Last week, a DJ threw a rave at Vanguard. This in and of itself was pretty unremarkable; for years, the imposing East Hollywood warehouse plunked amid car dealerships and the 101 overpass was a staple of L.A. dance music culture, regularly hosting deep-house veterans like Marques Wyatt, even if the room itself was a bit bedraggled.
Yet on that particular night, the DJ was the Swedish neo-house festival-topper Avicii and the club was packed to capacity with svelte 1-percenters and younger, rowdier club kids buzzing with improbable news: Vanguard is back on the map.
“It was so much better than we expected,” said Costas Charalambous, the senior vice president of night life for the hospitality conglomerate SBE. “We were actually wondering afterwards, ‘Did we just hurt ourselves here? How do we raise the bar on that?’”
After a takeover by SBE, Vanguard is again poised to compete in and help define the L.A. dance-club scene. But unlike Sound, Lure, AV, or the myriad other EDM-inclined rooms that have opened or revamped in L.A. in the last year, Vanguard comes with its own baggage.
During the electronic dance music wave of the last few years, ritzier and more professionally managed clubs stole much of Vanguard’s oxygen, pulling arena acts into small rooms for jaw-dropping fees and VIP bottle-service crowds.
A bouncer was shot to death there in 2007, and serious dance fans have long memories of the room in its more hair-raising days. SBE is one of the most vaunted brands in L.A. night life and has already built a bulwark in local EDM with the popular Greystone Manor. But will that be enough to push Vanguard to the front of a crowded pack?
The changes inside Vanguard are more skeletal and structural than glossy and swank. SBE, best known for celeb-gauntlet pacesetters such as Hyde, the Abbey and Sayers Club, went out of its way to leave a little industrial grit intact. The three main rooms have a kind of storm-the-Bastille vibe: French decadence, with a hint of society unraveling. Portraits of continental royalty are slashed with neon paint; gilded mirror frames look enticingly doom-stricken when left atop blank walls and low-slung booths.
The modular stage and seating areas are now something of a coliseum layout, with great sightlines from all corners and fluid movement throughout its two entrances and four main spaces. The expansive outdoor patio retains its metaphorically priceless view of a nearby church steeple but now sports exposed filament bulbs strung over a row of rough-hewn daybeds. You can still see rivets and wood framing all over — the place is unmistakably still a warehouse.
“We saw an opportunity here, and people thought I was crazy,” said Charalambous, for whom Vanguard was his personal, perhaps counterintuitive passion project at SBE. “They couldn’t see past the shell of it. We thought, ‘It’s a warehouse — why fight it?’”
As of this week, the Avicii show remains its only engagement, but SBE promises a full slate of regular EDM bookings in the coming weeks (they have a high-profile promoter lined up but are staying mum on names for now).
Charalambous admits the club is arriving late to a bustling party of rooms already catering to savvy young dance fans. Some of the competition is of the company’s own making: Through Greystone and Agency, SBE has established reputations with dance kingpins and now has a variety of both headlining and after-hours possibilities to offer EDM bookers. But between the half-dozen newish venues in L.A. (not to mention the entire EDM ecosystem in Las Vegas), are there enough exciting artists to keep all these spaces full?
“It’s not like Vegas here, this is a local crowd and we can cater to the underground and to VIP clientele,” Charalambous said. He sees Vanguard, Greystone and Agency not cannibalizing from each other, but as a slate of options to offer artists and regulars. “We were among the first to start putting these arena artists in smaller spaces in L.A., and they loved it. It’s a handpicked clientele.”
But it remains to be seen how SBE will prioritize Vanguard as it plans a soup-to-nuts revamp of the Sahara into the SLS Las Vegas, a hotel/casino/club complex replicating many established L.A. food and night-life concepts opening in late 2014. Keeping a crowded dance card punched at Vanguard will be a Herculean task in itself — let alone in a room with a reputation of its own.
But if the Avicii gig is any indication, that well is far from dry. Vanguard is back, but it’s not alone — and Charalambous thinks that Hollywood wins when everyone’s forced to raise their game.
“Is it saturated? Sure, and we’ve been the ones doing the saturating,” he said. “The more places come, that just makes Hollywood more attractive as a whole.”