Last week, my wife and I found ourselves in a familiar situation. We were in our car, on an interstate, and driving to a show featuring a touring musician. This was different than other occasions when we had driven to Dallas or Tulsa. That Monday night, I entered the highway at NW 36th and exited less than three minutes later. No hotel room, no time off from work, and no Pikepass was needed.
The Criterion in Bricktown has proven to be a game changer for live music in Oklahoma City, and we were both excited to finally check it out for ourselves.
We found parking more easily than expected, though it was a Monday. We then walked to the window to pick up our tickets. It had been less than 10 minutes since we left our house, yet we were literally a few steps away from seeing a show. Though many communitites take for granted this kind of access to live music, we felt very lucky.
Once we entered through the front doors, however, it was obvious that a much lengthier drive would have been well worth it. The venue was well laid out, the bar was big an prominent, restrooms were readily available, and the staff was friendly and professional. Anyone who has visited venues in other cities knows how rare this is and how much it can enhance the experience.
Even though we showed up in time to catch the opening act, the place was already fairly well packed. We could immediately feel the energy in the room. I'll admit that I have harbored concerns over whether Oklahoma City would adequately support its new mid-sized venues recently completed or currently under construction. The turnout at The Criterion on a weeknight gave me a lot of reason for optimism. The place felt like a community gathering spot, a place for people to come together and share experiences collectively.
By the time we found a spot to watch the show, we had run into three people we knew, two of whom we hadn't seen in years. It reminded me of walking to our seats at a Thunder game and stopping to catch up with people we hadn't seen in a while.
Besides the impressive early turn out, the stage was the main thing that impressed me when we came through the door. It was vast by comparison to many stages of similarly sized venues. It is one of the luxuries I imagine comes from building a venue from scratch specifically for live music. The charm of an old building that has been retrofitted as a live music venue is undeniable, but it can be hard to really enjoy shows in places like that. Obstructed views, challenged acoustics, and inadequate restrooms and bars are the norm.
It was immediately obvious that the Criterion's stage would not be restrictive for even the most elaborate and over-the-top live shows, with great views from anywhere in the house. If it wasn't now part of The National Museum of African American History and Culture's permanent collection, George Clinton could have landed the original "Mothership" on the Criterion stage with plenty of room to spare for the rest of the Funkadelic paraphernalia. Gwar would have been just fine up there. Even The Polyphonic Spree would have found the place accommodating for its teeming ranks.
Except for the large chandelier lighting the crowd during set breaks, it appeared that the budget was placed where it was most critical--on the stage, lights, and sound. Finishes were unpretentious without feeling bare or cheap, reminiscent of the Ford center's basic and practical finishes of years past, which isn't a bad thing. Imagine that venue, shrunken down to an intimate size where every seat is close enough to the stage to recognize the changes of expression on the artist's face. Now imagine it with a stage and lighting rig that can almost rival those at the much larger Ford Center shows. Imagine all of that with an impressive sound system and good acoustics, and it becomes clear what a great asset we have in The Criterion. Forgoing flashier interiors to focus on the sound, lights and stage is good for both artists and their fans.
Ultimately, that is why The Criterion was built--to attract artists to OKC so that we can see them live in a venue that allows us to really appreciate their music and their show. When you experience a great performer in an intimate setting with good sound, you almost feel like you spent time with the artist, like you know them a little better. Last Monday night was just that type of experience. I know I'll listen to Jason Isbell a little differently from now on.
The show was great. The opening band and the headliner both put on impressive performances. As much as I enjoyed it, the true discovery of the night was the venue. I felt like I was introduced to a new friend, one with whom I look forward to spending a lot of time. Jason Isbell may have summed it up best when he paused after his second song and just said "I like this place. This is a great rock 'n roll room." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Read Matt's wife's stellar review of Isbell's show in full here.