Local Promoter Brian McKenna Prepares for His 40th Birthday and his 20th Anniversary Booking Shows in Sacramento
Twenty years ago, Brian McKenna was a record store clerk, dropping flyers to his shows at the Cattle Club in every bag of records out the door. Now, McKenna is 20 years of promotional work deep. He’s booked every band you love, gathered two lifetimes’ worth of stories and still makes time for shows he doesn’t book. McKenna is a grown man looking at 40 years of life and still spends his days digging for new music that will blow his mind.
McKenna books everything. He’s seen the coming and going of trends like they were cars viewed from the side of a freeway. According to his promotional company’s Myspace page, Abstract Entertainment has booked every variety of band falling between Ani DiFranco and White Zombie. In his younger days, he was booking more than 100 shows a year. With no signs of letting up, McKenna lives in venues. His weekly regimen might range from nights at the Blue Lamp with Lyrics Born to awkward looks from hipsters at The Hub.
In the early ’90s, he brought Mudhoney, Pearl Jam (when it was still known as Mookie Blaylock) and Nirvana to Sacramento before the term “grunge” was coined. He heard songs from acclaimed records like Ten and Nevermind live in dingy low-ceiling holes, before they became platinum records. “Most folks don’t think Nirvana ever played Sacramento,” he says. “They played here three times. But, it was before Nevermind. The best shows you’re going to see from a band, arguably, are when they’re young and hungry and haven’t had a hit yet.”
His show obsession is unquenchable. “I’m at the shows I book, but on my nights off I’m typically at another show,” McKenna says. “When I go to another city, I’m grabbing all the weeklies to see who’s in town. I could be on vacation, whatever; there might be somebody great.”
Once, on a brief vacation in Prague, he did resist the temptation to drag a girlfriend to see a band he’d previously worked with. If it was a band he loved, he asserts, they would have gone. “I don’t date people who aren’t into shows,” he says. “They will quickly realize I will sacrifice quite a bit to go see a good show.” If he ever lost that willingness to sacrifice he’d get a straight job, McKenna concedes—but it’s a knee-jerk response. He wears his loyalty to independent music as casually as his jeans and flannel.
As an independent business man, McKenna’s never taken a corporate sponsorship, preferring to be the provider of his own means. Though he had offers along the way to join the suits, he stayed local in hopes the Sacramento scene would blow up. “I really didn’t want to be punching the clock and putting on a suit and a tie,” he says. “I’m probably better off making my own hours, my own schedule and not answering to anybody.”
McKenna decided to become his own boss after Spirit Records in Rancho Cordova closed. He started Abstract Entertainment in 1994. He might not have pulled a Jim Brewer-style “who’s coming with me?” speech, but he did coax two former Spirit employees to join him, one to be his box office manager and the other to be his production manager. “I worked with those two guys until 2000,” he says.
McKenna’s weathered his share of storms and has elected to see the current economic crisis’ effect on the scene as just another challenge to endure. “The people who are going out to small club [and bar] shows are a really finite number,” he says. “It’s affected by the night of the week, what’s on TV. Even with TiVo, you’re still competing.”
It does not help that Sacramento is a city with its back to the youth, the people who go to shows the most. He’s far past the twilight of his youth, but the memories of being shut out from the venue hosting his favorite band lingers. McKenna laments the loss of all-ages venues, like his first employer, The Cattle Club, and the El Dorado Saloon.
“Unfortunately, the powers that be in our government town are not open to the idea of an all-ages venue,” he says. “They don’t look at it as a chance to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. They look at is as ‘there’s kids out here listening to music I don’t understand, so it can’t be a good thing.’ Why not have a safe place for them to go?”
McKenna admits his own hesitation to jump into the all-ages movement. Sacramento’s 18-and-up venues are the exceptionally large Empire club and a collection of small pizza parlors and coffeehouses holding a maximum of 100 people.
“A lot of the bands I [book], it’s just too small for them,” he says. “I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the ideal venue that holds 500 kids of all ages and allows 21-and-up to drink to open in Sacramento proper.”
After a return from Burning Man over the summer, McKenna is now preparing for his End of My 30s tour. His birthday week plans include a road trip from San Diego back to Sacramento, following Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers and the Melvins through California. The tour concludes with his 20×40 show, an event celebrating 20 years of promotion on his 40th birthday.
“I put Harlow’s on hold a year ago,” he says. “The idea was I wanted to take some of the bands I started with 20 years ago and all bands I truly love and travel to see if they are playing within a 100 miles to commemorate the anniversary.”
He is bringing in Canadian punks No Means No, who made Sacramento its anchor date; mid-’90s local band Kai KlN; and new blood Triclops. With a little luck, he was even able to steal Mike Watt away from Iggy Pop for the night.
“He’s a friend and the first time I set foot in Cattle Club, it was to see him in Firehose,” McKenna says. “I sent an invitation to him, but understood that if Iggy says the Stooges need to be in Germany, Mike Watt will be in Germany. Time went by and he called me up, asking if it was too late to get on the bill. I had the show booked, but I couldn’t tell Mike Watt he’s too late.”