- Erin Moore
The colloquialism "Small Lake City" is almost a proverb here, where everyone seems to know everyone. But that wasn't the case when I showed up this month to the first Artist Town Hall at Urban Lounge. At just past 7 p.m., there was already a sizable crowd milling around, and other folks coming in behind me. As I looked around on my way to the bar, I didn't recognize everyone—unlike other times I've gone to Urban. That was, it turned out, the point.
I did eventually run into an old friend Nic Smith—the venue media manager at S&S Presents, of which Urban Lounge is part—and continued to eye the room, eventually spotting the tall figure of "Bad" Brad Wheeler in his signature wide-brimmed hat. I confided in Smith that I really needed to connect with that guy. But before Wheeler stepped onstage to help Urban and S&S owner Will Sartain open the night, he approached me and let me know that he'd been meaning to connect with me, too.
This early interaction—our conversation brief but productive, with our mutual enthusiasm immediately placing us on easy conversational ground—turned out to be exactly what Sartain had in mind for the evening. It had been Wheeler's idea, too, one they've only just been able to realize. Before I began posing questions in Wheeler's direction, Sartain explained that the night was all about connection. "I don't get to meet everybody all the time, and you don't get a chance to meet us and you don't get a chance to meet each other," he began. He further explained that he hoped this Artist Town Hall—which involved not just musicians, but people like myself—would help to both strengthen the community and shake it up a little.
Wheeler is probably Utah's most famous radio DJ, first finding comfortable popularity on KRCL 90.9 FM's drive-time show for several years before leaving for new station KUAA 99.9 FM, where he now works as programming director. But Wheeler's musical presence goes way back. While an Ogdenite and harmonica aficionado for most of his life, he also worked at the infamous Speedway Café, a wild SLC punk venue, back in 1990, and managed the also-infamous and now-defunct Dead Goat Saloon seven years later.
When asked by Sartain what's changed between the days of venues under freeways to the digitally-ruled now, Wheeler says, "I feel like music held us together more, and it created more of our identity back then." For his part, Sartain describes the long-gone randomness of attending shows, and simply having to check something out to see if it was good, or trusting word-of-mouth. Nowadays, it's easier to look things up and maybe decide to skip the nobody-knows-'em openers. I can say that, because as a seasoned millennial show-goer, I regrettably do that from time to time.
It might also be easier to skip out on going to shows because there's such a massive amount of media to consume these days, and one can do it at home. Meanwhile, scene veterans like Wheeler and Sartain have seen enough change in the musical landscape of this city to seemingly sense the present slipping away like the pasts they've lived through.
"It blows my mind that there's no Utah music hall of fame," Wheeler says. "We don't really know our identity, our history, [so] how do we know where we're gonna go in the future?" He laments going to South by Southwest and seeing bands from Uzbekistan, but none from Utah, which calls back to part of the conversation he had with me, about how City Weekly itself once hosted a local band competition, where the prize was a slot at SXSW.
Wheeler wastes no time in pointing out that it's not just specialty events like that where artists are lacking support, but that they need livable wages, affordable housing and health care—that it's ridiculous that every time someone "falls down, gets sick or gets run over" they need to have some kind of benefit to raise funds. It's on this strong note that Sartain suggests everyone try to chat with someone new for 20 minutes before an old-but-good SLC band, Palace of Buddies, jumps on stage with (brilliant) dance accompaniment by the Heartland Collective.
I chose Sartain—a stranger, really—to connect with, and wasted no time asking what changes he'd make for the next such event, because they're hoping to hold these Town Halls four times a year. First and foremost, he says, is diversity, and when he describes the concept of having a larger, more diverse panel on stage for discussion, he takes my suggestion of including younger, newer folks in the scene seriously. Since he operates the lion's share of venues in town, it seems fitting that he'd open up a space like Urban for dialogue by folks within and outside his personal scope.
"Really, I think the biggest picture is having everyone connect and creating a support system, creating more long term goals," Sartain says. I'm already determined to head to the next Town Hall with that future on my mind.