Ogden-area live music scene
As the debate around healthcare rages, it’s time for the annual check-up of the health and vitality of the Ogden-area live music scene.
Just as a physical check-up starts with a review of personal and family medical history, let’s take a look at Ogden’s musical history.
In tracing Ogden’s musical DNA, it’s evident that the “Crossroads of the West” or “Junction City” music scene dates back to the early days of the city’s diverse railroad culture. Music in Ogden has traditionally been diversionary in nature; a way for predominantly blue-collar workers to unwind. Ogden's recording studios may not be as iconic as those in Nashville, Los Angeles or New York, but smaller studios abound. Ogden isn't loaded with musical theaters like Branson, but it isn't short on live music venues. Ogden’s music culture developed in bars, restaurants and hotel lobbies, and that DNA trait is still clearly exhibited. Such a foundation undoubtedly contributed to a lot of collaboration and the resulting “jam” culture that exists today across musical genres.
Looking at Ogden’s musical history, the most iconic local musician is undoubtedly the Legendary Joe McQueen, who recently passed away at 100 years of age. This Texas-born saxophone player began his music career at age 16. He landed in Ogden in 1945 en route from Las Vegas when his band leader gambled away the troupe’s earnings, forcing the band to dissolve. Joe put the pieces of the band back together and decided to stay in Ogden.
McQueen became a fixture at various bars and clubs around the area, but was most consistently found performing at the Porters and Waiters Club on Historic 25th Street…which, back then, was just 25th Street or “Two-Bit Street.” No doubt, Joe played a big part in the street earning its “Historic” status in subsequent years.
In post-WWII Ogden, hundreds of thousands of passengers en route to San Francisco or Kansas City stopped in Ogden as their layover in switching from the Central Pacific to the Union Pacific. Unlike today’s airport layovers of one to two hours with just enough time to grab a Cinnabon and a $12 beer while answering emails on your smartphone, these train layovers were much longer and passengers spilled out of Union Station and up 25th Street in search of a drink and a bit of entertainment. Word of Joe McQueen quickly spread and for decades, he was known as “The Legendary Joe McQueen.”
As various bands toured the country via rail, they would inevitably layover in Ogden. On such layovers, regardless of the hour, they would call Joe McQueen and enjoy informal jam sessions. Patrons of the Porters and Waiters Club were treated to sessions with Joe along with Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie and others.
As impressive as Joe’s talent, longevity and connections were, it was his willingness to mentor subsequent generations of musicians around town that kept live music in Ogden alive through some lean years. Among his proteges are local jazz multi-instrumentalist, Benjamin Jennings as well as blues man, Brad Wheeler…also occasionally referred to as Reverend Brad Wheeler, but most recognized as “Bad Brad Wheeler,” the former afternoon drive-time DJ for local, independent radio station KRCL, and now Director of Programming for KUAA radio.
On his way to “local radio icon” status, Wheeler, along with his lap steel and harmonica case, was a member of The Legendary Porch Pounders along with Daniel Weldon and his blazing guitar. When the duo wasn’t gigging locally, touring regionally or launching the “Blues in Schools” program in remote areas of Alaska, Brad handled the music booking for Beatniks…now Brewskis on Historic 25th Street.
Brad quickly became a musical sponge, soaking up every influence that frequented Beatniks and enjoying the mentorship of Joe McQueen, Roby Kap, Dan Weldon and others. Decades later, he continues to develop musical connections and now counts Mickey Raphael (long-time harmonica player for Wille Nelson) as one of his closest friends. And like a sponge, Brad not only soaks in knowledge, but wrings it out and dowses a new generation of musicians with his wisdom and skill.
He regularly conducts harmonica clinics as part of the Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music (OFOAM) Festival. He mentors groups as small as attendees at the University of Utah Medical Center’s “Burn Camp,” where burn survivors gather to learn the healing properties of music. He holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for conducting the world’s largest “harmonica army,” an event where he distributed harmonicas to a crowded Lindquist Field, used the public address system to teach “When the Saints go Marching In” to hundreds, then led them in its performance.
