As the pandemic winds down, concerts are ramping up

Local music venue owners Sartain & Saunders are ready for the crowds to return

Do you miss concerts as much as I do?

At the time of this writing, it’s been 397 days since I’ve seen a show. By far the longest I’ve gone in my life without seeing a concert (not counting a short little religious sabbatical) since I first saw Everclear, SpaceHog, and Tracey Bonham at Saltair in the summer of 1995.

There’s nothing like coming together with a group of people you don’t know and vibing to live music. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t really like people. 

There are some iconic venues across the country and the world—Red Rock Amphitheater in Denver, Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Royal Albert Hall in London, even Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. Plus every town has its own collection of clubs and stages where fans can hear—and vibe—to the music. 

If you’ve attended a concert in Salt Lake in the past 15 years, the odds are high you’ve seen Sartain and Saunders production. 

Growing their business

Will Sartain and Lance Saunders own three music venues across the city, a restaurant that frequently also hosts musical acts, work as promoters for both the Ogden and Salt Lake Twilight concert series.

Sartain started out working for Kilby Court in 2003 and after leaving for a few years to start his own business with Saunders the opportunity arose for them to purchase the venue so they jumped on it. Not long after that they purchased Urban Lounge and over time added Rye Dinner & Drinks and Metro Music Hall.

“We’ve just slowly and steadily seen an opportunity and then taken it, but not rushing into anything,” related Sartain. “Slowly built up our shows from 40 a year to 1,000 and had a full staff. Now we obviously don’t have that. It’s just a few of us, but it’s really fun to have a big group of people working together on music.”

Smaller bands, bigger impact

While they’ve put on shows for some big-name artists over the years, it’s the smaller ones that often stand out.

“When a band shows up and you have no idea and you’ve never met them before, but you love their music and then you get to know them and hang out with them and it turns into a special event, really,” said Saunders.

Sartain agrees this was especially true in the early days when there was less information available about the bands you were going to see and you didn’t always know what you were going to get.

“I think one thing I really enjoyed about the early days of our work is there was a little more surprise,” recalled Sartain. “The internet wasn’t so dominating and I feel like anyone that goes to a show these days you sort of expect and you get it and you leave and you say oh that was pretty cool. I really loved the times you showed up and there are bands that you booked, but you didn’t really know much about them and suddenly it’s a 10-piece band and it’s a raging dance party and you’re just like, ‘Whoa! How did this happen?’”

Expect the unexpected

If you’ll allow me this little diversion, I’d like to share a couple of examples of when I went to a show and was surprised by what I saw and heard. One good and one bad. Well not necessarily bad, but definitely memorable. 

Let’s start with the latter. When I went to see Better Oblivion Community Center at Metro Music Hall, the opening band was Sloppy Jane. I didn’t know anything about them going into the show, and even though I loved BOCC’s performance, the thing I remember most about that night was Sloppy Jane.

Sloppy Jane is an 11-piece avantgarde rock act based out of Brooklyn. But those words don’t do anything to describe what the experience seeing them is actually like.

The music was loud, droning, sometimes catchy, but definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen or heard at a concert. The lead singer, Haley Dahl, stripped down to her skivvies (apparently we got a toned down version of the show because if you do a Google image search of Sloppy Jane after reading this, many of the images from their shows are NSFW) and foamed at the mouth while writhing on the ground.

Am I glad I got to experience it? Yes. Would I want to do it again? No.

On the other end of the spectrum is Mapache. They opened for Mandolin Orange and were a pleasant surprise. Their website describes their sound as a blazed up Everly Brothers and that description is definitely apt.

They have the chillest vibe and the best harmonies this side of, well the Everly Brothers. After the show, I immersed myself in their music and returned to it often. But who knows if I would have ever discovered them if they hadn’t opened for that show?

These are the types of experiences your Spotify Daily Playlist can’t deliver. Sure it introduces you to new music, but the act of hearing it live takes discovering something new to the next level. 

Ramping back up

Now with COVID numbers coming down and vaccinations ramping up, more and more people are going to feel comfortable getting out and experiencing live music again 

And S&S offers a number of different options and experiences to help easy you back in. They are following all of the guidelines from the CDC and health department and haven’t had a single case of COVID traced back to one of their events.

“When you go, expect to sit in your group,” explained Sartain. “Expect to be distanced, and expect to wear a mask. Unlike other bars where you can go in, sit down and remove your mask and chill for one, two, or three hours. We don’t do that. You can lower your mask to take a drink, but then you must put your mask up.”

Saunders continued, “As venue owners, we have to make sure we’re a bit more responsible than everyone else to make sure that everyone feels safe.”

They’re taking extra special precaution at Kilby Court. Because it’s an all-ages venue, they wanted to make sure they weren’t putting their younger patrons in danger.

“The minute you walk through the door to the minute you walk out of the door, you can’t take your mask down,” said Sartain.

Because of these extra precautions, Kilby Court is a good place to start dabbling in live music again. In addition to their zero-tolerance stance on masks, the number of attendees has been significantly scaled back.

The floor is divided into six areas where pods of four can group together to enjoy the show. Because of the limited attendance, most bands are playing both an early and late show.

“Kilby is definitely a great first stop if you say, ‘I’m just going to go listen to anything,’” exclaimed Sartain. “If I was really dipping my toe in for the first time, I’d go to Kilby. Then I’d go to Urban. Urban’s so fun. I couldn’t believe it. Going to Urban right now, I’m fully all about it.” 

Bigger shows coming soon

Right now, all of the acts are local, but S&S is working on filling out the calendar in the fall with national touring acts and the pair think larger, outdoor concerts could be happening by late summer/early fall.

“I’m feeling pretty optimistic that we’ll see concerts especially like mid-to-late August, early September,” said Sartain. “I could see something like a Twilight or Ogden Twilight happening then, maybe, but who knows?”

While this past year has been especially tough on everyone who works in the music industry, Saunders feels like the shutdown will make people appreciate attending concerts more. He said, “People are going to take it less for granted. People are going to show up a bit more. Just having the opportunity to be part of the community and get out of the house. It’s good for your mental health.” 

If you want to hit up a show, you can check out the line up at all of S&S’s venues here.