Right after the Flaming Lips played in Tasmania, Australia, on New Year’s Eve 2012, singer Wayne Coyne got a text from Michael Goldberg, the owner of Belly Up Aspen.
“He texted me and said, ‘How did it go?’ And before I could say, ‘We’re still drunk from the night before,’ he was, like, ‘You gotta play here,’ ” Coyne said. “I kinda liked that.”
In 2005, Goldberg opened the Belly Up, a 450-capacity club, in Aspen — three and a half hours from Denver by car.
“That’s the dilemma of Aspen altogether, but it also makes it kind of cool,” Coyne said of Belly Up’s location. “You’re kind of in this place that’s almost impossible to get to unless you make some pretty serious arrangements.”
Yet the club has played host to musicians such as Jimmy Buffett, Snoop Dogg, John Legend, Bassnectar, B.B. King and other acts that could sell out arenas twice the population of Aspen.
And within the next month, top acts Weezer, Moby and the National (which sold out Red Rocks Amphitheatre in September) are all scheduled to play intimate sets at Belly Up.
What is it about this little mountain club that brings in such big-name acts?
“It’s mostly the guy who runs it,” said Coyne, whose Grammy Award- winning psych-rock band returns to the venue for a New Year’s Eve run on Dec. 30 and 31. “He’s a cool guy, he’s very interested in music and, in a good way, he’s relentless.”
After spending 20 years in Miami in the aviation business and 25 years in Aspen, Goldberg got into the restaurant business and “after I lost my mind, I got into the music business,” he said.
When Belly Up’s predecessor, the Double Diamond, closed after a 10-year run, Goldberg decided to buy the spot and have some fun.
“It was a challenge — something else to do in life,” Goldberg said. “I’m 64, and I like to try different things. I’ve certainly gotten younger since opening this thing.”
Thanks to some strategic timing, Belly Up opened during X-Games 2005 and welcomed sets from G. Love and the Roots to break in the new venue.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Goldberg said. “It was crucial for us to open during the X-Games.”
Since that opening weekend, scores of big names have played the venue, and this year, Rolling Stone ranked Belly Up as the No. 16 best club in the country.
“In some ways you have to make a name to attract bands that wouldn’t look at playing a 450-capacity room in the middle of the mountains where there’s no college, not even a small radio station,” Goldberg said.
Much of what attracts these artists is Aspen itself.
“I’d like to take credit for a lot of this, but frankly I’m not dumb enough,” Goldberg said. “A lot of people will come here because it’s Aspen, to make a vacation out of it.”
Artists like Buffett and Seal will vacation in Aspen and play at Belly Up while visiting — sometimes they’ll even use a show in town to pay for the trip. It’s an area that is famously famous, and along with the glamour, it invites expensive tastes and a unique business model for Goldberg to operate Belly Up.