Pyramid Scheme ups the ante on Grand Rapids' music scene

Over the years Grand Rapids has had its fair share of quality music venues. From the oft-remembered classics such as the Reptile House, the Orbit Room and the old Intersection in Eastown, to new stalwarts like Founders, the DAAC, and MXTP just north of downtown, there has nary been a shortage of places to play.

One thing that has been missing for the last decade or so has been a quality mid-size rock club that could attract national acts. The Pyramid Scheme is beginning to fill that void.

Located at 68 Commerce in GR’s Heartside neighborhood, the Scheme is a collaborative effort between brother and sister duo Jeff and Tami VandenBerg, owners of The Meanwhile Bar, and Mark Sellers, the downtown bar impresario behind HopCat, Stellas, and the Viceroy.

The Pyramid Scheme uses the same basic format as The Meanwhile, its sister bar, in the front lounge area: no covers, cheap, stiff drinks, and a fun, hip staff. However, it is the back venue part that is poised to be the star.

After an opening month of mostly local acts, the club has upped the ante in recent weeks with scheduled dates for legendary indie and punk bands like The Meat Puppets, The Vibrators, Smoking Popes and Disappears, a Chicago band that includes drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth.

The recent bookings of national bands have helped quell some fears that the Pyramid Scheme would be just another downtown club that relied on local and regional acts. After launching the club with indie legends Guided By Voices, which graced the stage for two nights on opening weekend, there has been a steady stream of local and regional acts. (Another noteworthy exception: Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan.) That’s beginning to change, as staff and independent promoters get the word out about the Scheme and the burgeoning Grand Rapids music scene.

“I think some agents have overlooked the Grand Rapids market in the past because the clubs have been either too small or too big,” says Sprout Media’s Brad Raffenaud, a Holland-based promoter who recently began booking shows at the Pyramid Scheme, including the Meat Puppets and Disappears. “With the Pyramid Scheme, it’s the right size and the right people who want to have exciting music rather than looking all the time at the same available acts. Plus, being new, they have the opportunity to take risks and see what happens.”

Raffenaud points to the two consecutive dates that Guided By Voices played at the Scheme as an innovative approach he’d like to see repeated. The tickets for that show were $35 – higher than normal for a club show – but provided an opportunity for fans to see GBV in an intimate room. He says that model could potentially work with a variety of acts that would seem to fit the Scheme’s scheme – from Devo to Sonic Youth.

“With the right ticket price, anything is possible,” Raffenaud says. 

However, the Pyramid Scheme is not pigeonholing itself to just being a rock club.

“We would like to do four to five events per week” venue manager Nicole LaRae says. “Every option is open.”

She mentions that they would like to show films in the venue space, or perhaps comedians.

Another aspect LaRae considers important is having as many shows as possible be 18+.

“It’s important to get the young people involved, [because] they’re tapped into different things.”

In the end, LaRae sums up the mission of the Pyramid Scheme venue this way: “[We are] community-focused. If you have an idea for a show, please come see me.”

To help get some of the younger crowd that LaRae mentioned, the Scheme has turned to up and coming local promoter Dan Climie. Climie, who has fostered relationships with regional indie-rock bands, has a whole host of shows booked himself. In the month of August alone, Climie has an eclectic mix from afro-beat group NOMO from Ann Arbor, spacey Chicago indie-rockers In Tall Buildings, to Detroit favorites Prussia.

While Climie is well connected to the regional indie scene, he’s working to gain more experience booking and promoting more hip-hop, electric, and dubstep shows.

“I want to branch out to different genres,” Climie says, “cause that’s what is best for the club overall.”

It’s probably a little too soon to call the Pyramid Scheme the next CBGB or to say that every Pitchfork darling band touring between Chicago and Detroit will stop in Grand Rapids. However, even just a fraction of those will go a long way in making the city a veritable music force in several genres.

“If they continue to bring in the kind of touring national act that sells 400 or so tickets, it’s going to draw more attention to publicists and agents that rep those types of bands,” Raffenaud says. "So now, when they're routing through Chicago, Indiana and Detroit, it will open the door on a stop in Grand Rapids."

For full information on show dates check out the Pyramid Scheme’s web site. Also check out them out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute info and occasional free ticket giveaways.

Additional reporting on this story by Brian Edwards.