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Stories to tell; Intimate concerts bring unique challenges to grass-roots concert promoters

You're kicked back in your seat or perched on your bar stool, and it all looks so easy.

Maybe you're at the Sportsmen's Tavern, sipping a beer, enjoying a band from Texas. Or you're at a classical concert, soaking up the sounds of Mozart and Brahms, loving the feeling of stepping away from the outside world. Either way, you probably never thought of how that music got to that stage, or how those musicians found their way here.

Which is, in a way, a pity. You're missing something.

When a musician comes into town and hits the stage, it is often the result of a balancing act worthy of a Wallenda. A result of knowledge and luck -- plus a dash of chutzpah -- on the part of the promoter.

As we get ready for big guns of the summer concert season, it's time to step back and look at where it all starts -- in the clubs, universities and smaller venues. It's time to celebrate the art -- and drama -- of the grass-roots concert promoter.

>Sidestepping roadblocks

Phil Rehard, the man in charge of the University at Buffalo's Slee Hall concerts, is also the volunteer director of the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, which attempts to bring classical music stars to Buffalo -- on a budget.

For Tuesday's concert, which takes place at Nichols School's Flickinger Performing Arts Center, the Tick had booked a treat in advance: the violinist winner of the prestigious 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, whomever that would be. It was a no-lose proposition.

Except that the competition chose this year to not declare a violinist winner.

What to do? Rehard is used to putting out fires -- last year, the season survived not one, but two cancellations by pianist Andre Watts. After a few weeks of stress, the Tick organizers decided on Narek Hakhnazaryan, who won the competition's cello division, to perform Tuesday.

Between booking artists for Slee and for the Tick series, Rehard said he sometimes feels overwhelmed. "The details that go into this are unbelievable," he says. "It is nerve-racking when you are giving your heart and soul to make sure something happens."

Kenneth Biringer, who books the acts for the Sportsmen's Tavern in Black Rock, could say the same thing. He gave his heart and soul to bring in the band Heybale.

"In my opinion," he says, "this is the world's greatest country band."

There was a problem, though: Heybale almost never leaves its Texas corral.

"They don't leave Austin. They stay right there," Biringer says.

Luck struck when he learned that Heybale did play one gig outside Texas -- one solitary gig, in New York City. "Some guy in Texas has a restaurant in New York, the Hill Country Barbecue. He has deep pockets, puts these boys on the plane every year to play for him," Biringer says.

He asked the band if it would consider stopping in Buffalo. Surprisingly, Heybale had heard of the Sportsmen's from Dale Watson, a gritty Texas musician who had played the club and had even given the bar its nickname: the Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint in Town. So Heybale said yes to Biringer, and now routinely detours to Buffalo en route to New York, including a May 30 appearance. "This'll be the band's fourth time here," Biringer says.

>On the road

Concert booking is full of terms that probably go back to vaudeville.

Biringer mentions booking a band "on the tail [or back] end." "It's where a band gets paid a guarantee, based on attendance, they'll get a percentage. That happens everywhere."

Poco, another Sportsmen's band, is a "flying act." That is, it travels by air, not by land.

"Routing," a much-heard word, refers to artists on the road.

Promoter David Taylor is proud that he was able to book Loretta Lynn last year for North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre.

"I was trying to put her in there for about six months," he says. "She only does a string of weekends -- Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If she gets an offer from Turning Stone say, for a lot of money, she'll do it only if she can do a show on either side of it."

Finally things fell into place, and Taylor booked Lynn. He took time to savor the triumph, getting her to pose for a picture with him, figuring she might never pass this way again. Lynn might have thought the same thing. She hurt her knee, and a doctor advised her not to go on. But she took the stage anyway.

"She said, 'I don't sing with my knee,' " Taylor says, admiring.

Buffalo is in a good location when it comes to routing, since we are near New York and Toronto. The Tick series can often catch stars like violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Andras Schiff who are bound for Carnegie Hall and want to work in a last-minute run-through.

