One of the great mysteries of the music business, at least to smaller bands, is how to get people to show up at gigs. Bands build mailing lists, post on social media, pass out gig flyers, run contests, hire PR firms, register with BandsInTown, and try to do advance radio shows. For established bands with big fan bases, that is generally more than enough; shows and tours get sold out. For smaller bands, not always. But sometimes bands do almost none of those things and have lines out the door when they play.
That happened Saturday night at Harvell’s in Santa Monica with the local band, Alligator Beach (AB), a funky New Orleans party band that creates a jumping, dancing, singing Mardi Gras celebration wherever they play. There was no warm-up band; AB started on time and Harvell’s was packed before the end of their first set. How did they do it? How did a local band, playing a niche genre, with a very light online presence, no albums out and no marketing except for a small FB ad pack a club competing with 300 or so other clubs in LA on a Saturday night? I talked with band co-leader Lance Keller and a sample of their fans to answer that question.
But first a note about Harvell’s and about Doña Oxford.
In 1931 a female jazz singer by the name of Harvell opened a “dry” jazz supper club in Santa Monica’s landmark Tower building. This makes it the oldest club on the west side of Los Angeles and possibly the oldest dedicated blues/jazz club in LA county. Over the years it has seen many greats on its stage – Albert King, Guitar Shorty, Buddy Miles, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Keb Mo’, John Lee Hooker, Tasha Taylor and many more. So there is a regular crowd no matter who is playing. And they expect a lot.
Doña Oxford gives a lot and has legions of fans who love her for it. Known as the Goddess of Soul, Blues and Boogie, Oxford has played with stars like Van Morrison, Roger Daltry, Buddy Guy, Julia Fordham and Harry Shearer. She has toured with Albert Lee and sat in with Keith Richards. When her name is on the gig’s listing – and it was Sunday night as she sat in with Alligator Beach – fans take notice.
Which I guess is a small part of the “why” that Alligator Beach absolutely packed Harvell’s Saturday night. If there had been rafters, fans would have been hanging from them.
But even with the regulars and fans who came for Doña Oxford wouldn’t have so jam-packed Harvell’s so early on a Saturday night. So what is Alligator Beach’s secret? I think it is word- of-mouth.
I interviewed fans during the break to find out what brought them to Harvell’s and see Alligator Beach. Many told me that their friends had been to an Alligator Beach gig and loved it. Some told me that they were at Harvell’s with friends who had seen the band in other places and were hooked. And interestingly, many fans I talked to said it was personal conversations that moved them — friends calling friends and raving you must come and see this band. Over and over I heard the words “my friends told me about them.”
Alligator Beach is the creation of Lance Keller who is joined center stage by singer Carol Hatchett, recruited by Keller at a gig and now a full partner in the project. The band lineup can vary with the performance, but Sunday night in addition to the two of them and Oxford, they brought in the superb talent of Jimmy Z on sax, Byron Holley on drums, BR Millon on guitar and Mick Linden on bass. All of these musicians are top-notch and have local fans — a requirement as any musician knows when it comes to filling a hall.
The result was pure musical party fun – exactly what the word-of-mouth promised. And the fulfillment of that promise means more word- of-mouth. Of course there will be hundreds of videos posted online, FB checkins, Instagram selfies with the band in the background, and “stories” with people swaying in front of Keller’s trombone or Carol Hatchett swaying to it onstage. But if what people told me is true, there will be are lots of conversations either on or offline saying this was so much fun and you have got to come next time.
It is interesting and in some ways gratifying that people talking to people can help drive a band’s success in the digital age. Which is not to say that Binx should abandon her web conversations or ZZ Ward neglect her Instagram feed or Halo Circus stop chronicling their current tour on Twitter. But I think it does mean that Sunday night I saw a perfect storm of success – a terrific band with a local fan base in an iconic club with its own following, joined by a popular sit-in player with her own audience, all accelerated by word-of-mouth enthusiasm that practically drove people to Santa Monica. If only there was a way to bottle that storm.