Friday, 20 June 2014 13:31

Venues Transform Kalamazoo Music Scene

Written by  Jayson Bussa
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Airborne Toxic Event at District Square in Kalamazoo Airborne Toxic Event at District Square in Kalamazoo

Call it the circle of life for any local music scene — some venues are forced to shut their doors, while others invite musicians to an open stage.

No area is immune to it. When you look at Grand Rapids, more recent causalities include spots like Juke’s, The DAAC and MXTP. Still, these voids have not left bands homeless by any means, especially with popular stages like The Intersection, The Pyramid Scheme, Billy’s, Mulligan's and others still in the mix.

In Kalamazoo, however, one closed venue can have a more dramatic effect on the local scene. This area 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. As a hub for local and national acts, this left many groups scurrying to find a musical home. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Kalamazoo has bid farewell to places like The Corner Bar and Kraftbrau. Navigate further into the annals of Kalamazoo music history and you will be left to lament digs like Club Soda, The Funky Basement, The Dog House and more.

“I miss the Strutt. I miss Kraftbrau. I particularly miss my idea of what Kraftbrau was,” said Jake Simmons, a Kalamazoo musician who has logged roughly a decade in action. “I was too young to get how great it must have been. ... So, though I feel very lucky to have been able to play there, I wasn't able to appreciate it as much as I think I could have, and that bugs me.”

Simmons has diligently hit nearly all the venues that now comprise the local music scene. These include places like Bell’s, Louie’s Trophy House, 411 Club, Old Dog Tavern (formerly Kraftbrau) and District Square, which is located in the Entertainment District.

“I think there's no particular venue that is carrying the scene,” Simmons said. “The thing about the scene in Kalamazoo — to me, at least — is there are lots of smaller groups everywhere that have their things they're into. Most of them seem relatively accepting of new and different things.”

For a few years, Kalamazoo’s core scene started to sink underground, with a major chunk of the action moving to the area’s many house venues. As with all house venues, a few cranky neighbors and some overzealous law enforcement is all it takes to put the kibosh on it. That doesn’t take away from the DIY ethic Kalamazoo thrives on.

“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 knows all about DIY work ethic. He and his crew started with house shows and went on to build a small empire for booking national and regional acts in the area.

His team gravitated to Kalamazoo, where he brought in bands like Lucero, Murder By Death and Foxy Shazam to The Strutt. When that place closed down, Dorough had to re-think 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 like Kongos, Five Iron Frenzy, Reel Big Fish and more this summer. Fusion is also big into working local bands into the mix.

District Square is one venue that has undergone a transformation. The whole Entertainment District had a reputation for cover bands and DJs, which is something Fusion is breaking the mold on.

“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. 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 music calendar these days.

“I push for more of a variety,” he said. “This is a smaller town. If we were in Chicago, you could open up a punk venue and succeed. You would have enough bands and people. Kalamazoo is just too small.”

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