By BEN BOETTGER
A building on south shore of the Kenai River mouth — which over the years has been a fish cannery, a resort, and a logistics center — took on yet another new role Sunday night: as a venue for touring musicians. A performance by jazz and blues pianist Tom Hunter opened the new Cannery Club and was the start of regular concerts at the site, according to Robb Justice, a local musician who will be booking acts to play there.
Hunter’s keyboard was far from the first music to be heard at the cannery since its owner Ron Hyde — founder and CEO of Anchorage-based PRL Logistics — renovated it in 2014 to open a dock, heliport, lodging, dining, and events site in the group of buildings that from 1912 to 1998 housed the Libby, McNeill and Libby and later Columbia Wards seafood canneries. Justice himself has played weddings and other events there, and last summer the Cannery Lodge hosted the Country at the Cannery concert series. Justice said this new concert series will be an ongoing collaboration between himself and Hyde.
“We’ve been brainstorming these ideas for a long time,” Justice said of himself and Hyde. “We wanted this club to be a place for consistent events, and I’ve wanted a place to help organize that. So it’s a good relationship.”
This year a lot of those acts will be shared with the concert series that organizers of the Salmonfest summer music festival are holding at Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer. Tom Hunter — a friend of some original Salmonfest organizers who played the festival last year — is one such artist. He played at Alice’s the night before his Kenai appearance, and at the Taproot in Anchorage before that. Artists passing through the area in the past, Justice said, have not usually spent a night in Kenai between shows in Anchorage and Homer.
“When you think about the acts that come to the state, very rarely do they stop here on the central peninsula,” Justice said. “Sometimes we’ll get a concert at the auditorium in Kenai, but honestly most of the time they do a show in Anchorage and a show in Homer, because of the fact that a lot of the venues we have where they’re able to play music aren’t designed specifically for music.”
In addition to giving them a place to play, having an established venue in Kenai makes touring the area more economical for artists from the Lower 48, Justice said. With the high fixed cost of traveling with instruments, artists need to make all the stops they can to justify a visit to Alaska.
Hunter played in an upstairs space — “a long rectangular room with nice acoustics,” Justice said — in one of the renovated cannery buildings, with a lounge and bar nearby. The layout of the venue isn’t fixed, Justice said, and will likely change with each event, and in the summer may move outside to the Cannery Lodge’s outdoor amphitheater.
“We’re going to be doing smaller acts until we get towards summer, when we’ll be doing full bands,” Justice said. “… The goal is going to be approximately one out-of-state act up here a month. Also to showcase some local acts as well — we’ll have some local bands playing there, and as we get things rolling, we’ll be announcing the schedule.”
The concert series is only one activity at the Cannery Club itself, which Hyde is planning to open as a private social and recreation club for invited members, who will be able to use the Cannery Lodge for gatherings, business meetings, retreats, outdoor recreation, and dining. He said the club will be similar in purpose to the Anchorage-based Petroleum Club — a social group for those in the oil industry and supporting businesses, of which Hyde is a member — though its membership will be more general, he said. Presently, Hyde said, he’s sent membership invitations to about 60 people so far and is planning a soft opening on Feb. 18.
Though the club will have private events limited to members and their guests, the regular concerts at the site will be advertised and open to the public.
Hyde said the venue isn’t committed to a particular style of music, though concerts there will likely focus on folk, country, bluegrass, and blues, he said.
“We’re really following the feedback of members right now, what they want to see,” Hyde said. “I know there’s a lot of people that love country down in the peninsula and that love folk and bluegrass music. That’s the request we’re getting the most of.”
He also plans to bring up a reggae band and some comedy acts.
Looking further into the future, Hyde said his five-year plan involves building an indoor auditorium to seat about 500 people for larger concerts in the winter. In keeping with the Cannery Lodge’s aesthetic, the auditorium will also use recovered fixtures from the old cannery and aim for the same early 20th-century industrial appearance.
“We want this place to be not only functional, but aesthetically pleasing as well,” Hyde said. “… Kind of mixing modern with history and doing it in a tasteful way.”