Kilby Court was certainly rough around the edges in the early days. I bobbed back and forth off-road safari-style while parking the car, tromped through puddles of ice-encrusted mud to get to the door and shivered as I stood in what appeared to be a converted garage alongside my best friend as we waited for Elsewhere to perform.
Elsewhere’s hazy Velvet Underground cover thoroughly charmed the 30 or 40 frozen young bohemians scattered around the room, and Kilby Court’s illuminated emerald green paneling, seemingly flimsy walls, and magnetic atmosphere knocked us out.
I can tell you without reservation that I write about music today—at the age of 26— largely due to the awe-inspiring nights I spent shivering—or sweltering, depending on the season—at shows in that converted woodshop on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Enough about me. What about Phil Sherburne, Leia Bell, Lance Saunders and Will Sartain? Kilby Court’s past, present and future of Kilby Court hinges on their next steps.
About a year ago, when Sherburne—who ran Kilby for nearly nine years and attended virtually every show—morphed into a hermit, he knew it was time for a change. “Plus, my after-tax earnings were just embarrassing,” Sherburne says with a grimace, “I never expected to get rich, but I’ve got a family now.”
Sherburne and artist Leia Bell (aka Kilby court poster maker extraordinaire who boasts an international reputation, the mother of Sherburne’s children, and the love of his life) discussed their options, and contemplated a move to Bell’s hometown of Knoxville, Tenn.
Sherburne explains that a recent visit to Tennessee convinced them to stay in Salt Lake City. “Child care is our biggest issue, and visiting Knoxville made us realize that we have a pretty good setup here.”
Sherburne is still unsure what he wants to do post-Kilby, aside from spend time with Bell and his three kids, who range in age from 14 months to 6 years old.
Kilby Court—named after the street where the venue resides—initially served as a festive drinking ground and performance space for local bands, the occasional touring act and artists of every stripe.
Sherburne, a furniture maker by trade, welcomed promoters—namely Iceburn’s Gentry Densley, who booked the first bill on July 23, 1999—and shows because they helped him pay the rent on his woodshop. “We threw ‘private parties’ for quite a while. But when we started doing three to five shows a week, the city caught on,” Sherburne says with laugh.
After a two-month hiatus following a run-in with vice at one of Kilby’s “private parties,” Sherburne reopened the space as an official music venue.
The 20-somethings temporarily scattered and a sobriety-fueled fog of social awkwardness descended on Kilby after the space became a legitimate alcohol-free all-ages venue, but Sherburne admits in retrospect, going above-board was a positive change.
In the years that followed, Kilby—a “musical onramp for up-and-coming bands,” as Sherburne is fond of saying—attracted many legends and emergent indie superstars. Nomeansno, Lightning Bolt, Rilo Kiley and Of Montreal all awed Salt Lake City’s youth and loitered around Kilby’s famous fire pit.
Veteran promoters and musicians Will Sartain and Lance Saunders take the reigns from Sherburne on Jan. 1, 2008. Sherburne says he approached Sartain and didn’t consider handing over the venue to anyone else.
“Will has incredible energy and amazing sense when it comes to music. He’s also a good businessman. Every business I touch seems to turn into a nonprofit, and I don’t mean that in a good way,” Sherburne jokes.
At the age of 16, Sartain had a Kilby conversion experience similar to my own. A performance by Salt Lake City rockers New Transit Direction cinched Sartain’s love affair with music and convinced him to start recording his own material.
Sartain and Saunders have high hopes for Kilby. They believe there are enough music-loving young folks to keep the venue going strong.
Saunders—who expertly convinces many of the nation’s best bands to play in Salt Lake City and works the door at Urban Lounge—believes that serving alcohol is not essential to a venue’s survival. “Serving drinks does create a lot of revenue, but there are plenty of teenagers who just want to come out and see some music.”
“We’re so excited,” Saunders says with palpable enthusiasm, “We’re investing in a new PA, and we’re going to generally clean up the place and make it a little bit warmer.”
“We’re going to book lots of local shows, and we’re going to start booking one hip-hop show a month. We want Kilby to be about community,” Sartain interjects.
I’ll rest easy knowing that the next generation of music-loving high school seniors can bid goodbye to ice-encrusted puddles of mud, and say hello to smooth concrete.