Black Heart Booking: The 20-Year Gamble and the Traveling Venue | Feature Story

Lucas Wright’s personal PA system now sits in the garage of his Omaha home, collecting dust. He lugged it back there in July of this year, after eight years of use and abuse for hundreds of shows across Nebraska.

Unpacked, it’s an instant venue: a Yamaha EMX5000 powered mixing board anchors a kit complete with vocal and drum mics, speakers, and monitors. Wright says that even with blown speaker repairs and rewiring jobs, it still holds up pretty well.

After more than 10 years of booking punk, metal and hard rock, Wright is shelving Black Heart Booking right next to it.

On Jan. 4, Omaha bands Cordial Spew, Mint Wad Wally, Suburban Crisis and No Comply will be joined by Lincoln’s Within Wilds and Illinois’s Cloud Gavin at the Hideout (RSVP here), a venue at which Wright has booked shows for years.

“It’s probably going to be my last show for the foreseeable future,” Wright says on a hazy December Saturday, gazing out of the window from a booth at Jake’s in Benson.

He confronts this reality while sounding slightly hesitant, though it seems he has carefully considered his decision. This wouldn’t be the first hiatus he’s taken over 16 collective years of booking. Things like attending college and starting a family have intervened.

The risk makes it a tough full-time pursuit, anyway. There are many variables that affect the success of a show from the promotion standpoint. There’s advertising, band popularity, weather, timing. When family is involved, relying on them to align is unrealistic.

“Promoting a show is really no different than going … to the boat … putting a giant amount of money on a certain number and letting the roulette spin,” Wright says. “You’re taking risks if the show doesn’t go as planned, losing [your family’s] money.”

There is part of him that seems to relish that adrenaline-pumping aspect of it, even comparing it to an addiction. But that was never the main reason for doing it in the first place.

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“Bars in Kearney were way cooler than Omaha,” Wright says.

He bristles a little when comparing the two, mostly at the Omaha city ordinance that allowed minors into certain concert venues, such as Slowdown and The Waiting Room, only if they have a notarized permission slip on file. Wright has been a proponent of all ages venues wherever he has booked, and he favors Kearney in that regard. The way he paints it, they tend to be more relaxed about it.

It also might be some sentimentality talking. Wright started booking shows in Greater Nebraska in 1997, as a 16-year-old in North Platte. He explains that in such a small city, there weren’t many choices for entertainment.

“There’s not a lot to do unless you were in the party crowd and went to house parties,” Wright says. “We just kind of did this other thing.”

Everything about it was DIY, from using clip art to make show posters to hauling around a portable PA system. At the start of things, he had some friends in a band called the Fragile Andys and wanted to help them find shows. They began renting space in church auxiliary buildings and dance halls and hosting shows. In the process, he learned how to set up the PA and run sound.

“The reason I wanted my own PA, was so that I didn’t have to rely on a venue,” Wright says. “I was tired of having bars or venues with either subpar systems or nothing at all.”

What began with just a handful of local bands soon gained attention. Wright posted his information on the early-internet music forum Book Your Own Fucking Life (BYOFL), and when touring bands started reaching out to him about playing shows as they rolled through, he had the early precursor to Black Heart Booking.

“From my info being on BYOFL I got a lot of contact from punk, ska, metal, rock bands that were looking for a show to break up the Omaha to Denver drive,” Wright says. “We just kinda had this little scene where it was a lot of high school kids coming to shows.”

Wright left North Platte after getting his associates degree from Mid Plains Community College and moved to Minnesota, where he frequented music clubs, but didn’t book any shows of his own. He came back to Omaha in 2002 to enroll at UNO, while also working security at the now-defunct Ranch Bowl, where he again made Nebraska connections.

When he transferred to UNK a year later, Wright was stunned at the lack of a local scene.

“Basically, back then, the only bands you could see in Kearney were bar bands [or] cover bands at two or three of the local bars,” Wright says.

He fired up his BYOFL account, got in touch with his Lincoln and Omaha connections and found a few places that could hold shows. With a traveling PA system, Wright could turn almost any space into a concert venue. Bars like Thunderhead Brewery and Paradise Cove in Kearney and Grand Theater and Circle B Dancehall in Grand Island allowed him to host shows.

He booked the majority of his shows in the party room at The Roman, a pizza parlour in Kearney and yet another temporary home for his sound system. Wright actually met his wife, Heather, while working the door. Heather and a friend would spend nights at The Roman bugging Lucas at the door to gain entry into shows.

“She would just sit down at the table next to me and buy me a drink and be like ‘So, we can come to the show right?’” Wright says.

It was during this stint booking in Kearney that the name Black Heart Booking came about, and he was starting to gain steam once again. From 2003 to 2008, Wright says he booked between 40 and 50 shows a year in Kearney. He drew national touring bands like Alexisonfire, Spitalfield and Gym Class Heroes, as well as Omaha artists like Little Brazil, Simon Joyner, Neva Dinova, Coyote Bones and Capgun Coup.

Wright was very enthusiastic about building a scene there, often booking new or unnoticed bands. It made an impression on people like Nathan Richardson, now of the band Lighthouse and a promoter in Kearney for the last eight years. At the time, Richardson played in “a really rough pop-punk band” from Lexington. Wright handed Richardson a flier after a show at the Paradise Cove, and he was hooked.

