Peacocks & Gibbons, Oh My
April Concerts at the Zoo rock on
Tunes & Blooms at the Cincinnati Zoo started, as its name suggests, as a seed that has now blossomed. The year was 2006, and there is a good chance people were complaining about the dog days of another long, gray winter (sound familiar?). Reds Opening Day, the unofficial start of springtime in the Tristate, couldn't arrive soon enough. Folks at the zoo, which includes Botanical Gardens in its official title, had an idea.

"That very first concert was kind of like, "¢It could be fun, it could be interesting, let's try it, let's see if we can get an audience, if we can get people to come "¢ because the gardens are beautiful at that time of the year,' " says Susan Ludwig, the special events manager who returned to the zoo that year.

Perfect Partner

The zoo's expertise is blooms. For tunes, they turned to the friendly folks at WNKU-FM (89.7), the public radio station at Northern Kentucky University.

"They (zoo organizers) were specifically looking for something acoustic," recalls Aaron Sharpe, director of development and marketing for WNKU. "I remember thinking if we got somebody like the psychodots to do an acoustic show, it would be so unusual.

"First of all, the psychodots rarely play out, but everybody in town loves them and they have a big following that would jump at the chance to see them because they rarely play.

"Add to that it's an acoustic show, it makes it even more rare. Then put the Faux Frenchmen with them and it was a very safe bet."

It was better than safe, it was a hit.

"So they had two bands that played one night and we got 300 people, which we were pretty impressed with for not having done this before," Ludwig says. "WNKU was a great partner. They really helped us get that ball rolling and were instrumental in introducing us to a lot of these bands."

The event grew to three nights for the next two years, then to its current schedule of four Thursday nights in 2009. And it wasn't just the fans that enjoyed themselves; the bands kept coming back as well. The psychodots and the Faux Frenchmen played for the first five years while Jake Speed & the Freddies have performed each year after that first concert.

"We played when my parents and family were a quarter of the audience," Speed laughs. "Now it's what, hundreds or thousands, maybe?"

To the Tune of Thousands

The latter, according to Ludwig, who says more than 11,000 people attended the four shows last year.

Speed says many factors have spelled success, including the current staging area in Vine Street Village, which opened in 2009.

"The new space, that's what really did it," he says. "When they built that new plaza, it was just perfect for that kind of event. Plus the thing for me that's really cool is I have a 4-year-old kid, and now I really appreciate an event that's at a reasonable hour (6 p.m.), a location where kids can wander around, families can come."

Unusual Competition

Although he calls it the "perfect event," Speed does have some concerns.

"The peacocks will jump on stage every once in awhile, man," he says. "They are beautiful but they're actually terrifying. They're a sight on stage. They're pretty benign, but still it is kind of intimidating.

"Then you've got the gibbons "¢ and you're competing with those guys. They do their whoopin' thing."

Well, OK, but remember: it's a zoo. Who was there first?

Although a couple of animals might interrupt the peaceful, easy vibe, it's interesting that only one night has been canceled because of rain. Guess who was playing?

"I was the one that got rained out (last year)," Speed laughs.

"But the beautiful moment was that it rained and rained and rained, then we got right back up there and played three songs, then the rain came again.

"But then there was this beautiful double rainbow, it was so cool. Even though we didn't actually get to finish "” we were all kind of drenched "” we thought this is pretty special."

It's the Zoo, The Music "¢

A combination of factors makes Tunes & Blooms pretty special: expertise, hard work, nature and maybe a touch of kismet. Each player in the equation agrees that it is the new harbinger of springtime these days.

"I like to think that it's our booking savvy, having our finger on the pulse of what's happening next in music," Sharpe says, laughing.

"But the fact is it's bigger than the bands anymore. It's become such an anticipated event in April. It's the zoo, it's beautiful weather, it's warming up, flowers are blooming and people know that whoever is playing, it's going to be good music, even if they've never heard of them."

Although weather has interfered only once, organizers did catch lightning in a bottle two years ago when Walk the Moon, which was on the verge of breaking big nationally, took the stage.

"We were really lucky "¢ I don't think we could get them again," Ludwig says, laughing. "But it was great that we had them, it was a big night for us."
The combination of pretty flowers, great music and mild weather has helped raise attendance each year at Tunes & Blooms.