Covering all the bases

With good intentions and high hopes, Balliceaux begins charging covers for live music, putting their free-shows-only policy on hold.

The live music destination, nightlife hotspot, and critically acclaimed restaurant Balliceaux is putting its free-shows-only policy on hold, charging covers likely ranging from only $3-5 for upcoming performances in July and beyond.

The nearly-year-old restaurant, bar, and lounge has built its reputation of putting on some great shows. It’s partly the legacy of the space: the old back room at Bogart’s used to see performances by jazz greats like the Marsalis family, local favorites like Devils Workshop Big Band, and plenty of artists just stopping through. Balliceaux, with the help of Chris Bopst, has made sure that live music continues to thrive there.

Bopst — who books only music that he personally likes, music with “some bite,” as we reported when the place opened in August — is all about not charging a cover for these shows. He wrote in his Brick column in June, which was devoted to the subject, “It puts everybody on the same hook. We all sink or swim together.” The band has a responsibility for bringing plenty of people in, and the venue has a responsibility of paying the band accordingly. Furthermore, he wrote, charging a cover for admittance would make the venue seem more like a bar that serves food, and not a restaurant that has live music.

He closes his article by saying, “When I hear people thoroughly befuddled by the fact that they are seeing a band they normally would never see in a place that is breathtakingly beautiful for free and still make a profit for everyone concerned, I know we must be doing something right.”

Co-owner Lainie Gratz agrees with Bopst, but, she says, “he also knows we have to try and cover our overhead as much as possible during the slow months.”

“Booking the bands, the cost of paying the bands themselves, advertising fees, bar/food tabs, and having to pay people to work the doors ended up being too much to continue free shows for now,” she says.

Summer slowed down business slightly, and this will help get them through it. Also, she believes it will control the crowd size — which, for big shows, tend to fill the room uncomfortably — to manageable levels.

They hope to upgrade the room with a stage, lighting, and reworking the back table to make more space available, but can’t put money toward those investments since it’s being spent paying bands their guarantees. The door charge would help pay the bands and allow the venue to start making the upgrades.

“Finally,” she says, “it allows and prepares us for bigger acts that we couldn’t afford without a cover.”

They plan on still having the occasional free show, or a full month of free shows, and DJ nights will always be free.

Griping about a $3 cover seems ridiculous and petty, but it will take some training on Balliceaux’s part to make their clientele used to paying to get in. Bands like Fight the Big Bull — who play every two weeks — and No BS! Brass — who just secured a monthly slot to offset their all-ages monthly show with a cover at The Camel — thrive under current free conditions. They’re regularly getting exposed to new potential fans, and if the chatter of the patrons who didn’t come for the music gets loud like it tends to do, these bands don’t usually have a problem drowning it out, or at least matching it in volume.

The one time I did pay for a cover to hear music at Balliceaux was a show in the style of the shows that Bopst was known for putting on at Millie’s or Lulu’s: pay an absurdly low $5-10 for a show and an all-you-can-eat buffet. A seafood dinner and a performance by Fuzzy Baby on a Sunday evening seemed too good to be true, and the packed house that night confirmed that others felt the same way.

In a city where it seems to be hip to complain about paying a cover that amounts to the cost of one beer, Balliceaux may see a drastic shift in audience size for shows. Or, their upscale clientele won’t mind the extra charge tacked on to their night out. It’s hard to predict what the effect will be.

The discussion of switching from free to cover-charged shows hits on a larger point: the question should never be if the musicians will get paid, but by whom they will be paid. Musicians — like the food servers or the cooks — have to be paid, and a free concert is practically a gift from the venue to the audience, paying the band so you don’t have to.

It’s impolite not to thank the gift giver for their thoughtfulness.

Balliceaux is located at 203 N. Lombardy St. Upcoming shows in July: (6th) Amazing Ghost, $3; (13th) The Recliners, $5; (14th) Ombak, $3; (26th) Glows in the Dark, $3; (27th) Bio Ritmo, $5; (29th) No BS! Brass, $5; with DJ nights interspersed throughout. Visit them online at

Photo by Nrbelex

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Dean Christesen

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