So, why no birthday celebration at Slowdown on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of its public grand opening? Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel said the date sort of snuck up on them. Actually, Kulbel said they had talked about doing something for the occasion, but nothing fell into place. So, Saturday night’s Mates of State show will have to do, as there’s no show scheduled for Sunday night.
In my mind, Slowdown is and will always be a music venue. Why would you build such a gorgeous performance space and not use it? Robb and Jason had other ideas, however. During the interviews for this column, both mentioned the problems that are keeping people from thinking of Slowdown as a place where you could just hang out and drink. Its location topped the list. But just as prominent is the problem with any duo-purpose lounge. Nansel used The 49’r as an example. He said there were times when he’d show up there with friends to kick back and have a few drinks only to find out that they were hosting a show that night, causing them to turn around and look elsewhere. The same problem plagues Slowdown. With shows three nights a week (and now probably more) people are not apt to drive down there for drinks and quiet conversation only to discover that there’s a show and a $7+ cover charge. The perfect set-up: the old Howard St. Tavern, which sported a stage lounge and a non-performance lounge. If you didn’t want to go to the show, you could always go upstairs to the White Rabbit. Alas, there’s no way to set up anything like that at Slowdown…is there?
Column 176: Slowdown at One
Bar or music venue?
Only weeks before Slowdown celebrated its one-year anniversary (the public opening was June 8, 2007), the club that is the dream of Saddle Creek Records’ entrepreneurs Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel enjoyed one of its biggest weeks ever.
From May 18 through 24, Slowdown clocked in with two sold-out Rilo Kiley concerts in its “big room,” along with two more big-room near-sell outs (Tokyo Police Club and DeVotchKa) and two well-attended small-stage shows.
The guys should be happy. But they want more. And they know the only way they’re going to get it is by hosting more big-room shows. Lots of them. More than they ever intended to host at Slowdown.
“We need to have weeks like last week more often to be really comfortable,” said Nansel from the Saddle Creek Records’ Euro-modern conference room. “When we have shows, the bar does well. When we don’t, the bar doesn’t do well. When we set out to open this place, our desire was to have two or three shows a week, and we hoped that we would have a nightly clientele. But the reality is that we’re pretty far off the beaten path, and people only come here when they have a reason to. It’s going to be that way until the neighborhood develops a little more.”
Kulbel, who spoke via cell phone while driving across town on Sunday morning, agreed. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower,” he said of the first year. “The highs are when the big room sells out and it’s packed and crazy. The lows are Sunday nights when no one comes in after 10:30.”
You see, Slowdown had the same idea that the other important music venue — The Waiting Room — had when it opened a little more than a year ago. Music wasn’t supposed to be the main thing. The bar was supposed to be filled with customers even when the stage was dark, which they hoped would be at least four nights a week. “We don’t want people to think of it as a music venue, but as a bar that hosts shows,” Kulbel said a year earlier.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Blame the location. Step outside of Slowdown, and you’re facing an empty city block covered in weeds and litter. And while there’s a handful of condos a few blocks away in every direction, the streets aren’t exactly bustling with foot traffic.
“No one lives around here,” Nansel said. “In a few years, the development will come and the foot traffic will increase.”
But until then, the new business plan is to make Slowdown the music venue that Nansel and Kulbel never wanted. The duo recently met with the venue’s primary booker — One Percent Productions — asking for as many big-room shows as possible. “But at the same time, there’s only a certain number of shows that are going to come through town, unless we really start to branch out in terms of genres. We’re not at that point yet.”
One example of “branching out” beyond their bread-and-butter indie rock programming was the Feb. 21 concert featuring Slightly Stoopid — a band known for its legion of backwards-baseball cap wearing meatheads. The sold-out show was the biggest bar night the club has ever had. It’s also the show that both Nansel and Kulbel said was their worst concert experience since they opened.
“It drew somewhat of an aggressive crowd,” Nansel said. “There was a fight, and that never happens. People who come to shows here are generally passive. Although it was our biggest bar night, if we had shows of that ilk every night, none of the people who work here would work here.”
“That was a rough night,” Kulbel said. “If we got another hold for them, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. But we wouldn’t want shows like that once a week or even once a month. It’s not what we do.”
Another thing they don’t do, at least not anymore, is a brand of DJ-driven theme nights hosted by members of The Faint and Tilly and the Wall called “Goo.” In Slowdown’s first months, Goo garnered a reputation for being an all-ages dip into debauchery set to strobe lights and a hot club mix. Goo was wildly successful. It also was an enormous pain in the club’s ass.
“Goo is challenging,” Nansel said. “It’s mostly kids. You have to staff it really well and constantly make sure that no one’s getting into trouble.”
“The real problem (with Goo) was that these people were trying to cram a night’s worth of drinking into two hours,” Kulbel said. “They drank really fast, got drunk really fast and then everything went crazy. Afterward, the staff would ask, ‘Can we not do this any more?'”
Goo is probably gone for good. Like Seinfeld, the DJs wanted to end it on a high note, and the club won’t consider hosting another Goo night unless it’s 21-and-over, which is a deal-breaker for the organizers.
But Slowdown doesn’t need Goo or Slightly Stoopid to succeed. It just needs good shows and good service. Over the past year, Nansel and Kulbel learned how to run a bar. It used to take 20 minutes to get a drink on busy nights. Now it takes less than five. The rest will work itself out, as ballparks and condos rise around them. The foot traffic will come, eventually, and Slowdown will become the bar — not the music venue — that they always wanted it to be.
There’s tons more with Robb and Jason that didn’t make the cut, which I’ll put online tomorrow.
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Tonight at the Westfair Amphitheater, it’s Modest Mouse with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Westfair is about 16 minutes from downtown Omaha in Council Bluffs. $35. Gates open at 6, show starts at 8 according to the Westfair website, where you can find details about the show (parking, what you can bring, etc). If accuweather is to be believed, the weather should cooperate, as thunderstorms shouldn’t be rolling into our area until well after 1 a.m., long after the concert should be over.
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