Center Stage at AACLive!

WORDS Bob Robinson
IMAGES courtesy AACLive!, Bob Robinson and Carmen Taylor

Feb 1, 2023 | Featured, Life, People

 

Last October as I relaxed in my comfortable theater seat, mere feet from the AACLive! stage listening to seven-time Blues Music Award-Winner Rory Block preach the blues, I considered myself a blessed man. After a two-year shutdown due to COVID, it was great to have this one-of-a-kind music venue in Fort Smith, Arkansas reopen its doors.

“AACLive! is the very kind of venue we love and appreciate,” stated Rory. “An intimate, high-quality room run by dedicated, knowledgeable people who go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, and an equally wonderful, appreciative audience.”

For over two decades, Artist, Audience & Community Live (AACLive!) has introduced River Valley music aficionados to some of the biggest names in the music industry. Leon Russell, Tab Benoit, Sam Bush, Samantha Fish, John Hyatt, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel, Richie Havens, Janice Ian, Paul Thorn, James McMurtry, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and numerous other, not-so-well-known, entertainers have graced the AACLive! stage.

The dedicated AACLive! board members have worked diligently to preserve a successful legacy, established all those years back by the organization’s founders, John McIntosh, and the late Dick Renko.

John McIntosh and Dick Renko shared a vision to bring live music to the River Valley. Sure, there was live music at bars, but they sought a more intimate setting that served the needs of both, artist, and audience.

So, in 2000, they began to craft a plan. Originally, the idea was to stage acoustic performances at friends’ homes. What could be more intimate than having guests over to listen to live music? The comfortable setting would be inviting for artists and listeners. When they couldn’t find homes able to accommodate performers and guests, they sought other settings.

“It was a matter of having the right combination of people and good timing,” John explained about the period that followed.

Mike Hart had moved his 5 Star Productions operations to a new location in downtown Fort Smith. The facility included a 2,500-square-foot area that he had no plans to use. John and his wife Judi decided they would invest the money to transform that space into a performing arts theater.

As remodeling began, Dick remembered seeing theater chairs in the basement of the Eureka Springs convention center. When John contacted the center about buying the chairs they replied, “If you have a truck, come and get them.”

It turned out the chairs were originally from an old theater in New Orleans. They were a perfect fit for the casual, laid-back atmosphere they sought to create. John quickly contacted a friend who owned a small furniture shop and had the chairs restored to their original glory. Once they had an appropriate venue and the seating, the other pieces began to fall into place.

Dick had the music connections to recruit artists, being a promoter and entertainer himself, performing with David and the Immatures. John, owner of The McIntosh Group advertising agency, had the business connections to make it all happen. With the help of their wives Suzanne Renko and Judi McIntosh, the 801 Concert Series opened its doors in the fall of 2000.

Rob Goodfellow, AACLive!’s current president, said, “Dick Renko was the secret sauce that made it a success in the early years.” Dick reached out to performers traveling between weekend gigs in Chicago and Austin or Nashville and Oklahoma City. He offered them a “routing show” in Fort Smith on a Wednesday or Thursday. The offer of being treated like royalty, performing for an appreciative audience, and having a nice hotel layover, plus an added paycheck, appealed to many groups.

Word spread among the music industry about the great acoustics, the friendly audiences, and the plush treatment artists received at the venue and it wasn’t long before promoters began reaching out to Dick for bookings.

“The management here treats you like family,” Earl Cates of The Cates Brothers stated. “That and the sound quality is top-notch.” The “King of Sound” himself, Tom Ware, receives credit for the sound systems that artists rave about. Recruiting him demonstrates from the get-go, AACLive! has been all about the music.

The 801 Concert Series was a hit from the beginning. Early into the inaugural season, they announced ticket sales for season two. Even though the lineup was not established, they sold enough season tickets to guarantee a successful follow-up year, and the series continued to grow. With the intention of attracting larger audiences and even more well-known performers, they relocated in 2007 to a larger building and changed their name to Second Street Live. The new venue was a beautiful two-hundred-fifty-seat facility that hosted numerous memorable artists during its tenure. Eventually, the scale of the multi-faceted operation proved too large of a commitment for the mostly volunteer operation and so the series returned to the Media Center at 5 Star Productions and was rebranded as Artist, Audience & Community Live! – in line with Dick’s credo about the three core tenets of the original series.

***

Most recently, AACLive! welcomed Sad Daddy, a four-member band playing a mix of American Roots music, entertaining audiences with their sounds of early blues, jazz, and jug bands, early country, folk, old-time bluegrass, soul, and funk.

Sad Daddy’s van pulled in front of 5 Star Productions around 4:30 in the afternoon, and AACLive! board members Rob Goodfellow, Grant Nally, and Tom Ware began moving the band’s equipment inside. Megan and her husband Lee Young, in charge of artist hospitality, already had an array of refreshments for band members in the VIP room.

These days, it’s Tom who does most of the heavy lifting, from booking the artists, arranging sound equipment, and working with performers to dial in their instruments and vocals. Fellow board members contribute in many other areas, but Tom is in charge of all things music related.

“The acoustics in here are great,” exclaimed Sad Daddy vocalist and standup bass player Melissa Carper, after completing the sound check with Tom. “The band has already decided we want to be the permanent house band here.”

There are eighty seats available, and seating is first come, first served. Those who arrive early can choose from one of eighty cushioned theater seats or twenty seats in the café table styled seating the back of the room. If seats are available, tickets may be purchased at the door on the day of the event. Sad Daddy was a sellout.

Patrons usually arrive early enough to order a beverage at the full bar operated by Kevin Dorey of 21 West End and mingle with friends. By 7:30 that evening, everyone made their way to their seats. Rob Goodfellow approached the stage to introduce artists, share announcements and remind everyone this was a music-listening venue, meaning phones off, voices low, and  to enjoy the show.

Joe Sundell opened the evening with an energetic tune in his renowned “Joe bounce’ ragtime jazz feel” style. One by one, each band member led the group with renditions of songs showcasing their talents. Brian Martin was a hit with his masterful kazoo and mouth horn solos.

By the fourth song, the group had adjusted to the venue’s unique intimacy, conversing with the audience between songs and sharing tales of life as an entertainer. Artists and audience had become family. I’m sure John and Judi McIntosh, who are still regulars at AACLive!, whole heartedly agree – the original mission was accomplished.

Visit AACLive.com for more information, including tickets for the two remaining performances of the current season, and a bonus post-season surprise performance.

Do South Magazine

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