I could mention that the musical talent of Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, Donny, Marie and Jimmy Osmond all hail from Ogden, which is true, but that paints a false picture of the Ogden music scene, since their sound is really more indicative of Utah County, where they eventually landed.
I could mention that the bulk of Tom Waits’ lyrical subject matter and musical stylings came from his time spent living in a boarding house on 25th Street in the early 1970s, which is patently untrue, but entirely believable to anyone who spent any time downtown around that period.
The point is, Ogden has a “sound.” It’s as distinctive to discerning ears as the “Bakersfield Sound,” the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” the “Austin Sound” or the “Nashville Sound.” It’s not a musical genre…it’s…well…a sound. It can be heard in bands as tight as Benjamin Jennings’ BBC4 jazz quartet or as free-wheeling as The Kap Brothers Band.
So…the area’s musical DNA and history are pretty impressive. Now, let’s take a look at the vitals of the local music scene: 1) the heartbeat (artists), 2) the skeletal structure (venues) and 3) the circulatory system (crowds).
Ogden’s musical heartbeat is incredibly healthy. A solid crop of musicians from fresh solo acts like Carrie Myers, Christian Scheller, Caitlin Thompson and Marny Lion Proudfit to seasoned bands like The Highway Thieves, The Blazin’ Aces and Red Shot Pony abound. Importantly, more and more Ogden artists are hitting the road and taking the Ogden sound to new places. It’s getting harder and harder to catch artists like Daniel Weldon, Pinetop Inferno, The Proper Way, Mojave Nomads or Talia Keys in Ogden as bigger venues in Salt Lake City, Park City and points beyond pull them away, but they still appear around town from time to time.
Most notable is the national ascent of Americana and folk prodigy, Sammy Brue. He signed his first record deal in 2016 with New West Records and spent significant time living in Nashville with his family where he could hone his chops in live performances in recognizable venues like “The Basement” before heading to Muscle Shoals and jumping in the studio. His debut album, “I Am Nice,” produced by John Paul White and backed with members of Alabama Shakes, was critically acclaimed and was supported by a national tour with mentor Justin Townes Earl. He followed that album up with his second full-album release, "Down With Desperation" in 2018 and toured internationally with the Marcus King Band.
His latest project, the formation of a three-piece band simply called "Brue," promises to take things in a new direction as the young man explores his immense musical and songwriting talent.
Founding members of The Proper Way, a local favorite when they're in town, have established their own downtown studio. In addition to recording their own material, they have assisted other local artists with recording and begun production of a video podcast series called "Ogden City Limits," a nod to the legendary "Austin City Limits." In each episode, the multi-instrumentalist duo brings in local talent and the entire process of musicians getting to know one another while learning and recording one cover song and one of the artist's original songs is documented. Currently in production on their second season, it's worth a dive down the YouTube rabbit hole to watch past episodes.
The health of Ogden’s live music locales has dramatically improved over the past couple of years. Live music had been a hit-or-miss proposition at a handful of restaurants and bars with little consistency. Today, Ogden boasts venues where quality live music can be depended on virtually every night of the week.
Lighthouse Lounge hosts a couple of acoustic brunch residencies with rotating artists on Saturdays and Sundays. As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, expect Jon Turner to resume his curation of an acoustic open-mic night on Thursday evenings at 7:00 before turning the stage over to “Ogden Unplugged” at 9:00, typically featuring larger local acts such as Grits Green, Brothers Brimm or Barbaloot Suitz. Most hail from the Ogden area, but lucky music lovers might stumble into a show with the Michelle Moonshine Trio or Tony Holiday and the Velvetones.
Fridays and Saturdays at the Lighthouse Lounge are often the best chance to catch those aforementioned Ogden artists such as Daniel Weldon, Pinetop Inferno, The Proper Way, Talia Keys, The Highway Thieves, The Johnny Utahs, Rick Gerber & the Nightcaps and even the members of the Joe McQueen Quartet, who continue to perform and maintain McQueen's legacy.