Clementina Fleshler, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra violinist who books musicians for the prestigious Buffalo Chamber Music Society, goes to New York to scout new talent at the National Concert Artists Auditions, held at the famous 92nd Street Y.

Over the years, she has prided herself on booking big-name artists before they made it big. Next season continues the excitement. It opens in September with 21-year-old violinist Paul Huang.

"He's fabulous!" Fleshler exults.

>'I was just shocked'

It adds excitement to the music business that every promoter, no matter how canny, occasionally is surprised.

Fleshler was once burned by a quartet so badly that she will not name the group. "This quartet was very highly regarded," she says. "For three years I tried to get them. For three years! Every time they came to this country they were sold out."

She finally booked them, four years ahead. When they took the stage, she could not believe her eyes. "They did not want to be in Buffalo. They looked as if they were sucking lemons. And they didn't play that great. I called the management the next day and said, 'You know what? You were touting this quartet for so long. I'll never have them back.'

"I was just shocked."

Pop concert promoter Taylor has known similar frustration.

"Sometimes you put on a show that you thought would be huge business, then it tanks," he says. "Sometimes you think, 'How come people didn't come here? They've got five songs on the radio!' Sometimes you really wish you could gather a whole bunch of the population together and ask, 'Why didn't you go?'"

On the flip side, good bookings -- and there are many -- make the struggles worthwhile. Fleshler looks back with special pride on the concert the legendary Guarneri Quartet played on her series on its farewell tour.

"I booked that two years before I knew they were going to quit," she admits. "I think it was their last concert."

The Jerusalem Quartet, last year, "knocked everyone over," as Fleshler put it. "They don't have a big name. Their fee's not high. But they're right up there."

>'We're too small'

Quartets' fees, Fleshler says, are "all-inclusive." The musicians cover their own travel and hotel, and the manager takes 20 percent.

"So you know if you get a quartet for $7,000, you figure they're not making a lot of money," she says. "I don't negotiate too low, because I figure my God, they're trying to make a living."

In the grass-roots world of booking club shows, too, the life of a touring musician can be surprisingly unglamorous.

Biringer was initially amazed when he could book Asleep at the Wheel. "The first time I reached out to them, I didn't expect they'd ever play for us," Biringer says. "We're too small."

Not only did the band agree -- they came back.

"Lo and behold, six months later, their agent called us, saying 'The Wheel's going to be in your area -- would you like to have them back?' End of story, this'll be their fourth time here." The band returns to play the Sportsmen's in September.

The experiences of Marty Boratin, a longtime Buffalo promoter, suggest that the Internet has made things especially unpredictable. It's hard to tell the extent of a musician's fan base, or how he or she will respond to an invitation.

"When Neko Case had her first record come out, she was virtually unknown except for people who follow the indie market," he says. "This is going back 10 years or more. They said, 'We need at least $750.' I said, 'We can't do $750.' They said, 'OK, she'll take the night off.' I felt bad."

But Case's backup singer, Kelly Hogan, was opening that same week at Artpark for the Indigo Girls. Boratin booked her into Mohawk Place.

"She was thrilled to have a place to stay, a couple of free meals and a tank of gas," he says.

>From here to the Met

Every promoter has a wish list.

Boratin and Taylor, asked who their dream booking would be, both independently name gravel-voiced singer Tom Waits.

Rehard, seeking Tick artists, briefly imagined booking cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Those dreams came to a rude end about a decade ago.

"They said, flat out, the fee was $55,000. It wasn't negotiable," he said.

Money has also kept him from booking well-known singers.

"Singers are ridiculously expensive," he says. "Any big name you can think of is way out of reach."

Like most promoters, though, Rehard has learned that creative thinking pays off. In 2002, he bet on an emerging soprano, Latonia Moore.

"I remember she made her way up on stage, and I was thinking, her stage presence was needing a little development," he says. "Then she opened her mouth and sang. She was amazing!"

He had chosen a winner. Last month, Moore made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera -- in the title role of Verdi's "Aida."