Backstage at the Crystal Bay Club
Moonshine Ink | February 2012
The Crystal Bay Club is not your typical casino. While its counterparts in Reno, not 45 miles away, continue to book washed-up acts that saw their heyday a decade ago, the CBC knows its gig is different.
The club's audience is full of mountain town music lovers, and it goes after shows that will strike the biggest chord — high-energy bands that rock the night away.
For fans, the CBC reliably books a year-round diet of bluegrass, Americana, electronic, and funk that will appease most musical appetites.
For the musician, the intimate venue is known for quality sound, comfortable atmosphere, and a good crowd — ingredients that give a band the freedom to perform its best. And with its two-room setup, the CBC holds a benchmark for aspiring musicians. The Red Room is a nursery for undiscovered acts, and as soon as they’ve grown into their crowd, they graduate to the larger Crown Room.
For the management, the music aspect of the casino is something cherished and loved, something they invest a lot of time, focus, planning, and energy into, and take pride out of.
All of these factors make the Crystal Bay Club Casino a leading and valued music venue in North Lake Tahoe.
'I’ve never been to a town that is as small as ours that has such a nice club,' said Ryan Davis, drummer for the Dead Winter Carpenters, which performed a show last December in the Crown Room to a packed audience of 600 of the band's closest friends and fans. 'I think we’re really fortunate to have a place like that … We love the CBC.'
THE CASINO'S MUSIC REVOLUTION
When general manager Bill Wood first started at the Crystal Bay Club, the casino was following the same old Las Vegas standard and employing lounge acts.
'It was sort of boring,' Wood said. 'It just didn’t seem to be worth the expense.'
Those lounge acts may work for other casinos, Wood acknowledged, but they don’t work for the Crystal Bay Club. Wood called up Brent Harding, who learned the music business in Memphis, Tenn., while working at B.B. King's clubs, and Blake Beeman, who has been the man behind the sound at North Tahoe since the glory days of Humpty's in Tahoe City. Together, the trio produced a show featuring Jon Cleary, a New Orleans funk and blues man, on May 30, 2004.
Cleary's show sparked a musical revolution inside the CBC. Soon after, Wood sat down with Harding and Beeman and the three developed a business plan that would bring in up-and-coming artists that are attractive to the local demographic at a reasonable price, even for free. They’ve carried that plan forward ever since, and it has brought in band after musician — from Yonder Mountain String Band to Galactic to Jackie Greene to the Mother Hips — for the last eight years.
'We had to show people that we’re not the traditional casino showroom,' Wood said. 'We modeled ourselves more in the vein of the Fillmore.'
Today, the music side of the club combined with food and beverage just about matches the gaming revenue of the casino. But passion for good music, and not revenue projections, is still what drives the showroom's music schedule.
'It's a venue that has an enormous heart,' said Beeman. 'Basically, Bill, Brent, and I are really into music. We’re not doing it because we want to make a buck. We do it because we love it.'
A TRIED AND TRUE ACT
Eight years ago, the CBC team never imagined that bluegrass would become so popular that it would dominate their lineup. Today, the foot-stomping, fiddlin’, whiskey-drinking bands perform one after another. Just last December, the CBC sold out Dead Winter Carpenters and Trampled by Turtles. Three nights of Jackie Greene over the New Year also sold out.
'I love the whole vibe of the Americana bluegrass thing. It's so grassroots. It's so California,' Beeman said. 'They started selling really big, selling out all the time. We never saw that coming.'
It's not just that bluegrass is popular; it's that it works in the CBC's space. Same with jam bands, same with blues, same with funk, same with DJs in the Red Room. Part of the Crystal Bay Club's success comes from knowing its business.
'We are jam bands- and bluegrass-based,' said Harding, who lives in Southern California and books all of the music for the CBC.
The CBC also knows what doesn’t work — typically heavy metal, hardcore rap, and indie bands. Harding said he's tried to do different indie and hip hop acts, like Cold War Kids, Dr. Dog, and Ra Ra Riot, but they weren’t nearly as successful as the tried and true bluegrass and jam bands.
'That's what works,' Harding said. 'It's a business at the end of the day. So whatever [show] people buy the most tickets for is what gets asked back.'
That may be limiting if you love indie music, but for many Tahoe residents, the CBC hits the right note.
'They love music,' Harding said, of the CBC's Tahoe clientele. 'A lot of the artists like to come to Crystal Bay for the fact that the crowd is really into the show and has a lot of energy … Some bands like Yonder Mountain, they don’t have to play a room that small. But they have kept coming back over the years because they like that intimate of a show.'
THE SOUND GURU
Another reason why musicians love the Crystal Bay Club is the sound quality.
'At the Crystal Bay Club, from an artist's perspective, I can always hear what I want to hear out of my band from the monitor,' said Davis, about when he's played at the CBC with the Dead Winter Carpenters. A quality sound system with a producer who knows how to use it gives Davis the freedom to perform to his full capacity on his drum set, while keeping his band in time. And Beeman knows that.
'A lot of people do a lot of things that make these shows go off,' Beeman said. 'Everybody contributes to make this venue what it is and the integrity that it has. I’m a part of it, part of the wheel, part of the mechanism.'
Beeman built the sound and lighting systems in both the Crown Room and the Red Room. And he's been at every single show that has come through the CBC since he started, numbering something like 1,500 shows in the Red Room and more than 900 in the Crown Room. From the moment a band shows up, Beeman is there to welcome and set up, staying for a minimum of 12 hours to make sure everything is dialed. How does he do it? 'It's a mystery,' he said.
'After doing it for a while, you transform your whole life into something a little different than the norm.'
'It's a vampire existence. It really is,' he continued.
But at the end of the night, Beeman knows it's worth it.
'I absolutely love the fact that people are filing out of the place in the most incredible state of mind,' he said. 'I’m not feeding them hamburgers. I’m feeding them music.'