The Monster Success of Belly Up Aspen
By nichole frehsée
On December 31, 2011, as the clock ticked down to midnight, Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell stood onstage, peering out over a screaming, sold-out crowd. As rainbow-colored lasers flashed in the background and leather-clad dancers pranced back and forth, the wiry rocker and his bandmate, a shirtless, tattooed Dave Navarro, launched into “Ted, Just Admit It..,” a tune off the group’s 1988 debut album, Nothing’s Shocking. The audience sang every word back to them.
While the scene resembled something straight out of Madison Square Garden (or any giant arena), it happened somewhere far tinier: Belly Up, a 6,000-square-foot club with 450 seats (including 80 reserved seats in a separate section) located near the base of Aspen Mountain. Its history of drawing supersize acts is as storied as the space.
Since opening in January 2005, the club has hosted 300 shows annually, starring everyone from Jimmy Buffett and B.B. King to Jack White and Deadmau5. “I didn’t enter this business with any great anticipation,” says Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg, 63, who’s also part owner of local sushi mainstay Matsuhisa. “But I certainly didn’t think it would grow into the monster it’s become.”
Just before Belly Up’s eighth birthday and on the heels of the company’s expanded role in booking gigs at various outdoor venues for the City of Aspen, Aspen Skiing Company, and the town of Snowmass, we caught up with Goldberg to talk about the club’s past, present, and future—and how it put Aspen’s music scene on the map.
ASPEN PEAK: You’re a restaurateur and the owner of two aviation companies. Why did you get into the music business?
MICHAEL GOLDBERG: I love live music, and when the Double Diamond [Aspen’s famed 1990s music venue] disappeared, it left a hole in the local scene. Plus, my brother, Steve, owns the original Belly Up in Solana Beach, California, and he knows the business. It just made sense.
AP: What did your brother think about you bringing the club to Aspen?
MG: When I asked him if I should do it, he gave a resounding no. But years before, I considered investing in a restaurant, and he told me not to. So I didn’t, and the restaurant turned out to be California Pizza Kitchen. Since then, I do the opposite of what Steve tells me.
AP: When did you feel like Belly Up had officially “made it”?
MG: Our opening weekend in January 2005: The Roots and G. Love & Special Sauce played. Five months later, I thought I’d made it again when we sold out a Chris Isaak show, the first time we charged $100 for a ticket. But each time I’d put out an offer to a band and they’d say no, I’d think I hadn’t made it yet. It’s an evolution.
AP: What acts haven’t you been able to snag?
MG: I made Paul McCartney an offer once, and the next day, someone tripled it. Big artists want big prices. Some acts are just beyond the realm of reasonableness, although I’m not sure there’s even such a thing in Aspen. I mean, if we could get the Rolling Stones in here, people would pay.
AP: You’ve attracted lots of marquee artists like Al Green, Ben Harper, and Lucinda Williams. What’s the draw?
MG: I’m not dumb enough to think that the club is successful because of me. Artists give us more attention than the average 450-seat club because we’re in Aspen, a place with mystique and allure—and in some cases, where musicians vacation. In 2005, Seal was here snowboarding, so he played a show. Perry Farrell, who’s played three New Year’s Eve shows, turns the gig into a family ski trip.
AP: What’s the appeal for musicians who wouldn’t otherwise hit Aspen?
MG: Once you get a few of the big-name guys in here, others aren’t afraid. They know you can execute a great show: The sound system won’t make them sound like they’re in a barrel; high ticket prices won’t leave the room half-empty. They won’t be embarrassed… though they might embarrass us.
AP: What’s your most embarrassing story?
MG: I don’t want to incriminate anyone. But I’ll tell you a horror story: having a blizzard the day before a sold-out Wyclef Jean show that prevents him from getting to Aspen. Twice a year, someone’s not going to get here because of the weather.
AP: What are some of the most memorable Belly Up shows?
MG: The Flaming Lips always transforms the club with its production. In 2010 the group brought a semi truck full of mirrored balls, gongs, and lighting, and [front man] Wayne Coyne rolled offstage in a giant plastic bubble. Last year, we did three days of Widespread Panic that blew the roof off. Tickets were $350–$500, and the shows sold out in minutes. People camped outside the club for 24 hours waiting for tickets.
AP: Belly Up has hosted some cool impromptu collaborations—for instance, Lance Armstrong once jumped onstage with Lyle Lovett. Does that kind of thing happen often?
MG: In 2010 Tim McGraw was here with his wife, Faith Hill, to see Keb Mo. Tim decided to step in, and he almost stole the show. Also, John Oates [of Hall & Oates], who lives in town, has probably played with more bands here than anyone else.
AP: Who did you grow up listening to?
MG: I’m a child of the ’60s, so I love the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen. I listened to classical music, too. My mother was a classical violinist.
AP: How do you keep up with new bands?
MG: My sons know more about electronic music and hip-hop than I ever will, so they help me out in those departments. I also go to festivals every year: Austin City Limits, Coachella, Lollapalooza. I love being exposed to new artists, and it’s fun to catch them on their way up. We had the Avett Brothers in here [in 2006 and 2007] back when they were still touring in a van.
AP: You’re also Belly Up’s house photographer—the club is lined with your pictures. How did you take on that role?
MG: I’ve been a photographer since my 20s, when my aviation career took me around the world, and I’d document everything. Shooting at the club lets me chronicle what we’re doing, and it’s also an excuse not to drink all night. You have to be sober to hold the camera straight.
AP: Which has been your favorite band to shoot?
MG: They’re all fun. Some shows provide great visuals: the Flaming Lips, Jane’s Addiction, Thievery Corporation. Others, like John Prine or Leo Kottke, are great because I’ve listened to those guys forever. But you can’t abuse the access. I refuse to carry a camera with me because I’d be shooting all day.
AP: How often do you see shows at Belly Up?
MG: When I’m in town, almost every night.
AP: Is it hard to sustain that pace?
MG: I don’t have a problem going to bed at 2 a.m., waking up four hours later and going to work. Sometimes, after a show, an artist will want to come back to my house and DJ or play guitar until 6 a.m. That happens more than I want it to.
AP: You were also close with Hunter S. Thompson.
MG: Yeah, he was a character. He passed away right after I opened the club. He was mad that I named it Belly Up. He had his own suggestion: The Orifice.
AP: What are your future goals for the club?
MG: I want to keep bringing in larger acts because it’s a rare opportunity to see big acts in such a small venue. More than anything, I want to keep it “real,” comfortable, and intimate. I’m sensitive to what local—especially young ones who work three jobs—can afford, and I do my best to cater to both them and the tourists, whom we rely on for half our ticket sales.
AP: Here’s hoping the next eight years are as good as the last eight.
MG: Absolutely. The best is yet to come.
photography by jodie love (goldberg, belly up, jposter); michael goldberg (jane’s addiction, prine, buffett, concerts)