By Quinn Welsch
Finding live music in downtown Baton Rouge is not hard these days. With new stages open in more than a dozen bars and clubs, a new season of Live After Five starting on April 3, and the city’s annual Blues Festival coming just a week after, the streets are getting pretty noisy.
But ask anyone where the Baton Rouge music “scene” is and it’s unlikely they’ll point toward downtown. If you’re looking for an original act – something other than a DJ or a cover band – your best bet is still going to be at The Varsity, Chelsea’s Cafe, The Library, or The Spanish Moon. The local flavor has revolved around these venues at least since the ‘90s, and despite increased livability and a blossoming arts district downtown, the local music scene doesn’t appear to be shifting any time soon.
You don’t need to look further than the crushed beer cans and partying crowds on Chimes and Highland to see the difference between Northgate and downtown on a Saturday night. Downtown music plays it safe, and it seems to have worked. It’s about popular demand, said Gabe Vicknair, assistant executive director of the Downtown Development District.
“Most of our downtown bands focus on cover music because it focuses on a larger crowd,” he said. “Baton Rouge has always had the cover mentality.”
That mentality has contributed to downtown Baton Rouge’s growth as a cultural district and an actual destination for the city’s residents.
The density of bars and stages also make downtown a great location to go barhopping, between Happy’s Irish Pub, Boudreaux & Thibodeaux’s, Red Star or any other bar down the road, Vicknair said. But ask anyone what downtown was like in the ‘90s, and it may as well have not have existed.
Those were the days you could walk through The Varsity’s doors with no cover and see bands like 311, Blues Traveler or the Indigo Girls, said Scott Gaskin, the owner of Green Frog Entertainment, a talent booking agency in town.
Pop music has evolved drastically, but the general rule in town remains: the farther you stray from LSU’s neighborhood, the harder it is to support original music acts, Gaskin said. This is something Vicknair acknowledges as well. The Manship Theatre and the River Center downtown might be the exception, but they normally cater to touring acts and an audience with a little more money.
Booking an original local act is not guaranteed to bring in a big crowd, which is why venue managers throughout the city have become less likely to do so, Gaskin said. They know what works, and in Baton Rouge you can stick to the basics: alcohol and cover songs that people can sing to.
“It’s not a music scene. It’s an entertainment scene,” Gaskin said. “The city’s original artists struggle tremendously every week to get into a club to play their music.”
That’s not to say there isn’t talent in the city, but local business owners downtown have yet to capitalize on it, said Chris Brooks, the chair of the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival and a local musician.
“I think the downtown venues should especially consider opening their doors to these bands and performers because that is ultimately what a capitol vision should look like,” Brooks said. “When you go to Austin, [Texas], you don’t go to see a cover band.”
The Baton Rouge Blues Festival is bringing more than a dozen different acts downtown on April 11, all of which are original acts and mostly from the Baton Rouge area. The event breaks the rules of Live After Five’s (generally speaking) aging rocker audience, including hip hop and R&B performances. The event nearly doubled its audience from 12,000 to about 20,000 last year and is likely to do the same again this year, Brooks said.
The premise of the festival is a reeducation of the city’s blues roots, especially swamp blues, a slow-paced sub-genre that originated in the Baton Rouge area, he said. The genre was especially influential on the British Invasion in the ‘60s.
“We take pride in original art, whether that’s handcrafted art, fine art or original music,” Vicknair said. “Those venues that are supporting original music are getting through to the public more and more as the city becomes more progressive.”
That change is gradual, but Vicknair and Brooks both say it’s on its way.