues facilitate a healthy balance of national touring groups — bands that pull in casual concert-goers — along with the local flavor. It is this layered approach that traditionally creates a robust music scene for any community.

The long-held notion that Grand Rapids gets first dibs on top-notch touring talent while Kalamazoo is left with the scraps is fading.

“I think there’s no particular venue that is carrying the scene,” said Jake Simmons, a Kalamazoo musician who has been performing for the past 10 years.

Simmons credits Kalamazoo’s tight-knit, do-it-yourself (or DIY) scene, with smaller groups supporting one another and accepting new and different ideas brought into the mix.

For a few years, Kalamazoo thrived on a DIY ethic since the core scene started to sink underground as a major chunk of the action moved to the area’s many house venues.

“There’s a very heavy DIY work ethic in Kalamazoo, but not necessarily just house shows,” Simmons said. “That attitude carries over into several venues as well.”

Nate Dorough of Lansing-based Fusion Shows LLC knows all about that DIY work ethic. He and his crew started with house shows and went on to build a business booking national and regional acts in the area.

His team gravitated to Kalamazoo as an untapped market, where he brought in bands such as Lucero, Murder By Death and Foxy Shazam to The Strutt. When that venue closed down, Dorough had to rethink his strategy in Kalamazoo.

“I’m just pumped to be doing shows in Kalamazoo again,” Dorough said. “From our time at The Strutt, I kind of fell in love with the city and am so excited to head into town a bunch this summer.”

Dorough and his crew set up shop at District Square, where he’s bringing in bands such as Kongos, Five Iron Frenzy, Reel Big Fish and more this summer. Fusion is also big on working local bands into the mix. This has only boosted Kalamazoo’s reputation for offering nationally acclaimed music despite its small-market appeal to booking agents and tour managers.

District Square is one venue that has undergone a transformation. While the whole Entertainment District had a reputation for cover bands and DJs, that’s a characterization Fusion hopes to break.

“As for genres, I’m not sure there’s one that does best,” Dorough said. “We do a lot of alternative shows with the help of Z96.5. But our few country shows we’ve done have also done well.”

Dorough gave a nod to plenty of other Kalamazoo venues, including Louie’s Trophy House, an underground music haven that provides a grittier edge to this growing music scene. As one of Kalamazoo’s oldest establishments, Louie’s has made a push to become a legit music venue — and has succeeded — within the last decade.

“A lot of touring bands come in and see the outside and expect a s***hole,” said Daniel “Bo” James Tyler, sound engineer and booking agent for Louie’s. “It’s not the most attractive building in the world, but it’s got its charm.”

Known for a few years as primarily a punk venue, Louie’s features a very eclectic calendar these days with open mic nights, touring acts and even a comedy night. Most notably, Electric Six played the venue in March.

While Kalamazoo is known for having a small scene, Battle Creek offers even fewer options. As a result, the venue formerly known as Planet Rock has gone through a renovation to create more diverse offerings. Now called Music Factory, the venue brings in various genres from rock to country, blues to hip hop, karaoke and more. Planet Rock officially changed its name to Music Factory July 1 and had a grand opening July 17-21.

“We’re looking at making it an entertainment club and not a rock club,” said Josh Toro, Music Factory’s general manager.

In addition to more entertainment options, the venue now serves food and boasts a new look as well, with an expanded bar, new merchandise displays for bands, an updated sound booth, new lights, tables, chairs and a VIP area.

Longtime patrons don’t have to worry about the iconic chalkboard walls, however. Those made the cut.

“We kept the walls, which we knew was a big thing,” Toro said. “I knew people were nervous we were getting rid of that.” 

Read 30683 times Last modified on Sunday, 03 August 2014 15:33

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