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There's a youth movement afoot in the Little Rock live music scene, steeped in the ethos of DIY culture. They're passionate about music you've probably never heard of, worry over bands driving long distances to play to small crowds, evangelize about Arkansas and talk about bars in terms of “community.” They've also been setting up shows since before they could drive.
Matt White, 24, books the bands at White Water. In February, he and four other twentysomethings took over management of the nearly three-decades-old dive bar in Capitol View. In their initial proposal to owner Larry “Goose” Garrison, they wrote, “We fully understand that it will have to become the sole driving force in our lives. Its success will require us to eat, sleep and breathe the bar. Most of our other interests and desires will have to take a backseat for quite a while.”
Two of the original crew have split — one got married, another left on a spur-of-the-moment trip to New Zealand — but those who remain seem to have stayed true to their promise, working the bar from lunch until well after midnight. Theirs is a decidedly egalitarian approach — everyone pitches in behind the bar, works the door, waits tables and helps with the clean up. Young folk, long a decent-sized staple of the bar's crowd, now come in droves, even on off nights or for happy hour, mixing with the blue-collar crowd that's held down the bar's after-work scene for nearly 20 years.
White carries the flame for White Water's live music tradition. Among the 30 or 40 acts he gets a month for the 200-capacity room, he still books the occasional blues-rock act and continues to get local and national underground music, but increasingly, he's cultivating a scene that reflects his passions. “I really, really like music,” White says, “and when I find something I like, I tell people about it.” Now, he says, he's just doing that on a professional level.
Michael Marion, at Alltel, has a saying: “The quickest way to go broke is booking bands you like.” White, who says White Water isn't profit-driven “almost to a fault” (but with low overhead), mostly books bands that he says he “believes in.” That ranges from relative unknowns like Graham Wilkinson and the Underground Township and Roger Hoover and the Whiskeyhounds to national talent like Cory Brannan and Lucero.
The unifying factor, often, is that White has become friends with the bands. He met Wilkinson, Brannan and Lucero back in his Conway days (he booked Lucero in Conway when he was 17), and he recently spent some time on tour with Hoover and the Whiskeyhounds, who are based in Ohio, but often draw their largest crowds at White Water.
Meanwhile, Casey Jones, 25, is placing shows all around town under his Happy Fuckers Unite! (HFU!) banner. Until early this year, Jones booked shows almost exclusively in nontraditional venues — parks, pavilions and, most of all, his house. Over the last three years, first with the Boathouse in south Little Rock and later two incarnations of the Treehouse (the latter of which was on South Cedar across from Burger King), Jones' homes hosted a stream of bands as steady as any local venue (the Times included the Treehouse in its live music listings for a period). Jones and his roommates didn't make money off the shows; they only asked concertgoers to donate money to the band.
Within that set-up, Jones booked scores of local bands, but also national acts like Matt and Kim, who actually messaged Jones to set up a show at the Treehouse. “I've always built my contacts by word of mouth outside of Arkansas,” Jones says. “I've had bands call and say, ‘Hey, I've heard about the Treehouse in three different states.'”
In March, the city shut down the Treehouse for zoning violations. Sympathetic, Easy Street Piano Bar offered HFU! its cabaret room, free of charge, to host shows. And in July, Jones started sharing a piece of the booking at Vino's with Green Grass Entertainment. He says he thinks more people are actually paying attention at shows now, where the house concerts were turning into house parties. Booking at legit venues has also allowed him to get acts he couldn't secure before. On Dec. 27, he's bringing his “favorite band since [he was] 17,” Grand Buffet, and in February he's got the IDM hero Cex.
Still, the house show ethos continues to run deep. He says contracts “take the fun out of booking shows,” he lets bands sleep at his house and says he likely won't try to make money on HFU! for two years, for fear of overcharging the audience or taking away from bands to pay himself. Most of all, Jones says he's “just trying to make sure that bands really, really love Little Rock and want to come back.”