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It's Kentucky Derby Saturday and I'm sitting at the bar of the Fiesta Inn in Tempe with Charlie Levy, the promoter behind Stateside Presents and man-behind-the-curtain at Western Tread Records, which he runs with Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins. I've asked him here because I've known the bespectacled, gravelly voiced 34-year-old teddy bear of a promoter for most of the near-decade I've lived in the 'Nix, and the week before the Derby, at the awesome Good Life show he threw at the Clubhouse Music Venue, Charlie made a rather shocking confession -- he's bored, and can't find a decent new project. And that bodes ill for Phoenix music fans.
For years Charlie was the impresario behind Nita's Hideaway, where he started booking bands way back in '95. Except for a couple of late-'90s detours, he was with Nita's until its ill-fated move to Price and Southern a couple years back. His modus operandi was to sniff out talented bands and stick with them over the years, taking then-relatively-unknown acts like Modest Mouse, Cursive, and Bright Eyes and gaining their loyalty by providing the best sound, stage and amenities he could. Now that these bands have blown up, they still stick with Charlie despite the fact that he doesn't have a permanent home -- because he treated them right when only 30 people were at their shows.
Charlie has a nose for developing talent that's unrivaled locally, and he has been an asset to local bands by placing them on the right bills with national acts. It's in our best interest to have him in a position where he can practice his skills unfettered -- if you haven't noticed, there's no Nita's Hideaway these days, nor a club that can rival its legacy. The 'Nix has an incredible visionary in the form of Charlie Levy, but that's only half of the equation -- he needs a venue at which to practice his magic.
After he quit Nita's, Charlie was happy to chill out for a while after years of working all his waking hours. "After eight years, with 300-plus shows a year, working from the time I got up 'til the time I went to bed, when I finally quit doing it, it was a big relief," he explains to me.
He was due for some leisure time, and starting Stateside Presents to bring bands into town at various different venues allowed him to stay in the game without going broke or giving up on the music scene here.
Just in the next few weeks, Stateside is bringing avant hip-hopper Prefuse 73, indie popsters Of Montreal, and two nights of tour mates Bright Eyes and The Faint. Problem is, Charlie's coasting on the relationships and reputation he built when he had a venue; now, without a venue, he has far fewer opportunities to nourish burgeoning acts and watch them grow.
But Charlie's had enough chilling out and he's ready to get back into the business full time. Too bad for us there's not a single venue in our metropolis that fits what he's looking for.
"There's such a need for a three or four hundred-seat place that's all-ages," he explains. "There's a need to help developing bands and local bands that have a decent draw, so when you bring 200 people it doesn't look like there's no one there because those places are so huge. I like working the smaller venues. You get more of a payoff -- not financially, but working supporting those type of acts is always more rewarding than just booking a band that's already big."
The all-ages issue is a huge sticking point for Charlie; we have plenty of clubs, but few 300-seaters that are willing to go through the pain in the ass that is all-ages shows. "I think by doing national acts and making shows available to everybody, it helps the bar with the publicity and marketing and makes other people want to go there. But it's a pain. When you have a 21-plus club, the liquor board's easier on you, the city's easier on you. [For all-ages shows] you have to do the fences, the wristbands, extra security every night. Sometimes you have a packed show with a lot of kids and you don't make any money. I understand why someone wouldn't want to do that; I don't blame them."
His point is valid -- to fill the hole in our music scene takes someone willing to make sacrifices, to go through the hassle of throwing all-ages shows knowing that the financial return will likely thus decrease. It's not an attractive proposition, even if it is satisfying. With the recent upheavals Valleywide in the club/venue industry, it's understandable that the current operators don't necessarily want to take that risk.
But Charlie's an altruistic sort, so he's on the lookout for an opportunity to do exactly that sort of club. Though he's bored and not making a hell of a lot of money with Stateside and Western Tread, he doesn't want to leave the town he's invested his time so heavily in. "In Phoenix there's such a need. Somewhere else I might think it's a great city, but there's already five clubs with people like me doing what I do, so what's the point of me doing it? Here it's fun because it fills a need."
Plus, he says shortly before we watch the long shot win the 131st Kentucky Derby, "I have no other skills. I would love if Janet Napolitano called up and said come be my chief of staff or head policy maker, but I don't see that happening." Me neither, man.