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Nestled against a sheer rock wall not far from Hot Springs' dilapidated Majestic Hotel sits a gaudy turquoise building that appears to be a converted warehouse. Over the course of five days annually, that turquoise warehouse — known as Low Key Arts — hosts Valley of the Vapors, Arkansas's weirdest, most adventurous, and most ambitious music festival.
Chances are you haven't been there.
“No bones about it — we're only getting 100 people a night,” said Bill Solleder, who co-founded the festival with Shea Childs, his long-term girlfriend and a Hot Springs native. “But I'm happy with it. It's important to us that we don't become the mega-bloated festival of today.”
The idea behind Valley of the Vapors is to nab acts on their way to and from South by Southwest, the annual springtime industry gathering in Austin and the sort of megafest Solleder fears. (“I'm a parasite! I'm not afraid to admit it!” Solleder exclaims. “Everybody should be doing it.”) Though the model wasn't decided from the outset — Solleder and Childs tried three different events in 2005, Valley of the Vapors' birth year — it became quickly apparent that it would be most effective to piggyback off the Austin festival.
Not that Childs and Solleder didn't bring experience and sweat equity of their own to Valley of the Vapors. For a time, Solleder ran Thick records, an independent Chicago label; billed as Billy Spunke, he served as vocalist and megaphone-shouter for the offbeat group the Blue Meanies.
For someone with that kind of background, Hot Springs' then-dominant cover-band scene didn't cut it. Why not attract talent in transit? And while Solleder admits that it was initially difficult to convince bands they should play a somewhat obscure town of fewer than 40,000 people, he and Childs were able to draw them with the promise of hospitality. The approach has worked — this year's festival, the fifth, welcomes acts from Wyoming, Cincinnati, New York and even Canada.
Relying on Austin traffic has had its drawbacks as well as its benefits. Booking is a headache. “It's a real trick for us,” Solleder says. “Sometime around October we start to get the word out. Then it's just a waiting game” until South by Southwest determines its lineup. Loyalty has also been an issue; only one of this year's bands has played Valley of the Vapors before.
On the other hand, the turnover ensures that concertgoers, all 100 or so of them nightly, get to see a fresh set of acts each year. That outcome seems to fit right in with Solleder's credo for the festival. Though Valley of the Vapors may have its own visual aesthetic — such as that seen in the distinctive concert posters it produces, this year featuring a bendy Cyclops — musically the field is wide open. “I'm not looking for a style or listening for a sound,” Solleder said. “I'm listening for a band that has the right heart.”
Several evenings of this year's festival focus on one genre before an everything-goes daylong affair on Sunday. All shows are open to all ages.
Thursday features punk veterans the Queers, who play in a Ramones-influenced surf style. Openers Teenage Bottlerocket, a poppier outfit, are themselves Queers descendents. Along with one of their predecessor bands, the Lillingtons, they can claim a good bit of credit for Wyoming's punk scene. Fort Smith's A+ Setup also opens. Music starts at 7 p.m.; cover is $10.
Friday's show has a bit more diversity. Headliners Murder by Death bring a sweeping sound a la the Arcade Fire. With several well-regarded albums to their credit and a reputation for strong live shows, they should be worth catching. Haymarket Riot and the Bitter Tears open the show. Haymarket Riot plays loud, spastic, bass-heavy rock in the Fugazi mold. The Bitter Tears, a self-billed vaudevillian act that features horns and some country twang, may be one of the festival's most out-there groups. 8 p.m., $5.
Indie is the word on Saturday. Headlights, the headliner, are an upbeat boy/girl band that plays the type of song you might hear in a commercial for mp3 players or color printers. KaiserCartel, a Brooklyn duo, features somber tunes nicely crooned by a former backup singer for John Mellencamp and the Wallflowers. Pomegranates are dancy and rhythmic but decidedly within the indie-pop realm. 8 p.m., free.
Sixteen bands, many fresh off the road from Austin, play Sunday. Surrender yourself to the randomness. There's a cookout most of the afternoon. Doors open at 2 p.m., music starts at 3 and continues into the night, $5.
Doesn't hurt with the Godzilla tie-in. With the mentioning of Monarch, and the atomic bomb…