It’s [Not] Only Rock ’N’ Roll: Creative, Venue-Filling Alternatives to DJs and Bands
DJs and bands are great, but some venues and promoters are experimenting with creative alternatives to discover new audiences. One example—which gives new meaning to the term, “ridiculous”—is the Kaiju Big Battel. Part professional wrestling, part Japanese monster movie mayhem—think Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and things like that (Kaiju is Japanese for “mysterious beast”)—the Kaiju Big Battel pits an array of overblown characters against each other, in a ring, while crushing cardboard cities (and ostensibly killing their imaginary inhabitants).
Can’t picture it? Imagine the Kaiju villain, Dr. Cube—a man with a box on his head—who, according to the official website (which is gloriously old-school, as in state-of-the-art 2005), is “a very mysterious and expensive doctor” who has a “three-step plan to self-actualization [which] includes world domination by means of genetic modification, financial crime, and terrorizing mankind with his giant, city-crushing monsters.”
Those city-crushing monsters include Polo Cato, a “lovable American-style giant class smell creature;” Gomi-man (from New Jersey), with a “body cover of smash TVs, fleas, mix vegetable, rancid fruit, tin can, old gym shoe, and more dirt;” and Evil Potato, as in “the gone Evil”—get the picture?—the list goes on and on.
These villains battle the heroes—like American Beetle, Dusto Bunny, Forced Trooper Robo, and many others—who protect the cardboard cities, and somehow also involve a supporting cast of Rogues, Space Bugs, a referee, and an assortment of others. The battles are scripted, over-the-top spectacles, which seem to involve a lot of shouting, loud music, crushed cardboard, and faux machismo. They’re also outrageous, but in an unpretentious, parody-of-show-business way.
The first Kaiju Battles were staged in Boston in the late ‘90s and developed by Rand Borden, then a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. His inaugural event played to a sold-out crowd and exceeded his expectations.
“There were people crawling through windows in the back to get in,” Borden told Mashable in 2017. “I just had a lot of fun doing the show, and the audience really got into it. So I was like, ‘Oh, this could be something.’ So I just went with it.”
Now into their third decade, Borden and his team run about a dozen events a year at venues throughout the U.S. The next big show is for two days at the Once Ballroom in Somerville, Massachusetts (just outside Boston) in early November.
Another example, which is more low key than say, epic battles between unicorns, giant cheeseburgers, and evil animated French toast, is the Rock and Roll Playhouse.
The Rock and Roll Playhouse is a concert series for children under 10, plus their parents. Events are held about once a week at different partnering venues across the U.S. They feature concerts with titles like, “Reggae for Kids,” “The Music of the Beatles for Kids,” “The Music of Aretha Franklin for Kids,” and even “The Music of the Grateful Dead for Kids” (imagine “The Ballad of Casey Jones” with your toddler, maybe Gomi-man isn’t so outrageous after all?). On occasion, artists like Questlove, Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company, Allman Brothers Band), Anders Osbourne, Warren Haynes, Eric McFadden, and others have sat in with the Rock and Roll Playhouse house band, which is cool, although it’s probably a bigger thrill for the parents.
“The sensory experience of a four or five-piece rock ‘n’ roll band might be a lot for a toddler to unpack, so all of our shows have a song where we introduce each instrument and layer to them one by one,” Amy Striem, the executive director of the Rock and Roll Playhouse told Romper in a recent interview, addressing the obvious concern that a live band could be too much for young children. “The drummer will start playing and the bandleader will quiz the kids by having them shout the name of the instrument. Each part is then added one by one until all instruments are playing together.”
The project is based in New York City and was started by Peter Shapiro, the owner of the Capitol Theatre. He collaborated with Striem, an early childhood and elementary teacher, who at the time was an administrator at his daughter’s nursery school. Their bands play a full set and stick to a specific formula, which according to their website, “follows a similar format for activities that we pair with the music. There will be a hello song followed by a rock and roll jump, rainbow streamers that will encourage the kids to move around and pretend during the show, a giant parachute to run under and play, and other activities such as call and response songs and freeze dance. The musicians on stage will play the music in the same way that you have grown to love it… [but] without the really long jams.”
Rock and Roll Playhouse performances last for about an hour and are usually in the afternoon, which means the host venue still has time to clean up and do soundcheck for whatever event is scheduled for later that evening.
Programming for children may be more low key than a room full of body slamming, Japanese-style movie monsters, but it’s still programming for children, meaning that “low key” is a relative term, and for some venues, that may be a bridge too far.
The Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts dials the intensity down another notch, and opens their doors in the afternoons for British Football viewing parties (that’s soccer for Americans). There’s no cover to get in, but aside from turning on a television, no real overhead either. The events are all-ages, food is served, and the bar is open (which can’t be the case with a roomful of nervous parents accompanying their children at Rock and Roll Playhouse performances).
For most venues and promoters , music is still the essential draw, but alternatives abound, and with a little creativity—and possibly fearlessness—the possibilities to attract new audiences are endless.
And if all else fails, some venues have discovered—like the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City and Royale in Boston—that there’s always burlesque.