Rocket Queen: Casino Boogie

Why rockers of all stripes are taking a second look at the paychecks past the craps table.

On a recent, breezy Sunday evening, ZZ Top took the stage at the Snoqualmie Casino’s Mountain View Plaza. With the Cascades providing a stunning backdrop, the outdoor venue is not a setting normally associated with slot-machine-funded venues. While nostalgic fans downed bottles of Bud Light and twirled cheap sunglasses over their heads, the Texas bluesmen ran through their standard arsenal of hits, opening with “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and closing with the requisite, ribald rendition of “Legs.” Pausing between songs, co-bandleader Billy Gibbons surveyed the crowd and the landscape, with arms flung open and tongue firmly in cheek.

“We’ve finally made it,’ he quipped, “we’re playing the casino!”

In a recent interview for this column, Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo expressed great relief that his band was still playing arenas. “The casino circuit or the fair? I hope I never have to do that,” he laughed. “I will make sure that my life will not go there.”

Gibbons’ glib acknowledgement of the stigma attached to gigs in gambling establishments and Lombardo’s fear of falling to that level belie an emerging truth: The casino circuit isn’t such a bad choice for artists, especially when declining CD sales and increased gas prices have made the costs associated with touring more daunting. Most casino contracts involve hefty guarantees, hotel rooms, and meals, incentives that many promoters aren’t able to match.

“The reality is, there are so many cutbacks for touring artists these days, but we don’t have to do that,” says Snoqualmie Casino entertainment manager Lars Sorensen, an industry veteran who used to manage the Blakes and was a production manager for House of Blues before coming to the casino two years ago. “We’re able to treat artists really well.”

Local hip-hop mavericks Fresh Espresso can testify to the pleasures of playing a gig that’s not dependent on ticket sales for payout and that comes with an array of bonuses. When they were asked to play Tulalip Casino’s kickoff party for the Gold Rush car rally along with Sir Mix-A-Lot and DJ DV-One earlier this year, they jumped at the chance. “There was no hesitation on our end, because it was such a good fit and such a great bill,” says band manager and booking agent Kerri Harrop.

“Hot girls, fast cars, money, and plenty of drinks,” adds Fresh Espresso frontman P-Smoov. “That place pretty much summed up our whole record. Plus, it doesn’t hurt when millionaire car owners rush up to you after the show to say, ‘If you ever need Lamborghinis in your music videos, we got you.'”

Even local punk-minded metal act Madraso has crossed that imaginary line.

“We played a casino down in southern California years ago and it was surprisingly awesome,” says drummer Jeremy Curles. “Definitely the best paying show on that tour. The people were into it and bought tons of shit before we even played. It was a real surprise.”

Not everyone can overlook the flashy or cheesy elements that go along with the bigger paychecks, however. “[I’ve played them] many times, in Nevada,” says iconic local producer and guitarist Jack Endino. “That’s because almost everywhere decent you play in Nevada will also be a casino. They all have a ‘showroom’ as part of the structure. Good gear, terrible atmosphere. Hate ’em.”

Trey Many, a booking agent with the Billions agency whose clients include Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Death Cab for Cutie, and Quasi, acknowledges the rising role of the casino, but only within a particular context. “I’ve only booked my clients at casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City, basically the two places where there are no other real options,” he explains.

“I’ve noticed a lot more shows being advertised at casinos near Seattle—and around the country—but for the most part, I only see it working for acts that had massive radio hits in the past but are not still enjoying success. A lot of these artists wouldn’t work or get paid in more traditional downtown venues that host current touring acts. For example, my aunt wouldn’t want to go see Air Supply at the Showbox, but if they were rocking their greatest-hits tour at Snoqualmie Casino, she might consider heading up there for a night of slots, cheap dinner buffets, and epic ’80s ballads. On the other hand, you wouldn’t see Dirty Projectors trying to tear it up at the Emerald Queen Casino…YET.”

It might be happening sooner than he thinks. Perhaps the biggest example of indie icons unafraid to take a casino gig is exemplified by the Matador at 21: Lost Weekend shows being held at the Palms in Las Vegas Oct. 1-3 this year: The two-night stint includes Sonic Youth, Spoon, Belle and Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, and Cat Power.

“I know there is a stigma when it comes to the hipness factor,” continues Snoqualmie’s Sorensen. “We’re not Capitol Hill Block Party and we’re not Bumbershoot. But you know what? If your fans will come and [you] can present your show without compromising your performance, who cares?”