One of the first things Curtis McCrary learned in his music industry career was to roll with the punches. The very first show McCrary put on in conjunction with his college radio station at Bowling Green University in Ohio almost fell through.
“Bowling Green is a pretty small college town about a half hour south of Toledo and was traditionally, and unsurprisingly, not a touring band hotspot,” says McCrary.
That first show featured a lineup of Chicago punks Pegboy with a Cleveland band called the Vivians. The evening also included what was supposed to be the first show that New Bomb Turks played outside of their hometown in Columbus until their guitarist Jim Weber cut his hand on a meat slicer at work on show day.
“It was in January, one of the coldest days that year, at a comedy club by the freeway that indulged me because they were desperate for business,” says McCrary of the performance that went on despite the hiccup. “The show broke even! It was nerve-wracking as all hell to actually have money on the line… I have never been much of a gambler. But I was hooked after that.”
McCrary went on to book several more shows through his university gig with little to no guidance in an area that wasn’t ripe with music industry mentors.
“Early-mentors-wise, there wasn’t much. A lot of it was just trial and error, and I was fortunate to be able to use WBGU as a promotional resource,” says McCrary. “I inadvertently learned how to deal with finding out on show day that the band wasn’t going to be showing up from Todd Cote, pre-Leafy Green, when he called me to say that the NYC noise-rockers Unsane didn’t look at their schedule after he added our date, and were not in fact in a van on the way to Bowling Green.”
Following Bowling Green, McCrary left for Arizona where he briefly pursued a law degree before finding himself back in the live music business. He started volunteering at all ages gallery Solar Culture that hosted shows before landing a position Club Congress, helping with booking and promotion. That led to an opportunity to become involved with the Rialto Theatre Foundation which took over the fairly decrepit, but still operating Rialto Theatre in 2004.
“I was a principal in the entire process of renovating and reimagining it with very limited resources,” says McCrary. “The biggest problem that we had to address was that the acoustics were bad because it was a theater built in 1920, so it was never designed to with amplified music in mind. The surfaces were hard and reflective so it created a cacophonous din. It had this reputation as being a bad sounding room.”
With a limited budget, a truncated amount of time and the mentality of just making things happen, McCrary and Rialto Theatre renovation team reopened the venue in 2004 and have been successfully operating it since. Amplify caught up with McCrary, who is now executive director of Rialto Theatre Foundation, to learn about five of his favorite shows.
Public Enemy and Sonic Youth at Aragon Ballroom in Chicago
Dec. 29, 1990
I was a huge fan of both acts, although their “collaboration” left something to be desired. “Kool Thing” was a decent song, but Chuck D’s vocal part was a little phoned-in, as was the performance that night at the Aragon. Still, it was a one-of-a-kind show for the times. They weren’t on tour together, this was just an exciting pairing of two wildly different acts and audiences, similar only in their iconoclasm. And despite mediocre sound and minimal interaction between the two groups, it was a good show for the same reason that there’s almost no such thing as bad pizza.
But what was most memorable about the show happened as it let out — we had just barely gotten out the doors onto Lawrence Ave when suddenly and seemingly on all sides, numerous middle-aged men in plainclothes were shoving and yelling at people that had no idea what was going on. The person in front of me got shoved into a lightpost. Bottles and other projectiles began flying. It took a minute for us to realize the aggressors were from the Chicago PD, and they were quite literally busting heads.
It turns out to have been your classic Chicago Police Riot — people opposed to the impending Gulf War were demonstrating on Lawrence as the concert let out, and the police wildly overreacted. It was amazing more people weren’t hurt or there wasn’t a stampede.
Pavement and Don Caballero at Euclid Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio
June 15, 1992
The summer between my junior and senior year of college was the summer of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. The record had come out earlier in 1992 and I could not get enough of it. The same was true for a close circle of friends, and so when we learned of this show, that also included an intriguing instrumental band from Pittsburgh, Don Caballero, there was no way we were going to miss it.
Five of us made the drive to Cleveland, to the legendary Euclid Tavern, home of longtime booker and poster artist Derek Hess. We could not have been more excited. Pavement embodied everything we appreciated about music at the time — left-field melody, whip-clever lyrics, slacker aesthetic. It was a synthesis of everything that made “indie rock” enjoyable, and we were getting to see them on their first tour.
Don Cab slayed — we had never seen a band that featured drums as a lead instrument like that, and their technical precision and incredible chops, in the service of songs that went interesting and complex places, was sui generis.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at Solar Culture Gallery in Tucson, Arizona
Aug. 26, 2005
This was my first time seeing the great Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings. I went with my damie Matt Haverty on a school night. He’s a good egg for indulging me because he was (and is) a high-school teacher. It really didn’t take much longer than the intros for me to be sold on the fact that I was seeing someone amazing. Having the band come out and play and building the hype for impending arrival of the frontperson is a classic r&b shtick, and the Dap-Kings had it down to a science.
I’ve always loved soul and r&b and Motown, so I was enthusiastic about what I was to soon witness, and what I had heard of their recorded output. I was not prepared for the tour-de-force that I witnessed. Sharon Jones’ dynamism, voice, chops, and joie de vivre were like nothing I had seen before, or since.
My Bloody Valentine at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit
June 23, 1992
Loveless had come out in 1991 and it was on heavy rotation in my world. My girlfriend first brought MBV to my attention a couple years prior with Isn’t Anything and Tremolo and I enjoyed those records but pigeonholed them as another shoegaze band until I heard the first 20 seconds of “Only Shallow.” From that point on I was fully in.
Once inside, we found a spot in the middle of the floor and waited for it to get dark so we could pass the fatty we smuggled in for the occasion. After getting high as a lord, neither I nor my friends were prepared for what we witnessed, which was quite simply the most powerful rock show we had ever seen in our brief lives to date. It was loud as all hell, of course, but more than that, it simply transcended our expectations of raw power. Obviously MBV is heavily guitar-centric but we were most blown away by the prowess of Debbie Googe, the band’s bass player, as she thundered at us from onstage with a chip on her shoulder. It was sublime, and to this day, resides in my mental top 5 list, obviously enough.
Tom Waits at Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, Arizona
Jun 18, 2008
Anyway, getting to see Tom Waits was a lifelong dream, both because he’s one of the greats of our time and also because he tours very infrequently. So I and nearly everyone with decent music taste in Tucson got tickets to one or the other show, or both, and also the El Paso show a couple days later. It was a week of Waits, man, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some — who knew Tom was first-rate comedian? I suppose that makes sense. One I remember — he was sharing fun facts and he told us that in Baltimore, it’s illegal to take a lion to the movies. It was all in the delivery.