I've always considered casino venues at the bottom of a musician's career, just above the state fair circuit. But as this year's good-to-great State Fair concert roster proves, sometimes things aren't as simple as they seem.
Still, I thought of these places as a refuge for the struggling or the irrelevant. But lately the casino venues around the valley have, well, stepped up their game. Significantly. It raises an important question: Are these venues becoming an important part of the Valley's music scene?
"There is an intimate feel [at these venues]," says Jason Robinson, who books artists for three different casinos in Arizona, including Ovations! Live Showroom at Wild Horse Pass Casino. "Artists are very close to their audience. The crowd is on top of them."
Let's not confuse "casino" with the glitz and glamour we see in Las Vegas. You won't find Cher or Elton John performing on the regular out here. In the recent past, our casinos were home to little more than gimmicky cover bands who tried their best to look and sound like everyone from U2 to The Beatles. And to a large extent, that's still the case. But artists, Joe Walsh, Sean Paul, and Aaron Lewis, while not exactly the hottest, hippest acts in town, are just a few artists packing in fans at Arizona casino showrooms.
"We have a very diverse guest base. Our entertainment meets the requirements of our regular guests," said Melody Hudson, Public Relations Manager for Gila River Casinos.
Because of growing partnerships with other outlets throughout the valley, venues like Ovations! Live are able to book newer or up-and-coming acts like Neon Trees and OK Go, says Robinson.
But there are still plenty of skeptics out there.
"I've been to two shows at casinos before," says Jed Foster, frontman of Valley indie rock band The Bittersweet Way. He doesn't necessarily share Robinson's enthusiasm. "They were both tribute shows."
"I don't care enough," Foster says. "I'm not jumping out of my seat to go get Joan Jet tickets."
From an artist's standpoint, it's to imagine the things running through their mind: "Oh I guess that's the end of any future relevancy I might have had," and "Now I can rake in the fat cash and go enjoy the green room."
I guess the debate will continue. As a younger generation is affording to spend more at these venues, only time will tell how the casino industry will react to such a change.
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Maybe the days of Elvis Presley tributes are going to become a thing of the past, forever replaced by Rage in the Cage fights and mid-level alternative rock.
But is that a bad thing?