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River Jones fancies himself as something of a young music-industry renaissance man. His big heroes are the Beastie Boys, who've managed to be ever-evolving artists while running the Grand Royal label, and Perry Farrell, who's organized multimedia festival tours while maintaining his own musical career.
But even the most ambitious of contemporary renaissance men would pause before taking on Jones' latest assignment: helping to transform the Mason Jar from the diehard den of mousse-abuse metal into a hip, respected underground club.
Even without such a challenge, Jones' schedule tends to be pretty full, what with drumming for local band The Living Seed, concocting his own home-studio recordings, working as a college rep for Elektra Records and taking music classes. But when he heard that Jar czar Franco Gagliano was amenable to changing the direction of his 18-year-old Indian School institution, he saw it as an opportunity to help build the kind of scene he's always wanted Phoenix to have.
"I'm into avant-garde, experimental jazz from Chicago, but no one's really into that here," Jones says. "So my dream was just to be able to help something. So I went to him with an offer to help him, and he was all for it. So even though the changes won't be drastic at first, I'm just giving him some ideas, and if he wants to use the ideas, it's his choice."
Among the suggestions that Jones offered Gagliano were a new paint job--from its familiar purplish tint to a less bodacious off-white--a new name (the Millennium), the removal of some grotty memorabilia, and a more progressive booking strategy.
"He's had the place for 18 years, and it used to be a hip place to go to, and I don't know if a lot of people thought it was hip anymore, but I was one of them who thought it wasn't," Jones says. "So I suggested little things, revamping it. But it's his decision. I'm not doing it for money, or for anything, other than to help the scene."
Initially, it seemed that Jones' overhaul of the Mason Jar would be profound. Gagliano, whom Jones describes as "the hardest-working guy I've ever seen," has talked openly about wanting to take an extended break from running the club, and Jones' arrival on the scene seemed to be the perfect opportunity. However, a couple of snags complicated the plan.
For one thing, Jones got frustrated when he found that many local bands either didn't want to associate themselves with the Mason Jar, or asked for ridiculous sums of money. He credits Les Payne Product with being consistently helpful, but says that few others believed he could revamp the Jar. Some musicians told him that they'd heard this kind of talk before, and yet the Jar never changes.
At about the same time that Jones started wondering if he really wanted all the hassles associated with the Jar, Gagliano started getting cold feet about some of the changes. The paint job has already happened, but Gagliano balked at removing the metal memorabilia and decided that he didn't want to sacrifice his club's famous moniker. Though he liked the Millennium idea, he suggested to Jones that they try Millennium Mason Jar, which looks like the most likely new name.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the Mason Jar overhaul is that Jones does not want to be a booking agent. He says he hates hanging out in clubs and wouldn't want to do Gagliano's job, even if he had the chance. He simply feels frustrated that there are so few places where quirky, left-of-center local acts can experiment onstage. However, the resistance he's faced from local acts means he'll concentrate more on booking national acts.
"I'm not a bookie, I'm more of an idea person," he says. "I'm going to try to bring some national shows through. I'd love to bring Tortoise through, or Stereolab."
Most likely, the Jar will become a compromised version of its old self, continuing to cater to its metal-loving crowd, while interspersing more and more offbeat shows. Even Jones concedes that he's worried that the old Jar crowd may not cohabit the club too comfortably with the new audience he hopes to bring in. Jones knows that he can't escape the bottom line.
"Whoever's gonna play there is whoever brings the most people, still," he says. "In Phoenix, a lot of the bands that I love don't bring anybody, and the bad bands bring all the people. So I'm having a real tough time."
One local band whose presence has been felt recently at the Jar is Jones' own The Living Seed, which opened for acts like Hum and Mary Lou Lord, and will also open the June 20 show by former Pixies leader Frank Black. Jones sees The Living Seed as his commercial-music venture while he dabbles in ambient soundscapes at home. He plans to showcase these solo excursions soon with the Beautiful Day Experiment, a DJ show for which he'll press his recordings onto vinyl and supplement them with trippy film projections. If Jones would like to reshape the Jar in his own image--postmodern and self-consciously experimental--he'd prefer to do the same for the entire Phoenix music community.