There is a new music venue opening in Des Moines soon. Anyone even mildly interested in, or associated with, the local music scene will tell you this is a good thing, in no small part because it seems like quality places that support local music have become something of an endangered species lately. However, to understand exactly why this particular venue is so important and so worthwhile, you have to start by talking about something completely different. To understand what exactly this new venue means, you have to start by talking about the Des Moines Music Coalition. (DMMC).
The DMMC, in case you are unaware, is the organization that puts on 80/35. They do some other things as well, but frankly, nothing else they do has ever been as successful or has done as well as that festival. When it comes to local music promotion and support in Des Moines, the DMMC is the big dog in town. It has a hugely successful marketing arm, a legion of volunteers and the support of some deep pockets. And for the most part, it does a pretty damn good job of things.
However, since it is the big dog in town, that also makes it prime targets for intense levels of criticism. They say everyone is a critic and, indeed, it seems like everyone thinks they could do a better job of supporting local bands, booking acts for 80/35, making decent guacamole or literally anything else the DMMC does. It is a style of complaint that is ever-present when the DMMC is discussed in mixed company, and it is a complaint against which the DMMC has consistently levied the same counter argument: If you do not like the way something in this city is being done, step up and do something about it yourself.
And there is the rub. Everyone may be a critic, but surprisingly few people seem to want to be managers. All of the cries about the DMMC favoring specific bands or how Des Moines is running out of quality music venues amount to very little because nobody has stepped up to be the change they want to see.
Nobody, that is, until Anne Mathey and Erik Brown decided to open a music venue.
A house divided
There are people — people who have been around long enough to have well-informed opinions on the matter — who will tell you that House of Bricks had been limping for a while. Once a staple of the music community, House of Bricks had seen the start of acts like Stone Sour, Facecage and Dead Horse Trauma as well as served as a kind of proving ground for business-minded folks like Midwestix boss Katie Dickel and First Fleet Concerts’ Sam Summers.
Bricks owner JC Wilson moved the bar from its original location on Merle Hay Road to the East Village, and the bar established itself as one of the cornerstones for the revitalization of that section of downtown. But as the years and shows piled up, the mileage began to show. Those same “People Who Know” will tell you that Wilson had grown tired of the grind. Or maybe just bored. But in any event, as indifferent booking led to smaller crowds and less money coming in, Bricks began to circle the drain.
Mathey had been tending the Bricks bar for a decade and knew the ins and outs of its business better than anyone, except maybe Wilson himself. Brown rode into town one day with nothing but a bag of clothes and more musical talent than you or I will ever know and inserted himself into the mix at Bricks almost from day one. By the end of 2014, they could both see the writing on the wall, and they came up with a plan for saving the place they loved.
“Erik and I both had been hoping that Bricks was going to reinvigorate itself,” Mathey said. “We developed this plan that we wanted to bring to JC for getting some new acts into the place. We had this proposal written out, we sat down at that meeting, and the first thing he said was, ‘Before you say anything, we’re becoming a restaurant.’ That took the air out of things.”
That was the point we all get to. We have the idea, we meet the first roadblock, we kick at the dirt and call it a day. We are not Mathey or Brown.
“We went outside and smoked a cigarette and said, ‘Somebody should open a new venue,’ ” Mathey said before continuing on to say the magic words. “At some point, you have to turn that spotlight back on yourself and say, ‘Stop saying somebody should do it, and do it yourself.’ ”
When there is hard work to be done, that is the point where wheat gets separated from chaff. Most of us, should we make it past the initial roadblock stage, will plunge headlong into the “fun” bits of our ideas, giving the difficult portions only a cursory glance. That is how we come up with grand ideas for opening our own store without bothering to think about who was going to stock the bathrooms or call the vendors. Mathey and Brown knew that if this thing was going to get done, it was going to have to be done the right way.
“We started by meeting with some of the promoters, musicians and record shop owners in town,” Mathey explained. “We had them all sign non-disclosure agreements, and started talking about, is there a place in town for a venue? And not just because Bricks was closing. Around that same time, Hull said they were closing and El Bait Shop said they weren’t hosting music anymore, then Raccoon River said they were closing, and it was kind of this barmageddon around the city.”
Hull has since re-opened under new management, and El Bait Shop has entered a musically monogamous relationship with Brother Trucker, but the feeling is still prevalent in the city: The good places for music are few and far between. So the work began.
“We spent months in (Mathey’s) living room doing research and feeling out the market,” Brown said. “I go around the United States playing, so I know a little bit about what Austin is like, or what Seattle is like, or what Philadelphia is like. It seemed to me like there were some thriving things in other markets that we could copy here. We put together an extremely comprehensive list. It ended up being 90 pages.”
Mathey had been Wilson’s right hand at Bricks and is therefore well-experienced in what it takes daily to keep a bar up and running. Brown’s experience as a musician, promoter and booker have given him invaluable insight into what ingredients will kick a venue up from “pretty good” to “great.” Both of them have also developed meaningful, lasting relationships with people throughout the music community, mainly by cultivating reputations as passionate, devoted members of the community themselves. So taking a community-first approach to developing their business model seemed to make sense.
“There are so many really stellar musicians here in Des Moines that don’t really have a platform to be seen,” Mathey said. “Not to take anything away from the venues that are here in town, but there’s a little different formula to what we’re doing. All those people we met with make it feel like a community effort.”
They had their plans. They had done their research. Now, they needed to find their idea a home.
