When Bonnie Vining opened her small Rita Ranch coffee shop, Javalina's, a few years back, she had no idea she was en route to becoming the Bill Graham of far-eastside music promotion.
"I literally had no plan to offer music at Javalina's," she said, "until I met Arvel Bird at a Native American ceremony and asked him if he wanted to play at the coffee shop." That lightly attended but inspiring night of music lit a fire in Vining, whose soft-spoken and heartfelt demeanor is in sharp contrast with the image of the scrappy promoter.
In spite of the coffee shop's success as an acoustic venue (outdoor shows would fill up the parking lot), Vining felt she had no choice but to walk away from the business last winter when the economy began to tank.
"Our five-year lease was up; the economy was tough, and people were putting their money into gas and not coffee," she said.
While she stopped thinking about coffee, she never stopped thinking about music, and more important, about the kind of offbeat places she might stage future shows. Not being a club owner or traditional concert promoter, she allowed herself to think outside the box. As such, her first move was to incorporate as a nonprofit, giving birth to the Live Acoustic Venue Association (LAVA). Her next move was to create an event that could take advantage of something (and someone) she absolutely knew would be a hit, no matter how obscure the venue. This meant booking Eric-Jan Overbeek, aka Mr. Boogie Woogie. He headlined several shows at Javalina's, and Vining could hardly contain the crowds he drew, even within the parking lot.
Along with Lisa Otey, Bryan Dean, Mitzi Cowell and others, Mr. Boogie Woogie performed at last spring's first-ever all-day Boogie and Blues Festival, LAVA's inaugural event. Staging the event at the Pantano Stables, a place that only sees live music when it's rented out for weddings, was a courageous first step for Vining. People came; the music was great; and LAVA was off and running.
Her next project was staging a series of shows at Montgomery's Grill, at Beaudry RV Park.
"While the musicians put on some of their best performances, we couldn't get people to come out," Vining said. Still, there were valuable lessons learned. "Collecting admission at a restaurant was tough. I realized trying to do shows at restaurants and bars was not my model."
Undaunted by the lack of success at Montgomery's, Vining decided to return to her old stomping grounds at Rita Ranch and quickly established a Thursday-night performance series at the Civano co-housing community. "This is an artsy, enlightened neighborhood with a focus on the environment and community," she said. It was also an opportunity to tap into the Javalina's crowd, which she had cultivated over time, and which had grown to trust her.
"In talking to the folks at Civano," she said, "it was the residents who suggested using the outdoor courtyard as a place to stage music." As at Javalina's, there is a $5 suggested donation; the courtyard is full; and everyone seems to be happy. While the Civano shows are taking a brief hiatus for the monsoon, the fall schedule is already fully booked—approximately half with locals, and half with out-of-towners putting makeshift tours together.
In fact, the Civano series has been so successful that Vining has made arrangements with still another nontraditional venue to stage shows she anticipates will be too big for Civano. "On Saturday, Sept. 12, we'll start doing a series of shows at the Abounding Grace Sanctuary"—a church near the intersection of Golf Links and Kolb roads, with a seating capacity of 250. "It allows us to charge admission, and so we now have a place for some of our bigger shows." She is currently in the process of booking shows into November.
In the meantime, Vining is also busy with her Music on the Mountain project, a series of free Sunday-afternoon shows in Summerhaven running through Labor Day weekend. Played in a performance space housed under a big outdoor tent, the music is in close proximity to where the Mount Lemmon Alpine Lodge once stood. These performances, which run from noon to 5 p.m. and feature two different acts, are drawing between 200 to 300 people per show.
"Initially, I was contacted by the property owners, who were looking to revitalize life on the mountain (after the fires of 2003). They wanted to create some kind of a happening. Now, each show is like a little festival. Even though it's five hours, the time goes fast."
Performers have included many of her Javalina's regulars, including Sabra Faulk, Greg Morton and the String Figures, and Amber Norgaard, as well as crowd-pleasers Kevin Pakulis, the Last Call Girls and Chuck Maultsby, formerly of Chuck Wagon and the Wheels. With Vining's help, Maultsby, in fact, has pretty much resurrected his career through some extremely successful shows for Vining. He's the only artist to be booked monthly for the Music on the Mountain series.
As if all this wasn't enough, Vining has a Western Music Festival in the works for November; is currently negotiating with a high school for space to do shows in Vail; and is in the midst of booking her Thursday-night Civano series into the spring of 2010. She's also hoping to re-book Nitty Gritty Dirt Band star John McEuen.
Vining admits it would be nice to someday get a good paycheck out of all this.
"But right now, I'm doing what I love, and what more could you want out of life?" she asked.
In the meantime, this spunky force of nature continues to build an organization, an audience base and a stellar reputation.