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Clubs | Orange County booking agent turns a Sunset
Strip club with a long history into a happening music
venue.

Finding the Key to Success

November 02, 2000|HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A funny thing happened on the way to failure: success.

Few would've given the Key Club a strong prognosis two years ago. Its previous incarnation, Billboard Live, was dead in the water after 18 months, and it left a mess in its wake. The owners of the Sunset Strip venue were struggling to clean up its act. Actually, they were struggling to get an act.

There really was no turning back, though. Millions had been sunk into gutting and renovating the famed rock joint Gazzarri's to make it Billboard Live. Changing the name to Key Club was only the first step in an uphill climb.

Of all the errors committed during the early days of Billboard Live, the biggest mistake was underestimating the need for a really hot booking team. The club needed to live up to its name--that of the music biz's most pivotal journal--with great bookings every night. It's no secret that it simply couldn't.

Enter Damian Brawner. In 1998, the Key Club's booking agent invited this young promoter-musician from Orange County to give him a hand. When Brawner got settled into his new job, he realized that the guy who hired him was out, and he was in. Brawner had mostly promoted one-off events at such clubs as the Galaxy and the Coach House. He looked at the calendar above his desk, saw 30 vacant days ahead and started dialing.

His first call was to Kevin Lyman, promoter of the Vans Warped Tour. Brawner had been on the tour in '97, drumming in a band called Sunchild and luckily had made a few friends. He'd gotten to know bands such as Pennywise and Social Distortion, and he called in every favor he could think of.

But first he had to create a vibe. If a club has bad karma, it doesn't matter how good the sound system is, key artists won't play there. That Brawner was an outsider in the Hollywood club scene worked to his advantage. The club booking community isn't exactly tightknit, but everyone's up on everyone else's business. At the time, everyone pretty much ignored the Key Club, figuring, like Billboard Live, it wouldn't last long.

But Brawner had one other ace up his sleeve. As a musician, he knows what bands want: lots of tickets for free drinks and a bit of respect. This, he doled out in full. Pennywise was among the first major bands to play for him. 311 soon followed. The Urge, Suicidal Tendencies and Snot played the club. Groups like Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit performed there before they blew up. Limp Bizkit even shot some of the "Faith" video at the Key Club.

Noshing and Moshing With the Bands

With some good word-of-mouth from musicians, suddenly all that money spent on building the club began to pay off. It does have a first-rate sound system, first-rate video capabilities, a backstage that's luxurious by Strip standards. The three-level, 550-capacity venue has a restaurant for late-night noshing, a spacious floor for nighttime moshing. The industrial design works for these raucous, increasingly rock 'n' roll times. The VIP lounge is now home to monthly art openings with art that actually rocks.

Now, Rahsaan Patterson, Tenacious D and the red-hot Perfect Circle have made repeat visits. Fear frontman and veteran punk survivor Lee Ving gets shown so much respect by the Key Club, he performs there regularly. Even Prince, who failed to play Billboard Live one memorable night, wowed the Key Club with a 4 1/2-hour show last year. Radio station KLOS-FM (95.5) has brought in performances by Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions, and Golden Voice has begun co-promoting shows. In addition, KROQ-FM (106.7) has taken a recent interest in the Key Club, handing out promotional items and sponsoring events. Add its successful weekend dance parties, and the Key Club has made a nice recovery, despite its rough start.

There's only one more thing that could bring this "outsider" club--one that relied heavily on O.C. connections to get the party started--full circle. It could go Hollywood. That is to say, the Key Club should take an interest in the hot new Hollywood bands and promoters who routinely work smaller venues in lower-rent neighborhoods, but who've built the strongest scene since the '80s. The Key Club is now in a position to give them a leg up, and in a sense, its Gazzarri's legacy almost mandates it gets in on some Hollywood rock. You know, it's probably inevitable.

Just last Tuesday, "Pennywise: Live at the Key Club" was released on Epitaph Records. It's not only a great album by a key L.A. band, it's a great tribute to the KeyClub and to Brawner's hard work. At a location where so much history took place, the Key Club is beginning to make some of its own.

BE THERE

The Key Club, 9039 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 786-1712. 21 and older. Cover varies.

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