Luring popular bands to a B-circuit city requires a certain finesse. Colorado Springs currently takes a back seat to its northern neighbors when it comes to landing national acts, but that doesn't mean the city won't see an occasional celebrity headliner or indie sensation.
At the moment, The Black Sheep is the city's only mid-sized venue that boasts the proper accoutrements to snag big gigs regularly. After years of disappointing club closures and failed organizations on the southern edge of the Front Range, The Black Sheep has finally gained a stable hold. The venue confirms the Springs' market viability, which somehow always had resisted capitalization in the past.
"As a market, Denver and its outlying cities have become very important for national acts," says Soda Jerk promoter and Black Sheep owner Mike Barsch. "I'd say we are among the Top 10 markets in the country, but I've always felt there could be better support for our local bands."
Barsch first got into the promotion biz after starting Soda Jerk Records in 1995. "We were having trouble getting shows for our bands, so we started doing our own booking," he explains. "As time went on, it got harder to sell records, but the booking was starting to take off for us."
Soda Jerk Records, based out of the Club 156 venue on the CU-Boulder campus, grew into Soda Jerk Productions in 1997. Soon after, Barsch teamed with Jason Cotter who was then booking punk shows at The Raven in Denver to form Private Party Productions, which operated successfully until 2000, when the duo attempted to open their own Denver club called The Cat. It closed three months after its debut due to a "shift in liquor policy," according to Barsch.
"I learned a lot with The Cat," he says. "We didn't have a lot of money, which made things difficult. It was our fault. Lesson learned."
The partnership folded, but Barsch promptly rebounded to launch Soda Jerk Presents, which has grown to stock five venues in Denver (including the hi-dive, the Marquis Theatre and Cervantes Masterpiece Theatre) four stages in Boulder (including the Fox Theatre and Boulder Theater), the Starlight in Fort Collins, and The Black Sheep and City Auditorium in Colorado Springs.
Barsch says the secret to Soda Jerk's success is its tight focus, something he claims many larger promoters lack.
"We're rooted in punk, hardcore, indie and metal," says Barsch. "We're not getting caught up in Joan Osborne, et cetera. ... Our niche [has] taken a long time to establish, but agents and [patrons] recognize us for that."
By cornering the market on small-scale shows, Barsch has never considered Soda Jerk in competition with other regional promoters like Nobody in Particular Presents (NIPP), or large-scale promoters like Clear Channel.
Many bands, he adds, are reluctant to jump to a larger venue, where they actually gross less cash. Some bands, perhaps most notably NOFX and Fugazi, have actually resisted their popularity to continue playing small-venue circuits.
"A lot of bands are afraid to do things on their own terms," says Barsch. "I admire those that do, though it's not the safest career path."
In the Colorado Springs market, Soda Jerk met with a series of trials early on, many of which sent what Barsch says were wildly inaccurate rumors floating about town.
The troubles began shortly after 32 Bleu (the downtown venue now called The Thirsty Parrot) went under, sending fans north to the Navajo Hogan on Nevada Avenue.
The Hogan's shows were booked by Marc Peralta, then Barsch's right-hand man in the Springs. Things appeared on the up and up for a while, with popular bands like Lucero drawing sizable crowds. But the club virus spread to the Hogan, which soon crumbled under tax pressures.
Suddenly out in the cold, Soda Jerk was able to salvage its events calendar by taking up temporary residence at the Darkside on Platte Avenue. But that venue already was suffering. Increasing show volume wasn't enough to keep it afloat, and the Darkside soon faced eviction and tax problems a pandemic confirmed.
Your neighborhood club
Rather than looking for another new residence, Barsch decided to purchase the venue in October 2005, renaming it The Black Sheep. The building was hastily brought up to code and concerts continued, sans alcohol until the liquor license was granted.
Then, just as Soda Jerk was struggling to make a good impression on its new neighbors and wrap up the bureaucratic end of things, Peralta got busted on drug charges.
"It put us in a pickle," says Barsch. "I got the hearing extended, and as a sign of good faith and responsibility, I took Marc off the LLC."
Peralta has been in rehab since the incident. The Black Sheep now has a liquor license, and the crew, having already overhauled the sound system and lighting, currently is upgrading the ventilation.
General manager Geoff Brent has picked up the pieces Peralta left and says that though the club still has small improvements to complete, it's doing well and getting better by the week.
"We want people to know it's not a scary Goth bar anymore," Brent says.
Barsch is equally reassuring.
"We're just now hitting stride."
Soda Jerk Presents
For a schedule of shows, visit sodajerkpresents.com.