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Concert Association taps younger crowd with secret show

Victoria Barber

This weekend, up-and-coming indie folk band The Last Bison took the stage at the Discovery Theatre in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. But before that happened, they played a "secret show" in Ship Creek for a very particular audience: "People who might not come to the PAC because it's the PAC."

That's according to Jason Grenn, marketing director for the Anchorage Concert Association. It's a target group he also referred to as, "people under 40."

Grenn, who at 32 looks like he might play in some of the indie bands he promotes, said the Concert Association wants to draw in younger audiences, people who go to shows at the Bear Tooth or Tap Root but think of the PAC as too stuffy or expensive.

"It's like -- 'Oh, that's where my parents go to the symphony, that's not my scene,' " Grenn said. "We want people to have that awareness that cool stuff is happening (at the PAC)."

How to attract these young, cool people? Grenn said the Concert Association reached out to businesses the demographic is known to frequent -- La Bodega, Brown Bag Sandwich Co. and 49 Nightlife were a few -- and issued invitations to an unadvertised concert at Anchorage Community Works, a building in Ship Creek that has been recently renovated into studio space.

"(The venue) had a vibe we wanted," Grenn said. "It's a little bit underground, a little bit not-your-parents venue."

About 70 people came to the invite-only party, which took place in a large room with work tables and other equipment moved to the perimeters. A stage was in one corner, but apart from a few sofas it was standing-room only. Audience members were invited to bring their own beverages and encouraged to give a $5 donation at the door. Despite some Concert Association pamphlets, the event felt more like a house party than anything do with a concert hall.

Grenn said the secret show was an experiment, one that will hopefully result in buzz and ticket sales for the PAC. Choosing the right kind of band was important, he said. "We couldn't ask Huey Lewis and the News, 'Hey come down and do an acoustic set down at Ship Creek.' "

Three members of The Last Bison played for about 30 minutes. The band has an atmospheric, Americana sound, and members took the stage dressed a bit like Civil War re-enactors -- violinist Teresa Totheroh wore an antique-looking blouse and belted skirt down to her ankle boots and cellist Amos Housworth was in suspenders with skinny pants, his beard groomed into a shape that would be equally at home on the streets of Portland or the Antebellum South. Wearing a white shirt and trousers and with one bare foot exposed, lead vocalist Benjamin Hardesty demonstrated he has as tunefully hoarse and earnest a holler as any working in the folk/indie/rock genre.

The Last Bison is often compared to Mumford & Sons, the Decemberists and Fleet Foxes: bands, Grenn said, that are already popular with the under-40 set. Like many artists the Concert Association brings up, the septet agreed to do some "community outreach" during their time in Alaska. They were open to the idea of that outreach being a warehouse party for 20- and 30-somethings rather than a high school visit or master class.

Whether or not the event helped sell tickets, the crowd on Thursday was loudly enthusiastic and seemed to be having a good time, and Grenn was ready to call it a success -- one that demonstrates that "Just because it's not at the Bear Tooth, doesn't mean it's not a cool show."