The Pyramid Scheme stages fifth anniversary shows this weekend. Read how it’s become ‘a special place’ in Grand Rapids and check out owner Jeff VandenBerg and manager Nicole LaRae’s favorite concerts.
SCROLL DOWN FOR THE TOP SHOWS OF THE FIRST FIVE YEARS & A PHOTO GALLERY
Future Islands stepped on stage at The Pyramid Scheme in late March 2014 to rapturous cheers from a packed house.
It was a lucky coincidence that the group’s most recent album, “Singles,” was released the same day to wide acclaim. Its leadoff song, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” had become a sensation in the few weeks since the band performed it during their network TV debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
The clip had gone viral thanks to charismatic frontman Samuel Herring’s wild dance moves and striking vocals. Suddenly, Future Islands, an indie synth-rock/pop act from Baltimore who had been grinding it out in tiny clubs for nearly a decade, were blowing up.
Venue manager Nicole LaRae had booked the group for the Grand Rapids nightclub with modest expectations long before the “Letterman” performance.
Future Islands had played the venue three years earlier to a tiny crowd of a few dozen, but she was a fan and wanted them back. The remaining tickets sold out quickly after the “Letterman” performance circulated online. Addressing the ecstatic crowd of about 420, Herring thanked LaRae by name for the hospitality she and Pyramid Scheme staff had provided on their big night.
“It was the first time I recall ever being thanked from stage,” LaRae said earlier this week. “And I’ll never forget how it suddenly made all of this work feel like I had finally found something I was passionate about.”
‘LIKE PLAYING IN EUROPE’ IN A SPACE DESIGNED FOR MUSIC
Ask anyone who works at the venue, or performs there regularly, or frequents shows, or just plays a lot of pinball in the front bar, and you’ll hear similar stories about nights where everything clicks into place and it dawns on them: The Pyramid Scheme, which this weekend celebrates its fifth anniversary, is a special place.
Jeff VandenBerg, who owns the venue with his sister, Tami, knew it a month or so after the venue opened in 2011 when one of his favorite bands, Torche, performed. He laughs when recalling a chat with the band’s singer, Steve Brooks. “I asked if everything was cool, and he said, ‘Yeah, you actually got everything on our rider. It’s like playing in Europe!'”
None of this happens by accident, VandenBerg explained while sitting in the empty venue a few hours before a show a couple of weeks ago. “It’s mostly all about the people you have working for you,” he said. “It’s a big project, and luckily we have really good people running it on a day-to-day basis. That’s the key, no matter what the scale is.”
The stools were mostly upturned on tables in the bar section toward the back of the room, and absent a crowd, the zig-zag tile pattern on the floor — an homage to the Black Lodge scenes in “Twin Peaks” — was striking in the dim light. It’s a perfect room for music, VandenBerg insists.
“The great thing about the space is that we built it specifically to be a music venue,” he said. “We wanted to do a mid-sized venue. Everything that was in town then was either 1,000 or more capacity or a tiny place that had a stage thrown in next to the bathrooms as an afterthought. There wasn’t really anything between that where you could do mid-level bands since the old Intersection closed (in Eastown).”
A few years earlier, the VandenBergs opened the Meanwhile Bar on Wealthy Street, which was an immediate hit within Grand Rapids’ creative community.
NEARLY 1,100 SHOWS IN FIVE YEARS AND PLENTY OF SPECIAL NIGHTS
Both had been involved with the Division Avenue Arts Collective (The DAAC) and had wanted for years to open a larger music venue to fill that mid-sized deficit. They considered trying it at the Meanwhile (too small) and the Harris Building on Division (too big, too expensive). They eventually found what seemed the ideal space — an empty building on Commerce Avenue SW owned by Rockford Construction that once housed a nightclub called Maxi’s.
“It’s the perfect size,” VandenBerg said. It’s 50 feet wide with no visual obstructions. We could do whatever we wanted with the layout. The back where the bands play is halfway underground, so for sound dampening, you can’t get much better than that. And with the bar up front dampening sound as well, we can have the Melvins play here and you can’t hear them outside. A lot of venues get in trouble with sound issues, so we were strategic about making sure that wasn’t going to be a problem here.”
