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Signs of life 

Tempo picks up on downbeat NWA music scene.

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Three years ago, the Northwest Arkansas music scene slipped into faint existence with hardly a whimper. Longtime venues like Chester's and Dave's on Dickson had already shut their doors, depriving residents of two of the only regional venues willing and able to house national touring acts. Then local music stalwart JR's Light Bulb Club closed down. A couple places around town, George's Majestic Lounge and the Gypsy, picked up what slack they could, still booking big acts like Steve Earle and Merle Haggard, but the vitality and variety of live music waned considerably.

Still, a few hopeful players around town think they can resuscitate the once-vibrant scene. So contends Harold Wietes, one of a trio of promoters who make up Majestic Concerts LLC, along with Dan Allen, a co-founder of Bikes, Blues, & BBQ, and Brian Crowne, co-owner of George's Majestic Lounge. The company is set to unleash the first Dickson Street Music Festival April 25-26. The eclectic festival will feature a broad range of acts, from fiddling standby Charlie Daniels to the influential noise-rockers Sonic Youth.

Wietes, who also books shows for George's along with his partner Crowne, thinks people are over-reacting to the recent dearth of live music. “Live music is not dead,” he claimed. “It's only changing and evolving.”

He hopes the Dickson Street Music Festival will give both local businesses and area residents a reason to believe. Held in conjunction with Springfest, a 26-year-old annual arts and crafts festival on Dickson that had been floundering, the music festival will cost $30 per day or $50 for both nights.

The combined event will be held in association with Earth Day, and as a result will be assiduously eco-friendly. Jason Sterling, formerly director of the Peg Brazelton Environmental Center in Fort Smith, will head up the efforts. He's responsible for making sure the events “follow a sustainable model.” Vendors will be given green guidelines about compostable waste, and bands will help promote environmentally conscious behavior.

The actual show begins at 5 p.m. and ends around 11 p.m., but Wietes hopes the crowd will come early to hear free bands that will play in the street and afterwards “spill out into into other businesses” to end the night. For their part, George's Majestic Lounge will be offering free shows following the event featuring Blind Melon and Great American Taxi (featuring Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon). He expects that some of the festival headliners, including Fred Tackett of Little Feat, will find themselves jamming on stage later that night.

“This is what Fayetteville is all about,” he said. “And it should be what Dickson Street is all about.”

But their big plans don't end there. He says that Crowne and Allen just bought the Arkansas Music Pavilion (adjacent to the Northwest Arkansas Mall) and have big plans to turn what has always been an essentially corporate venture into a great place to see “shows that outgrow George's.” Area residents should look for news regarding the venue this summer.

While things seem to be on the upswing at bigger venues, there are also rumblings underground. The closing of JR's Light Bulb Club seemed to nail the coffin shut on the independent music scene. Eager patrons were left with nowhere to go. Without a smaller venue friendly to local acts and touring indies, the local music scene became something of a phantom.

Young Fayettevillians have retreated to their living rooms, holding illicit “house shows” that feature all manner of acts, from itinerant neo-troubadours like Super Famicom and Real Live Tigers to bigger indies like Lightning Bolt and Catfish Haven. Passing the bucket for gas money has become the new cover charge, and bass players are paid in homemade breakfast.

One such venue, the departed Delicious, busted up when a landlord caught wind of the enterprise. Others have either been careful enough to keep from getting shut down or have come to tacit agreements with landlords and neighbors. Later this month, the heralded weirdos of Old Time Relijun will push aside some lucky kid's coffee table and fill the living room with their trademark rustic yelps.

Elsewhere and legally, a couple of Fayetteville bars are vying for the once-coveted role of hippest haunt. The Boom Boom Room under Ryleigh's has overcome its awful name to house some of the best bands around. And Shane Hall has been booking local musicians successfully in the basement of the Urban Table (known locally as the OPO, or Old Post Office). His philosophy on cover charges appeals especially to struggling young local acts. “Whatever they make at the door, they take home,” he said. As word spreads, he'll settle for the ever increasing bar profits.

Though the NWA music scene might have been stagnant over the last three or four years, some rhythmic Lazarus seems to be crawling from the ashes. Promoters have provided a pretty enticing spring lineup. All audiences have to do is prove that they still exist. What better season for rebirth?

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