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Local impresario Brian McKenna celebrates 20 years by playing favorites at Harlow’s

Local impresario Brian McKenna celebrates 20 years by playing favorites at Harlow's

Brian McKenna is marking 20 years of booking and promoting shows in Sacramento. In the mercurial world of show business, that’s a long time.

The event on Saturday also is his 40th birthday; McKenna figures the first shows he promoted in 1989 happened earlier in the year. But who wouldn’t want to throw a birthday party with a bunch of cool bands?

“I decided to get all the people I started promoting shows with 20 years ago, who are also some of my favorite people,” McKenna says.

The birthday-anniversary show at Harlow’s will feature Victoria, B.C. punk band Nomeansno, resurgent local stoner-rock combo Kai Kln, and Triclops!, a San Francisco band formed by members of Victim’s Family, Fleshies, and Bottles and Skulls. Also on the bill is Mike Watt, once the bassist for the iconic San Pedro-based Minutemen, which morphed into fIREHOSE after frontman D. Boon was killed in a van rollover in 1985.

McKenna saw fIREHOSE playing one night at Bojangles, an erstwhile gay watering hole turned live venue on Folsom Boulevard. At the time, he was managing a local band, It’s Not What You Think. “I walked away thinking, what a crappy place to see a show,” he recalls. “And then I spent the next five years of my life booking that same room.”

McKenna, a Del Campo High School graduate, teamed up with Jerry Perry and Lisa Moraga to begin promoting shows at Bojangles, which they renamed the Cattle Club, in 1989. Soon, they were featuring the cream of what was turning into a renaissance of local bands: the aforementioned Kai Kln, along with Cake, Deftones, Phallucy, Go Dog Go (which later evolved into Magnolia Thunderfinger), the Earwigs and many others.

At the same time, the Hollywood hair-metal aesthetic was being eclipsed by a new wave of loud bands from Seattle – Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone (later Pearl Jam) and Nirvana – along with a more funk-based underground from such Bay Area punk-thrash bands as Primus, Limbomaniacs and Fungo Mungo. These acts approached touring the same way as pioneered by the Minutemen, Black Flag and other early 1980s groups, eschewing big rooms and established promoters in favor of smaller rooms.

“At the time, there really wasn’t any [branded] alternative rock yet,” McKenna explains. “There was no 120 Minutes on MTV or modern rock station in Sacramento; it was still in the formative stages."

When McKenna began doing shows 20 years ago, concert promotion in Northern California was dominated by impresario Bill Graham. Any promoter who dared to tred on Graham’s well-guarded turf was committing an act of bravery.

“I never got the late-night, screaming phone call [from an angry Graham],” McKenna says. “But I know people who did – other promoters. But we certainly felt the wrath of his company when we crossed certain lines.”

Moraga left in the first year, leaving McKenna and Perry to book the club, which featured such luminaries as D.J. Dennis Yudt, a.k.a. “The Master Bastard,” and soundman Eric Bianchi, an early member of the Groovie Ghoulies. Perry concentrated on bringing in local talent, while McKenna quickly developed an acumen for booking national talent.

“I leaned a lot toward the touring groups, starting out with the Bay Area punk-thrash acts, and then booking national acts like the Dead Milkmen,” McKenna says. But many times it was a local band, such as Kai Kln that was the big draw. But other groups that played the Cattle Club included ones that would become major acts: Nirvana, Pearl Jam (performing as Mookie Blaylock) and Pavement. McKenna can tell stories of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan hanging out with Hole’s Courtney Love in the bar, the latter eyeing Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as he played in the main room.

In 1994, after rumored acrimony, McKenna and Jerry Perry parted ways. McKenna prefers not to comment on the split. Perry continued to book local acts and publish the now-defunct monthly music tabloid, Alive & Kicking, while McKenna hung out his shingle as Abstract Entertainment, booking shows at Melarkey’s (now a sushi joint on Broadway), Carmichael’s El Dorado Saloon, the Guild and Colonial theaters and the Boardwalk. He also returned briefly to the revived Bojangles, and played shows at Big Shots, a Roseville billiard parlor.

McKenna also worked briefly with at least one local band, 7th Standard, branching into management and an independent record label. But his métier appears to be promoting shows, and that’s where he focuses his energy.

Today, McKenna books shows, albeit not exclusively, at Harlow’s, the Blue Lamp, Empire and, occasionally, the Radisson Hotel’s Grove and the Crest Theatre. Empire, which McKenna has been booking since 2004, was viewed with high hopes by local rock fans, who were hoping for a Sacramento version of the Fillmore. McKenna says he’s booked several hundred shows there.

"Empire works for a lot of shows that might have passed on playing this market, because we didn’t have the right-sized room," he says. "We were able to do Patti Smith there, the first time she’d ever played Sacramento.”

McKenna’s ubiquitous black handbills attest that he’s all over the map. “What I’ve tried to do over the years is a little bit of everything,” he says. “Nowadays, my schedule of shows is geared a little more toward things I like, rather than the ‘throw it against the wall to see what sticks’ idea.”

What McKenna likes, apparently, is progressive rock. “I’ve been known to spin the occasional Yes and King Crimson record,” he says, mentioning a show with Adrian Belew, guitarist for King Crimson in the 1980s. He’s big on the music that followed in Frank Zappa’s wake, bringing such guitar greats as Steve Vai to town from time to time.

One of his go-to bands is Rush, Canada’s contribution to rock complexity. McKenna cites the Mars Volta, which combines the Byzantine nature of Rush, Yes and others, as one of his recent favorites. “To me, they sound like Rush, Santana and Led Zeppelin put into a blender. Throw in some punk-rock sensibility, and that’s what you’d get.”

McKenna also has a soft spot for jam bands, he says, “although my tastes tend to lean to more of the New Orleans funk thing than the completely self-indulgent soloing." He also leans toward what the music business calls “heritage acts” from the 1980s and 1990s, bands such as the Pixies, X and Pavement.

For McKenna, there’s never a shortage of bands to book; the problem is to find places for them to play. And fans to fill the venues. "Hopefully the economy will pick up soon," he says, "and it will be a little less of a struggle to get people out."

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