The VandenBergs partnered with HopCat owner Mark Sellers, who had also been looking into opening a music venue. Once the money was in place, construction moved quickly.
The Pyramid Scheme — whose name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the power structure in Grand Rapids — opened in April 2011 with a two-night performance by the legendary indie-rock band Guided By Voices, following an unofficial christening by a lineup of local bands who had released music through VandenBerg’s label, Friction Records. (Disclosure: My band, Ghost Heart, was among the performers on the venue’s first night.)
In the years since, the venue has hosted nearly 1,100 events — rock shows in all genres, DJ dance nights, hip-hop performances, local album-release parties, feminist events, art shows, charity tribute shows and a lot more.
VARIETY AND A SHOWCASE FOR WEST MICHIGAN TALENT
The variety of acts that have performed at the Pyramid Scheme is particularly important to LaRae, who is also community relations coordinator for WYCE-FM (88.1) and co-founder of dizzybird records.
“I take a lot of pride in the diversity of events we have hosted and will continue to do,” she said. “Where else could you go do Metal Yoga and the next day see Talib Kweli or a comedy show?”
The venue also has been a magnet for area musicians. It regularly hosts bills that consist solely of local artists, new and established. West Michigan bands ranging from The Legal Immigrants to The Lippies have packed the room for rousing shows in front of uber-enthusiastic fans, not to mention Detroit acts such as Flint Eastwood and Tunde Olaniran. And local bands often are booked as support for touring headliners.
Prolific Grand Rapids musician Dan Fisher describes a typical Pyramid Scheme show as “an opportunity to experience a more professional gig.”
LaRae and VandenBerg agreed Fisher probably had performed on the Pyramid Scheme stage more times than any other musician. He estimates he’s played there about 25 times with the acts I Believe In Julio, Mavericks & Monarchs, Shane Tripp, North Atlantic Drift, Mat Churchill, the Campanellis, the Little Village, the Brave Youth, a 1969 tribute band, a Weezer “blue album” cover band, a Guided By Voices “Alien Lanes” cover band and Sharkanoid.
THROWING A TWO-DAY ANNIVERSARY PARTY
Fisher said the level of organization sets the Pyramid Scheme apart.
“A lot of other venues have a more laid-back vibe when it comes to shows, but with the Scheme, you get advance emails, load-ins, promotion materials.”
Per tradition, The Pyramid Scheme is throwing itself a two-day anniversary party. One night features a big national headliner (Shiner on Saturday), but Friday is a mostly local bill that includes frequent special-occasion headliner Heavier Than Air Flying Machines, along with Man at Arms from Ypsilanti and newer local acts Lady Ace Boogie and Coffin Problem.
For LaRae and the bartenders, sound technicians and security personnel she considers family, it will be another weekend on duty at a place where, on any given night, something great can happen.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to curate a space in the city I love the most,” she said. “What makes it even better is when people show up, are respectful and when magic unfolds before us and we share in the experience of it all.”
THE PYRAMID SCHEME’S MOST MEMORABLE SHOWS
Venue Manager Nicole LaRae’s Picks
1993 Tribute Show (2012)
Talib Kweli (2013)
Jamie Lidell/Empress Of (2013)
We Were Promised Jetpacks (2013)
Grandmaster Flash (2013)
Charles Bradley (2013)
Future Islands (2014)
of Montreal (2014)
Man or Astro man? (2014)
dizzybird records launch party feat Heaters & Gringo Star (2014)
Diarrhea Planet (2015)
Andrew WK (2015)
La Luz (2015)
The Sword + Royal Thunder (2015)
Bowie Tribute (2016)
El Ten Eleven (2016)
Ladyfest V: (2016)
Co-owner Jeff VandenBerg’s Picks
Melvins/Le Butcherettes (2015)
Naked Raygun (2014)
Future Islands (2014)
The Coup (2013)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (2012)
PYRAMID SCHEME PHOTO GALLERY: Some Images from the First Five Years
Photos by Katy Batdorff and Anthony Norkus
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC