About eight years ago, Club Congress was looking to fill a hole in its dance-club nights on Thursdays. Enter club patron Jessica Lansdon, who had an idea: Why not bring a house-party vibe to the club by having different DJs every week instead of the usual old theme night (e.g., disco night, funk night, etc.)?
The club gave her the go-ahead, and Optimist Club was born.
In the beginning, the clientele was almost uniformly downtown-hipster types, but it drew a couple hundred people and began growing. Several years ago, Lansdon moved out of town, and Congress booker Dan Hernandez took it over. While he kept the revolving-DJ policy, he also had a vision of making each Thursday unique, as if it were, indeed, a house party—at a different person's house each week. "Not just a dance night, but a party night," says Hernandez, "where you hang out with your friends and hear different music every week that you may not have heard otherwise."
Hernandez has tried a number of different things since he took over, and it seems to be working. He began adding art installations to go with whatever the theme was that week—there was the Prince vs. Michael Jackson theme party, for example. And he began bringing in not only guest DJs (getting The Twelves to perform was a particular coup), but also guest musicians and rappers—everything from cross-dressing New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia to the mutant punk-blues of Bob Log III.
These days, Optimist Club regularly draws 700 to 800 people each Thursday night—and it's not just for hipsters anymore, though there are still plenty of them. It's not unusual to see locals rubbing elbows on the dance floor with drag queens, who just might buy that cute frat boy a drink.
One of Hernandez's latest ideas is to throw a big party to mark the passing of each season—hence, this week's Optimist Club Spring Formal, a two-day festival of all things Opti Club that will take over both Club Congress and Hotel Congress' patio on Wednesday, April 13, and Thursday, April 14.
On Wednesday, the focus will be live music, and the night will feature performances by the female dream-rock quartet Warpaint, from Los Angeles; the indie-pop-meets-shoegaze buzz band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (see this week's Rhythm and Views, Page 62); '80s new wave homage-ist Twin Shadow; experimental Australian band PVT (formerly Pivot); and Catwalk. Tickets are $10 in advance, or $12 on the day of the show, but your paid admission gets you an Optimist Club card, which grants you free entrance to Opti Club for life. (The normal cover for Optimist Club is always $3, no matter who's on the bill, a policy that Hernandez says was designed to be as inclusive as possible.) DJs will spin between bands.
Next Thursday's lineup is more dance-oriented and will include sets by dark-and-hard but melodic electro-rockers Cold Cave; the hilarious and witty Brooklyn-based rap trio Das Racist, who were justifiably inescapable on 2010 best-of lists everywhere; remixer and DJ Grum; and Hernandez's own DJ collective, O/W/L/S. Admission is the usual $3, or free with an Opti Club card.
The action at both nights begins at 8 p.m., and performances will be staggered between the patio and the club stage so attendees don't have to miss any of the action. Hotel Congress is located at 311 E. Congress St. For more information, call 622-8848, or head to hotelcongress.com.
Anytime budget shortfalls and the cuts that accompany them rear their ugly heads, one of the first things to hit the chopping block is funding for the arts.
In fact, things have gotten so bad recently that parents of students at Miles ELC, a K-8 school that's part of the Tucson Unified School District, have, as they did last year, enlisted Howe Gelb to spearhead a benefit concert "to raise funds for arts and music education at Miles ELC and for the Enrichment Education Foundation, a nonprofit community-based foundation that provides direct resources to enrich student learning within TUSD," according to a press release.
This week's Music Matters! benefit will once again feature Gelb, backed by his Melted Wires—John Convertino and Jacob Valenzuela of Calexico, and Giant Sand's Thøger Lund—and will also include performances by former Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle, Victoria Williams and John Parish (PJ Harvey).
Music Matters! begins at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 9, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Admission for the all-ages concert is $21, or $13 for kids younger than 13. For more info, head to rialtotheatre.com, or call 740-1000.
The 2011 Tucson Folk Festival is just around the corner—on Saturday, April 30, and Sunday, May 1—which means the fundraising, which takes place year-round in order to keep the festival free for attendees, has kicked into high gear. On Saturday, April 9, the patio at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., will be the site for Folkapalooza, a Folk Fest fundraiser that will feature performances by ad hoc supergroup Free Range Folk, which includes Namoli Brennet, Leila Lopez and Courtney Robbins; Brian Lopez; the Last Call Girls; Carnivaleros; Ice 9; and the Mike and Randy Show (members of Top Dead Center). Folkapalooza gets rolling at 6 p.m., and admission is a suggested donation of $10, though no one will be turned away. Questions? Ring 'em up at 622-8848.
Having last appeared at Club Congress in January 2010 on a bill with Girls and Smith Westerns, Hunx and His Punx, fronted by Tucson native and current Bay Area resident Seth Bogart, returns to Congress this week in support of the band's new album, Too Young to Be in Love (Hardly Art, 2011). It's the group's first proper LP, following on the heels of a slew of singles that were compiled on Gay Singles (True Panther Sounds/Matador). According to the band's bio, they refer to their sound as "young oldies," "a mixture of '50s teenage rock 'n' roll, '60s girl groups and bubblegum pop."
All of which is true, but Hunx subverts the genre in a couple of important ways. The girl groups of the '60s usually consisted of female vocalists backed by male musicians; Hunx and His Punx consists of a female drummer, bassist, keyboardist and guitarist, all of whom sing backup vocals, and Bogart, a gay male frontman who sings and occasionally plays guitar. Like the girl groups of yore, there is lots of pining for boys, but this time, it's a guy doing the pining. Take away those aspects, and you're left with a pretty traditional take on the girl-group sound—all sweet innocence and irresistible tunes.
Hunx and His Punx perform at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Sunday, April 10. Shannon and the Clams open the all-ages show at 7 p.m. Admission is $8. Call 622-8848 for further details.
The same night also marks the return appearance of Danielson to Solar Culture Gallery, 31 E. Toole Ave. The Christian outsider band, which sounds like no other group in existence, is touring to support its first album in five years, the excellent Best of Gloucester County (Sounds Familyre, 2011). The album's meticulously arranged songs are a far cry from Danielson's shambolic early work, in which the religious aspects were more overt. Gloucester County, for which frontman Daniel Smith has adopted a mostly new band (his sisters and wife are still in the mix), sounds, to put it lazily, like Frank Black fronting the band of Sufjan Stevens (who appears here on banjo and vocals).
Prepare to have your pants charmed off when Danielson performs on Sunday, April 10. Tracy Shedd opens the all-ages show at 9 p.m. Admission is $10, and you can head to solarculture.org, or call 884-0874 for more info.
We've barely scratched the surface of all the great shows this week. Here are some more: Cage the Elephant and Biffy Clyro at the Rialto Theatre on Wednesday, April 13; the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at UA Centennial Hall on Saturday, April 9; Pete Yorn, Ben Kweller and The Wellspring at the Rialto Theatre on Tuesday, April 12; Neon Trees at the Pima County Fair next Thursday, April 14; Diane Schuur and the Jeff Daniel Group at the Tucson Fox Theatre on Friday, April 8; Shemekia Copeland at the Rialto Theatre on Friday, April 8.
Please note that due to health issues, Exene Cervenka has cancelled her scheduled appearance at Club Congress on Friday, April 8. At press time, it was unclear whether Kevin Seconds will perform as scheduled. Call 622-8848 for updates.