Mystery Train

Terri Toennies, general manager of Sunset Station. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Mystery Train

By Gilbert Garcia

Sunset Station hitches its booking future to House of Blues and Clear Channel

Terri Toennies' office is a short walk from the Alamodome, and Final Four weekend provided her with a long-awaited cause for celebration.

Toennies, general manager of Sunset Station, isn't a U-Conn Huskies hoops partisan. For her, the big story from Final Four weekend didn't happen on the basketball court: It came from the announcement that her venue finalized a deal enabling House of Blues Concerts and Clear Channel Entertainment to handle talent booking for Sunset Station. It completed a legally convoluted process that Toennies launched shortly after taking over operations for the club last June.

"We were hoping to make it happen by early March so it wouldn't get caught up in all the Final Four hubbub," Toennies says. "But in a way, it probably helped us because it got a lot of people here to see the venue who might have already heard about this."

Toennies came to San Antonio last year after working for House of Blues in Las Vegas and New Orleans, and she saw an opportunity to use that connection to transform the booking strategy of Sunset Station. For years, Sunset Station has frustrated local music fans, who have bemoaned the city's shortage of first-rate concert venues and viewed this St. Paul Square location as a source of untapped potential.

On the plus side, it offered a large open-air facility and the aesthetic virtues of a historic train-depot location. On the minus side, it never seemed to follow a coherent booking approach, and suffered - like every downtown spot east of the freeway - from a deadly dearth of foot traffic. As a result, Sunset Station has been widely perceived as more of a rental facility for private functions than a vital source of music.

By applying the booking muscle of House of Blues and Clear Channel, Toennies hopes to change perceptions and make Sunset Station the venue that fills the local niche for medium-sized national shows: basically anything that falls in that large chasm between White Rabbit and Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.

"We're really excited because it gives us the opportunity to brand the venue in a way it's never been branded before," Toennies says. "To have the two largest concert promoters in the United States here says a lot for what we can have coming through.

"Coming from a House of Blues venue that has a talent buyer and promotions people that are dedicated just to marketing concerts and seeing what's out there, this venue has never really had that. They had a talent buyer who was talented in the rock 'n' roll genre but didn't have the connections to reach outside of that. When they got a show that might have not been a rock band, it was harder for them to reach out to anyone and find out how you market it."

Sunset Station is working with a House of Blues talent buyer based in New Orleans, and a Clear Channel buyer based in Austin. The two booking powerhouses divvied up their duties based on which buyer has a stronger relationship with a particular talent agency. The buyers will approach Toennies about an available artist, and she has to decide whether it's good for the market.

"We have eight different offers we've already been looking at just between Monday and Tuesday of this week," she says. "It's everything from Ozomatli to the Hansons to Loretta Lynn to Howie Day to O.A.R.

"Those are big names and it's not that San Antonio couldn't have had those before. It's just that there wasn't a promoter looking at one venue to bring them through before. Verizon's too big, Sunken Garden isn't necessarily where you'd want to put acts like that - no offense to them - but here we can hold 3,500 to 4,000 people."

Toennies plans to pursue an eclectic musical approach that will draw a wide demographic, launching the new era of Sunset Station with upcoming concerts by Al Green and Melissa Etheridge. Beginning in late May, the venue will also benefit from the House of Blues Sunday Gospel Brunch, a weekly showcase featuring highly regarded gospel groups from around the country.

The lingering question is whether Sunset Station's newly acquired clout can steer at least a few national names away from Austin and in the direction of San Antonio. For Toennies, however, the bigger issue is getting people to maintain an open mind about a venue that's new in some ways, but carries a lot of baggage.

"It's almost like an opening venue, but we're already open, so it's almost harder to do sometimes," she says. "We have to get rid of a lot of preconceived notions and build on it again." •

By Gilbert Garcia