Left of Center

Kings of Leon (left) and Wilco were two non-metal acts that drew huge crowds to Sunset Station last fall. Can the venue repeat that feat in 2007?
For long-suffering San Antonians who like their rock a bit left-of-center, September and October 2006 was a golden time. Rather than filling our weekends whining about all the shows that pass us by for Austin, we could savor the Kings of  Leon, Spoon, and Wilco within a span of five weeks.

At the center of all this rare activity was Sunset Station, which booked both the Kings and Wilco. The bookings came at the end of the St. Paul Square venue’s contract with House of Blues, a deal that expired in August, and which Sunset Station did not renew. So the inevitable question is: Will the disassociation with House of Blues mean more or fewer shows like the ones we saw this fall?

According to Chris Novosad, talent promotions and marketing manager for Sunset Station, Wilco and the Kings should be a taste of things to come at the venue. He says such shows fit perfectly not only because they’ve shown they can draw well (Wilco pulled in 2,900 paying punters), but because a new Sunset Station hotel will open in October, and it will behoove the outdoor venue to bring in acts that refrain from turning their amps up to 11.     

   “The hotel has been insulated quite well so we can continue to have concerts, but having a Wilco concert or a Pat Green concert, as opposed to a Gwar concert, can work copacetically without people freaking out that they’re trying to sleep while this really loud band is playing,” Novosad says. “We’ll still do concerts, but we’ll start them earlier, or do bigger shows on Saturdays that start at noon and go all day.”

Sunset Station’s general manager, Terri Toennies, negotiated the venue’s contract with House of Blues in 2003, after years of working for HOB. The arrangement allowed House of Blues to route select shows through San Antonio, and enhanced Sunset Station’s profile as a first-rate music venue. Over time, however, House of Blues’ muscle became less essential to Sunset Station.  

“We’ve started moving toward doing more banquets and special events, and that sort of stuff,” Novosad says. “We slowly found that it was easier for us to book our own concerts. When I came in, we were right in the middle of booking with House of Blues, and I actually booked concerts that I sent to House of Blues, so we could get them. So it became a situation where we really didn’t need them.”

The last three years have involved some trial-and-error at Sunset Station to determine what will work at the renovated railroad depot. Even within defined genres, response has often fluctuated wildly. Novosad points out that 2004’s Al Green show did excellent business, and a subsequent Etta James performance sold out, but Isaac Hayes failed to draw and B.B. King elicited a mediocre response.

“When I first started here, metal shows were the only ones you were guaranteed with,” he says. “Staind always sold out, Disturbed sold out. When I came in, I tried to introduce some new things, like we did 30 Seconds to Mars and Wilco. Both of those shows went extremely well and Kings of Leon was amazing. So it kind of opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that we can do that kind of thing here and be successful with it.”

With the exception of its late-December Alamo Bowl festivities, Sunset Station has been fairly quiet over the last two months, and its first-quarter 2007 music schedule features only three shows: Taking Back Sunday, Killswitch Engage, and O’2L (with members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra).

“There was a time when we would do three or four concerts a month, and for a small venue, that’s a lot,” Novosad says. “We’re trying to break it down where we’re doing two concerts and a comedy show, at the most. Most months we’ll do one concert and a comedy show.”     

Sunset Station will also continue to work with the Carver Cultural Center on shows that are too small for Sunset Station’s spacious Lonestar Pavilion. Novosad cites Floetry’s 2005 appearance at the Carver as a perfect example of that booking symbiosis. It will also continue its remarkably successful Latino Comedy Night series, which regularly draws between 1,800 and 2,000 people a month.

Novosad says he’s looking to bring more shows that will appeal to Wilco’s crowd, but adds that it’s a consistent challenge to convince bands that they’ll draw in San Antonio. Fortunately for all concerned, that didn’t emerge as an impediment with Wilco.

“Wilco came to us and said, ‘We want to make a stop in Texas and we’d like it to be in San Antonio, because it’s so centrally located,” Novosad recalls. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Well, Austin, duh.’ But I didn’t argue with them, I just made the bid.

“I think Wilco worked because about 50 percent of the people at Wilco were from out of town. But 50 percent of those 2,900 people came from San Antonio, and that’s kind of surprising.”


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