“I don’t think I would’ve been booking shows in Kearney if I didn’t get that flier,” Richardson says.

Soon, Richardson began playing shows and becoming more involved in the Kearney music scene. He says that Wright went out of his way to accommodate any band that played a show for him, regardless of popularity or whether or not his own pockets were filled.

“He’d always be fair to people,” Richardson says. “I’m not really sure if he ever really made any money at all. He’s booking DIY touring bands all the time. There were shows where at the end of the night he’d give us 30 bucks and it was like, there are only 30 kids here. It never really made sense of how it happened.”

The Wrights moved to Omaha in 2008 just before the birth of their first son. Breaking into the Omaha scene was difficult at first. Wright took about 10 months off to adjust to their move and to being a father. Even with an extensive resumé booking shows in the western part of the state, had trouble finding venues that would trust him.

“I remember sending numerous emails to venues around town, or making phone calls that were never returned because nobody knew who I was,” Wright says.

Finally, in September 2008, he started booking at smaller venues like the 49’r, the Attic, and Saddle Creek Bar. Slowdown was the first larger venue to open up to Black Heart Booking, which hosted a release show for Lincoln metal band Mother Pile in Jan. 2009.

Later in the year, the opportunity arose for him to help grow an all ages venue, a personal goal since his arrival in Omaha. Convicted Skate Shop owner Donnie Dietrich contacted him about doing shows at his shop near 16th and Leavenworth. The Hole, its basement, appealed to Wright’s DIY attitude.

“We go in the back and we go down these stairs and theres this dungeon … just this black hole,” Wright says.

Wright lights up when describing it, even as disgusting as he made it sound. The entryway was a four-and-a-half foot metal door on the side of the building. He set up his PA with the stage in one corner of the dingy basement. There was a toilet in another corner with a shower curtain that pulled around it.

“It was one of those grungy places where you could do a punk show,” Wright says.

The Hole, it turns out, was also a place where Wright could build a vibrant underground punk scene. Bands like Eastern Turkish, Officially Terminated, and Cordial Spew played the venue on a regular basis along with touring acts like Andrew Jackson Jihad. Other notables include Digital Leather, Eric in Outerspace, Betsy Wells and Plack Blague.

“He would hit us up to fill lineups,” says Cordial Spew frontman Jay Bacon. “I remember shows that we did at The Hole that were basically overwhelming [because of the crowds].”

In 2010, after landlord troubles, Dietrich moved the shop to Benson, while Wright shifted over to The Sandbox. At that time, the bare-bones venue had lights strung up and wall art along the stairway up to the stage area, but it lacked for some of the essentials.

“My stage light was a clip-on desk light,” former owner Joe Benson says. “We did things ourselves, literally.”

The Sandbox even lacked a sound system, which Benson had to rent out. With a lack of surplus funds, Benson says he needed help from people like Wright (and his PA) in order to keep the place open.

“He was huge for me even if he [hadn’t] promoted any shows because he provided the sound system,” Benson says.

That venue continued to grow as other booking agents set up shows there, until a 2012 run-in with police shut down operations on suspicion of serving alcohol to minors.

Each time, Wright had to overcome the challenge of finding a new venue to hold these shows, which is how he ended up moving himself and his equipment from venue to venue. Until last July, The Sweatshop Gallery agreed to hold a few shows for him while making full-time use of the PA. Wright has continued to book shows at The Waiting Room and Slowdown in Omaha, as well as a recent show at the The Bourbon in Lincoln.

“It was wonderful, five years down the road, to work with an old friend,” says Austin Howard, The Bourbon’s general manager. “I can tell genuinely from working with him that we enjoy what we do, and that comes across.”

Howard, a former intern at Black Heart Booking, has known Wright since 2005, when Wright first booked his band, Fixing A Hole, to play in Kearney. Howard wanted to become involved in booking and running live events, and found the opportunity learn from Wright while finishing his degree. He ran the street team, hanging posters, passing out fliers and helping run shows. Howard says that working with Black Heart Booking not only led him down his current career path, but taught him how to treat bands, venues, and their patrons.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is … how to talk to, accommodate, and make an overall good experience for the people that are coming down,” Howard says. “When [bands are] being treated well and feel like things are going smoothly, they put on a good show.”

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Though nothing is scheduled past the Jan. 4 show, Wright doesn’t want to bury Black Heart Booking for good just yet. Due to the volatile nature of promoting, he’s forcing himself to view it as a hobby.

“Until I can have [enough] disposable income that I can have a hobby, it needs to just be on the back burner,” Wright says.

It now sounds less like a hiatus and more like a willing transition brought on by the sea changes of life. Reflecting on his recent decision to stop booking, he says its like a baseball card collection or his Less Than Jake vinyl discography: at some point, they just stop growing. They sit in boxes in storage rooms or garages, markers of periods of your life. They collect dust, like the PA in his garage.

Still, he’s open to the idea of bringing someone along to pick up where he left off, even if he’s slightly protective of the name he has made for himself.

“The brand of Black Heart Booking has a tradition and history,” Wright says. “If I can find the people to delegate tasks to and that I can trust … yeah, awesome.”

After all, it was never completely about profit.

“When you do this for a long time, even if the shows aren’t good, you’re realizing that you’re part of the scene, making something happen,” Wright says. “The friendships and bonds that you build [last]. Even if you lose money on a show.”