Strictly Ballroom

Written by Chris Hansen Orf Category: People Issue: September 2012
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Charlie Levy rode the indie-music revolution to the top of the Valley’s concert promotion biz. Now he has a venue of his own.

Sitting in Crescent Ballroom’s industrial-chic lounge on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in June, with retro R&B playing over the speakers and a late-lunch crowd sipping cocktails, owner Charlie Levy fields texts and fires off emails constantly, at one point thinking aloud, “How do you think [country singer] Pat Green would do here? I am emailing him now. How much would you pay to see [Texas legends] The Flatlanders? Would you pay $25?”

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Levy has promoted concerts in the Valley since 1991, when he began working for famed gig-maestro  Danny Zelisko at Evening Star. He founded his own company, Stateside Presents, in 1995 and booked touring acts into a little Tempe club called Nita’s Hideaway, which sat on land eventually bulldozed to make way for Tempe Marketplace. Levy saw so many Valley clubs try and fail to put down roots that he eventually moved to Tucson to promote shows. But he always kept an eye out for a space in Downtown Phoenix that would fill a desperate need for a mid-level concert venue, a club that could eventually become associated with Phoenix like Whisky a Go Go and The Troubadour are synonymous with Los Angeles.

“I was in Downtown Phoenix and I went for a jog, and I saw the outside of this vacant building,” Levy says of the structure at Second Avenue and Van Buren Street. “I kind of poked my head in and was like, this would be a great place for a venue – one block from the light rail, right downtown, great size, had a bar and had bathrooms, kind of a nice setup.”

He purchased the space – which was constructed in 1917 as a garage and eventually housed an awning shop, a dry cleaners and a rent-for-the-night social club – and christened it Crescent Ballroom. Levy knew he’d be able to book national and local acts into his spacious building. Trouble was, he had no idea how to run a bar. So he reached out to longtime friend Tucker Woodbury, owner of east Phoenix nightspot The Vig, for help. “I could tell he had a vision for this place, and I knew he really wanted to build this venue,” Woodbury says. “I have a little bit more expertise on the restaurant/bar side of it – bar managers, a relationship with the beer distributor – but I think I stepped back lots and lots of times because I wanted it to really be his place.”

Another coup for Levy was bringing in two of the Valley’s premier chefs and restaurant owners, Chris Bianco of the world-renowned Pizzeria Bianco and Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco, to run the kitchen and dish out what Bianco unpretentiously calls “Mexican-accented road food.”

The 550-capacity Crescent Ballroom opened in October 2011 and quickly became a thriving live music hotspot in a city beset with a rash of club closings in a downturned economy. Its success has decisively shifted the Valley’s live-music polarity back to Downtown Phoenix, rerouting acts that might have otherwise played Tempe’s Marquee Theatre or the Clubhouse – a sweat-stained rat-hole that closed after a pre-show firearm incident earlier this year.

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The Crescent is also a merit-badge of sorts for Levy. Through Stateside Presents, which also books bands into larger Valley venues such as the Celebrity Theatre, Levy now sits at the top of the Valley’s indie-promoter heap. A self-consciously humble fellow who disdains notoriety, Levy would never say it himself, but his success is quite remarkable – a lesson in wise and locally-focused investment. Early in his career, he fostered relationships with indie bands like The Black Keys and MGMT when they were still industry greenhorns. And with his knack for hospitality, he kept those relationships alive as the bands went nuclear. Riding them skyward. Building his ’90s niche-genre business into an indie-rock stalwart.

The Crescent is now the Valley’s unofficial incubator for such emerging talents – as well as a first-rate end-user venue, according to local music aficionados. “The Crescent has the perfect mix of indoor versus outdoor, posh versus dive, food versus bar, cutting edge nationals versus local favorites,” says Nicole Laurenne, lead singer and keyboardist for Valley-based garage-poppers The Love Me Nots, who packed the club in February. “All of those things somehow fall together perfectly.”

Levy doesn’t let that kind of fulsome praise go to his head – from his vantage, he’s performing community service. “It’s been almost touching to watch bands that I’ve promoted for years come through,” the promoter says. “[Tucson-based one man punk/blues band] Bog Log III just emailed me yesterday and said it was the best show he’d ever played in Phoenix. And the best reaction that we’re getting is that we’re Downtown. You go outside and see the skyline. You can’t pay for that, that feel and the energy of being Downtown, that vibe you don’t get if you’re in the suburbs or the middle of nowhere.”