The Vanguard is a destination room because it puts music first for both up-and-comers and those with larger followings, regardless of genre.
When most people think of music in the Tulsa Arts District, they either gravitate to the Brady Theater or look to the north end of Main Street to Cain’s Ballroom, surrounded by the local music emanating from clubs like Yeti, Soundpony, and Inner Circle. To do that is to overlook an essential piece of Tulsa’s burgeoning music scene, however.
Tucked away just a couple of blocks south, at 222 N. Main, right next to The Hunt Club, is arguably one of the key stepping stones on the path to playing Cain’s Ballroom — The Vanguard. The Vanguard isn’t hiding. With a canvas awning announcing its entrance and the signature “V” painted on the entry doors, the venue’s presence is bold enough to catch the eye of those looking for a great show, yet subtle enough to miss.
Inside, it’s built like a classic rock club with dark walls and sparse decorations, an open floor, clean stage and state-of-the-art sound system, and a full bar. To try and pin The Vanguard as merely a rock club is a mistake, however. Sure, since opening The Vanguard has hosted rock acts as diverse as The Joy Formidable, Vintage Trouble, Forever the Sickest Kids, and UFO. It’s also welcomed in a variety of country, hip-hop and folk artists, as well as some of the best singer-songwriters in the country — not to mention making a home for Tulsa’s up-and-coming local artists.
In order to truly bring what’s going on at The Vanguard into focus, you need to sit down with owner Simon Aleman. Above all else, he’s a music fan and a huge proponent of Tulsa’s local music scene.
“There’s so much more going on in Tulsa than what’s encapsulated by what’s currently known as the New Tulsa Sound,” Aleman shares. “I love those guys and everything they’re doing, but there’s so much more going on in Tulsa’s indie and alt-rock scene and there’s a bunch of really good heavy stuff and metal going on here as well.”
“Just look at guys like Michael Skaggs, Outline in Color, Brandon Autry, and Nick Gibson to name just a few. If you ask a thousand guys, most people don’t even know about them, but they’re collectively adding to Tulsa’s reputation as they’re touring nationally and internationally,” he explains. “It’s cool, but frustrating at the same time.
“The whole mission from the beginning was to pair touring bands with local talent. If you’re playing our room, you’re probably not big enough to play Cain’s Ballroom yet. It not only helps the touring artist draw more people to the shows, but it’s also great exposure for the local bands and gets them in front of an audience that might not otherwise seek out local music.”
For that reason, The Vanguard continually works to plug local bands into touring shows. At the same time, Aleman says that local showcases have become the “bread and butter” shows that keep The Vanguard on track.
“The room is the right size so that it can hold 200 or 500 and it still feels cool and has a good atmosphere for the show,” Aleman says. “If we book four or five local bands, each can have 40-50 people come see them, and it ends up being a really good crowd. Some of the bigger bands are drawing 150-200, so it fills up pretty quickly.”
Even better, for smaller shows that don’t draw as many people, Aleman and his production and venue manager, Duston Anderson, came up with a “floor show” format.
“A lot of times we’ve had bands play that didn’t draw many people and they were on the stage with a huge gap between them and the audience,” Aleman explains. “What we’ve done for these shows is hang a curtain that runs just in front of the stage and put the band on the floor. They’re still using the full PA, so it sounds great, but it’s far more intimate and personal for both the band and the fans.”
The process of The Vanguard finding its sweet spot hasn’t come easily, but Aleman seems to have found a comfortable balance of touring acts and local shows at this point.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to do well,” Aleman says. “I’ve booked some shows that I was certain would do well and they didn’t and then there are others that I thought ‘Eh… I’ll give it a shot,’ not expecting much, and they did really well. It’s hard to gauge.”
Being a smaller venue, The Vanguard focuses mainly on advertising via social media and counts on word-of-mouth to build awareness for many of the shows. When music fans get plugged in and share their new favorites, though, The Vanguard becomes one of the prime venues to keep an eye on.
What really sets The Vanguard apart from other clubs is the sound system, of which The Vanguard boasts one of the best in town for a small venue. “That was my one main requirement when I got into this,” Aleman says. “The sound had to be top notch, and that’s become our calling card. We’ve had people tell us repeatedly that The Vanguard is one of the best sounding rooms in Tulsa. That lets us be everything from a jazz club to a listening room to a rock venue.
“One of my pet peeves is when you can’t hear or understand the words when someone is singing. A great song isn’t just music — that’s a great riff or melody. A great song is built around the words and tells a story. I want to make sure everyone can hear and understand when someone is playing.”
Perhaps more importantly, The Vanguard has built its reputation for being more than just a club with music: it’s a music venue first and foremost.
“Just about every other room smaller than ours is a bar and a certain amount of people will be there whether there’s a band or not,’ Aleman says. “When a band plays there, it’s part of the entertainment. When you’re playing The Vanguard, you are the entertainment. I think it’s part of the progression of an artist’s development. At a bar, people go there to be social; at The Vanguard, people come to see you play.”
222 N. Main St. | Tulsa
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