Re-purposing a legend
“We had been looking for a location for a while,” Mathey explained. “Probably since November. We found a spot on Walnut that was just a shell of a building. We had a lot of contractors come through to find out what it would take to get the place up and going. If we could get this prime location on the cheap, could we afford to get it up and going? Turns out we couldn’t.”
When the pair first started looking at potential venue spaces, the downtown corridor seemed like the obvious choice. The overwhelming majority of the existing, good music venues in town are between East Sixth Street in the Village and the western edge of the Ingersol neighborhood, so staying within those boundaries made sense. But try as they might to justify the decision, they just could not get the Walnut location to make financial sense.
“It was crushing, man,” Brown admitted. “We put so much into that. We had so much belief. We already felt like that was our place. So when it fell through, we were both pretty crushed. But it was like, ‘OK, come on. We’ve still got this thing to do. Let’s find another building.’ ”
And that was when 2307 University — the one-time home of Hairy Mary’s — hit the market.
Insofar as Des Moines has ever had any legendary venues for music, Hairy Mary’s would have to top anyone’s list. Throughout the 1990s, Mary’s would put on more shows —and more shows of really high quality — than just about any place around. If you were local and you were “someone,” you played Mary’s. If you were a larger act passing through on your way to somewhere bigger, you stopped and played Mary’s. After starting life downtown, Mary’s moved to the location on University, right in the heart of Dogtown. After Mary’s finally breathed its last, the space changed hands a couple of times, before most recently being known as The Dublin.
Years have not been kind to 2307 University. The Dublin was frequently the recipient of bad publicity after the bar’s name began making appearances in a string of complaints ranging from underage drinking and violence to endangerment and sexual assault. But when the beleaguered bar came up for sale, it was not the damaged reputation that concerned Mathey the most.
“First thing I said was that it was too small,” she said. “I was looking to be at 300, 330 people. I’d been in there when it was Hairy Mary’s, and there was just no way. But we went up to look at it anyway, and The Dublin had done quite a bit of renovations to the place, and they were sitting at 320.”
Figuring they were not going to find a place better suited to their desires, much less an address with such a strong pedigree in local music lore, Mathey and Brown pulled the trigger. But just because The Dublin had opened up the floor plan didn’t mean that the space was ready to go. Mathey and Brown took possession of the keys on March 17 at 2 p.m. An hour later, they were in the space swinging sledgehammers. Walls were opened up. Booths were knocked out. Flooring needed to be stripped and painted, and the roof was in need of a patch job. The duo have loans and investors to help cover most of the initial costs, but the venue — called Lefty’s Live Lounge after Mathey’s three-legged dog, who also serves as mascot and logo — will be a work in progress for the first few months.
But, as is usually the case when you have a good reputation and are fighting the Good Fight, Mathey and Brown are not stuck doing everything alone.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of friends in different trades,” Mathey said. “People who are in the music community and dear to our hearts. People who are plumbers and carpenters and who will be there when we need them.”
Lefty’s Live Lounge
Brown and Mathey, whether they care for the comparison or not, are approaching their 350-person venue the same way Summers approached the 700-person Wooly’s when he opened that venue in 2012. That is, Lefty’s is being put together with a mind toward the musician. The customer experience is important, obviously, but the thinking is that the happier the artists are, the better the customer experience becomes.
To that end, Lefty’s will have a large, well-appointed green room and a good chunk of floor space devoted to a “musician’s merch store” where acts can bring in posters, CDs, T-shirts and have a fully dedicated space in which to showcase their goods. Additionally, Brown has personally supervised the procurement and installation of the venue’s sound system, an act that has included bringing sound engineers into the space to accurately measure the placement of speakers for the best acoustic experience the room is capable of. Make no mistake: Lefty’s will sound good.
Brown, who will be handling all of the booking for the venue, has said the space will cater to as wide a range of music as he can coax into the place, but that the bar for admission will be higher than Bricks or some of the venues on Fourth Street have set it.
“Our normal programming is going to be Thursday through Sunday,” Brown said. “That’s prime slot. That is not entry level.”
The reasoning is not one of musical snobbery or elitism. Like everything else, it centers on the total musical experience. Quality begets quality, and Brown’s thinking is that high-quality acts will entice higher-quality acts. Not only does Brown insist that means noteworthy touring acts coming back to the Drake area, but he says local acts will all have equal opportunity to book a date, so long as they have the proper attention to sound. That means you’ll be as likely to catch Annalibera there as you will Green Death.
“The feeling should be that, by the time you play our place, it’s a feather in your cap,” he said. “That’s what is going to set us apart. We are not going to be pigeon-holed. I have outside sources working with me to bring in a wide palate of music.”
Again, this basic premise cannot be overstated: The thing that makes Lefty’s important, the thing that makes it unique, the thing that makes its first few months of life so compelling to witness and root for, lies entirely in who is running the ship. Frankie Farrell and his crew at Gas Lamp are bar owners. Gas Lamp is not their first venue, and if Kum & Go kicks them out of Gateway Park, it will not be their last. Sam Summers has been a businessman since he was 5, and Wooly’s was just the next logical step for a business that was already doing very well.
But Mathey and Brown did not come at this from the position of looking to make a living. Their original concept did not even involve opening their own place. If Wilson had been willing to take a chance on extending the life of Bricks, Lefty’s might not be happening for a couple more years. But House of Bricks is gone. So is most of the music at El Bait Shop, soon to be followed by Raccoon River, and who knows what will follow that. For 99.99 percent of us, it was enough to post our frustrations to Facebook and talk about how somebody should do something.
Des Moines, meet Somebody. CV
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi.
“It takes teamwork to make a dream work.” – Some motivational poster, maybe.