Walking around South Shore’s Heavenly Village at Stateline these days, a casual out-of-town visitor — who perhaps hasn’t been here in four or five years — will notice a dramatic difference.
There’s a whole lot of live music going on.
Enter Ted Kennedy and Ray Villaman and an all-live-music, all-the-time atmosphere that is served up night and day at Base Camp Pizza Co. and sister restaurants Azul Latin Kitchen and California Burger Co.
Kennedy and Villaman have been in the Tahoe eatery business for more than a decade, with Fireside Pizza in the Squaw Village and Rubicon Pizza at Northstar. Kennedy had tried at various times over the years to get a live music program up and running at the two restaurants, without much success. Seeing live performances as a crucial component of the ideal resort village atmosphere, Kennedy pushed hard for a music program when the partners opened Base Camp Pizza in 2013.
“I had skied all over the world, and I’m a terrible skier, but I love the whole experience,” Kennedy said. “A big part of it was live music, having a beer, looking at the pretty girls. I mean, skiing is great, but the whole experience was so much more than just skiing, and really, live music drove most of that.”
Between Base Camp and California Burger, which opened in 2015, the two venues host more than 1,400 shows a year, a sizable financial commitment for a pair of restaurants. Filling these slots meant appealing to the local pool of musicians.
“In order to do that, you can’t have $500 shows every time, but you can get great young musicians that want to play, that are excited about playing,” Kennedy said.
“I think one of the biggest things is just creating that culture of live music, musicians loved playing with us because it was fun and people were paying attention and having fun and clapping and singing along.”
One of Tahoe’s most exciting new rock bands coalesced from music culture at Heavenly Village. Each of the members of Strange Weather — Vinny Berry (lead vocals, guitar), John Munroe (lead guitar), Todd Christensen (bass) and Jon Gardner (drums) — either worked or performed at Base Camp Pizza when they decided to start a band. Strange Weather released its self-title debut album last week.
While Kennedy and Villaman didn’t exactly invent the concept of musical entertainment at Tahoe restaurants, it’s safe to say that their investment has spurred a wide array of similar activity at other local spots. In the village area alone, Gunbarrel Tavern, 968 Park Hotel, and McP’s Taphouse now offer assorted live acts. Cold Water Brewery, opened in 2014, hosts live music for a variety of events, and Fresh Ketch in the Tahoe Keys recently has revamped its live music program.
“The big vision was not just for Base Camp but for South Lake and, really, Lake Tahoe in general,” Kennedy said. “It’s so primed to become a live music bastion — incredible weather, people want to be outside, no mosquitoes. It’s such a cool opportunity to really create something special on a live music level I think.
“I’ve had people say ‘aw man, they’re copying Base Camp, you hate that don’t you,’ and I’m like ‘no, the more the better, the more we get known for it, the more opportunities for the musicians, the higher the pay, the more fun for everybody.’ ”
Heavenly Village owner Gary Casteel recently partnered with promoter Paul Reder to open the Loft, a second-story village venue with Italian food, music and other entertainment, while Kennedy and Villaman are considering opening yet another restaurant featuring music in the area.
“You look at the other great ski towns around the country and around the world, like Vail and Aspen and Whistler, and they have 50 restaurants and bars,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near saturated, and the more unique and different opportunities that people have, the more exciting it is for people to come up.”
Another key appeal to these musical offerings: They’re free. Both Base Camp and California Burger Company stage musicians in open breezeways in the Heavenly Village, generally encouraging customers and non-patrons alike to stop by and enjoy the show.
“It’s all free; we really try to make people comfortable,” Kennedy said. “If you want to come in and check it out you don’t have to do anything, just enjoy yourselves.”
With California Burger Company, Kennedy and Villaman have introduced a few new elements to their musical experiment. For one, they built a large table that doubles as a stage, a significant special commitment for the relatively small venue.
“It’s burgers, music and art, that’s the tagline,” Kennedy said. “We really committed to the music there, not only outside, but one of the tables inside, as you know, is a massive stage. The space is so small, we’re like how can we have a stage but still have enough bodies in here to enjoy the music. So we came up with the idea and it remains to be seen, really, but it’s either super brilliant or idiotic.”
The owners also decided to take a stab at late-night shows. They soundproofed the venue’s ceiling, allowing them to run live music until 2 a.m. without disturbing their upstairs neighbors.
“When we chose to go to 2 a.m., we were like, ‘Wow, are we getting into a whole new mix of craziness?’ ” Kennedy said. “But it turns out that it’s just the same great people that didn’t want to go to the casino, as fun as that is sometimes. There’s a lot of times you’re like, ‘I really don’t want to go down there, I wish there was another option,’ and we’re giving them the option not only to eat, but to hear live music tonight.”
Another creative addition at California Burger Company comes in the form of having instruments readily available for guests.
“One of the ideas that came along with the in-house stage was to have musical instruments on the wall that were ready to play,” Kennedy said.
“Often at Base Camp we would invite people up to play, we would invite people up to sing; we would talk to people that we could tell were musicians. We had a girl from the San Francisco philharmonic, like ‘I would love to play, I didn’t bring my violin.’ That’s kind of the thing, it’s for local musicians and people that are traveling from out of town, but they didn’t bring (their instrument). This sort of alleviates that.”
The burger joint features an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, a mandolin, a trumpet and a bass guitar.
“So that’s the idea, if you’re here in town and you didn’t bring an instrument and you want to play one, hop on the stage, plug in and go to town,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy himself has been known to jump onstage from time to time. A longtime guitar player, he consistently downplays his abilities (full disclosure — this writer plays Monday nights at Base Camp and has known Kennedy to get a crowd roaring with an upbeat tune like “Amy” by Pure Prairie League).
“I was not a student of the game, I just got to where I got my major chords down and I was like ‘sweet, I can play two songs, I’m out of here,’ ” he joked. “So I kind of quit learning for 15 years, but I got my two songs down really well.”
Knowing full well the joy that comes from playing live music for an upbeat audience, Kennedy draws a deep satisfaction from creating this environment for guests and musicians alike.
“I think if anybody has musical talent and doesn’t do it because of a fear of being on stage, just do it,” he said. “Because it is horrifying the first time; a little less horrifying the second time, the third time not so much, the fourth time it’s a blast.”