A couple of consistent go-to venues for more intimate performances from local instrumentalists and singer/songwriters include Rovali’s Ristorante Italiano, Harley & Buck’s and Slackwater Pub & Pizzeria. These venues are the places to catch solo, acoustic performances from artists like local guitar phenom, Gar Ashby or singer songwriters like Ché Zuro, Melody Puslipher (three-time winner of “Best Vocalist in Utah”), Scotty Haze, Caitlin Thompson, Ryan Hawthorn, Scott Rogers, Blake Gardner, Naomi Harlan, Tim Daniels and more, when they’re not accompanied by their respective full bands.
If you want to see the likes of Scotty Haze or Tim Daniels plugged in and rocking with their full rhythm sections, or bands like Red Shot Pony, The Kap Brothers or Blazin’ Aces, it’s worth checking the schedules of venues like The Iron Horse, Brewskis, Funk ’n Dive, Kamikaze’s or Yes Hell.
Amir Jackson and Nurture the Creative Mind have constructed a recording studio and are developing the next generation of Ogden singer/songwriters while creating platforms for collaboration and an outlet for the result. NCM also operates “Utah’s Listening Room” at 443 27th Street. This new venue showcases intimate performances by the area’s top singer/songwriters and is the area’s only truly “all-ages” music venue.
This venue could prove vital in filling the void that was created when Mojos closed its doors. For years, Mojos provided a space where young, up-and-coming acts like Earthworm could obtain performing experience. It played a huge role in taking high school garage bands to the next level and grooming them to gig in the 21+ venues around town when they came of age. It’s where Sammy Brue got his start, and without an all-ages venue, many local music veterans worry that Ogden’s future music scene could stumble.
The leadership of OFOAM recognized the need for a developmental venue and has partnered with Peery’s Egyptian Theater and their Excellence in the Community concert series to provide an open-mic format, pre-show setting for teens prior to the new concert series now taking place on the first Monday of every month.
On the subject of regularly scheduled performances, the second Wednesday of each month brings “Jazz at the Station” to Ogden’s historic Union Station. Performances are typically inside the grand lobby, but often occur on the plaza out front, weather permitting.
Throughout the summer, the Ogden Amphitheater hosts the Twilight Concert Series. Over the span of 5 years, this series has brought in some incredibly impressive names from the world of progressive music.
Every Sunday from Father's Day weekend to the end of September, Snowbasin hosts their “Blues, Brews and BBQs” outdoor concert series featuring regional and national touring acts with a local opener. These 6-hour shows typically feature at least 3 bands and have more of a festival atmosphere than a small concert feel.
Plans are still in the works for resuming both the Twilight Series and Blues, Brews & BBQs as we come out of the pandemic.
Speaking of festivals, the annual Ogden Music Festival, which has typically spanned the first weekend in June every year at Fort Buenaventura, will move to Labor Day Weekend in 2021. This year’s line-up is already slated to include sets by Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, The Travelin' McCourys, Dustbowl Revival, and The Brothers Comatose.
Finally, a few words about Ogden music crowds…
Everything covered above should make it clear that Ogden has a good thing going with its vibrant music scene. However, the plethora of artists, venues, concert series and festivals can make it easy for music lovers to take this rare musical climate for granted.
Bottom line: don’t just make it a point to frequent live music performances around town…make it a point to thank venue operators and sound engineers for their investment. Drop some cash in musicians’ tip jars and go out of your way to talk to them during set breaks. Drop a few bucks on one of those EPs that are sitting in their guitar case and slap their free sticker on your coffee mug or even a random light pole. Share funky Instagram selfies of you and the artist. Tag your friends in social media posts from venues and let them know that where you are is far better than binge-watching some series on Netflix…unless that series is “Sonic Highways,” in which case it’s only slightly better (because that’s a great show). Point being, get out and enjoy great music the way it was meant to be heard: LIVE…in Ogden.