Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011 | 12:54 p.m.
For Frankie Moreno, it’s a long way from the Crazy Armadillo Bar in terms of career advancement.
But it’s just a short distance in geographic advancement.
Figuratively and in fact, Moreno is riding the “up” escalator at the Stratosphere. The Crazy Armadillo is where Moreno was hired to play just days after he moved to Las Vegas after a short stint in Nashville in late 2001, performing with no band and playing a keyboard off to the side of the bar.
As of Friday, Moreno has signed to headline the main showroom at the oft-photographed tower in a planned two-year residency that begins with his first appearance at 11 p.m. Nov. 9.
As Moreno and resort execs put pen to the deal, shots of Crown Royal flowed. Sort of like a Moreno show, in other words.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Moreno said during a phone conversation. “I’ve never had a gig in a showroom, ever, and they wanted to put the Stratosphere back on the map.”
For now, Moreno is scheduled to perform 11 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ticket prices are set at $29.99, $19.99 for locals. It is a schedule that might be as fluid as one of Moreno’s stage performances. Start times, the number of nights he performs and ticket prices might well change as Moreno feels his way through his first high-profile residency in Vegas.
Moreno is the first regular headliner booked to the Theater of the Stars showroom (don’t be surprised to see that name change) since “American Superstars” hit the lights in March 2010. The show will feature Moreno and his recently bolstered 10-piece backing band, as months ago he took direction from executives from Sony Records (with whom he has signed to record an album on that company’s Masterworks subsidiary label) to add horns and strings to an already airtight band.
“It’ll be the exact band people have seen at the Palms and around town,” Moreno said, adding that the Stratosphere show will be chiseled to about an hour and 15 minutes. “It’ll be super cool. We’re going to try to keep the vibe really loose, but cut out some songs that haven’t been working too well and keep the ones the audience loves.”
For a decade, Moreno has been a fixture at Vegas venues on and off The Strip. Before he and his family moved to the city, Moreno had been under contract with Warner Bros. working as a staff songwriter who crafted songs for other artists on demand. But in early 2001, he was hired to perform a corporate gig at the Venetian and was swayed by the opportunities to perform live and develop his own sound and identity that the city offered.
“I was writing songs in Nashville, and there was this thought that, at some point, they’d make me the male Shania Twain, and at the time it was when she was just blowing up and changing how people looked at country music,” he said. “But that wasn’t me. It didn’t feel right. I felt two things would happen: I would either make it as a country artist and have to be that for the rest of my career, or I would fall short of that and have no opportunity to be who I wanted to be.”
Moreno and Josh Bell perform Eleanor Rigby
Since setting up in Vegas, Moreno has been a fixture at such hotel-casinos as the Las Vegas Hilton, South Point, Golden Nugget, Palms, Mandalay Bay, Mandarin Oriental and M Resort. His stint at Golden Nugget’s Rush Lounge led to a critical meeting with violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who was led to the Fremont Street enclave by members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic (specifically, violinist Lisa Viscuglia) after a Bell performance with the L.V. Phil two years ago.
Moreno and his band played their masterful cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” and Bell’s ears perked. He and Moreno talked between sets, and Bell suggested that Moreno contribute to his album of collaborations titled “At Home With Friends,” which also featured appearances by Sting, trumpet master Chris Botti, Kristin Chenoweth and Regina Spektor. The recording and accompanying YouTube video of Bell and Moreno playing “Eleanor Rigby” caught the attention of Simon Cowell, who auditioned Moreno in New York earlier this year. Cowell has planned to feature Moreno as a guest performer during the first season of “X Factor” and on tour as an opening act for Michael Buble once Moreno’s album is released.
That was initially supposed to happen in the fall. Count on the spring, likely, as Moreno continues to tweak the music and vocals (much of the recording has been conducted at Odds On Studios in Henderson). The marketing of Moreno on a wide-scale level hinges on the CD release, but Moreno has been moving at a far faster pace than his CD release schedule, which hinges as much on the timing of the release as the quality of music.
“I was at a Sony party at the Grammys and was introduced to John Mayer, and he was asking about how long the process was taking,” Moreno said. “He said, ‘The first one takes forever, but after that, your schedule just goes crazy.’ It was good to hear that from someone who has gone through the exact same process.”
Until the CD is released, with the first single to be Moreno’s “Moonlight Matinee,” he needs an established home to perform.
“We were looking for somewhere to play when we weren’t touring, somewhere to come back to,” Moreno said. “If we have to go on tour, we can work out a schedule that will work for our dates at the Stratosphere.”
It seems an unlikely fit, a rising star of contemporary music performing at the Stratosphere, whose showroom’s top (and only) production at the moment is the slaphappy adult show “Bite.” The Stratosphere’s location has been a challenge for decades, even dating to the days when the parcel was home to Bob Stupak’s Vegas World. The closing of the Sahara in May has not helped engender foot traffic to the property, which is not quite on The Strip and too far removed from downtown Las Vegas to have any direct identification with either Vegas entertainment center.
But both sides do see potential in this partnership.
The Stratosphere was certainly motivated to bring in a star. That option broke open after the hotel attempted to lure Clint Holmes to the showroom. Holmes, himself a Vegas headliner for more than a decade who spent five years at Harrah’s, instead opted for a monthly headlining partnership at the Cabaret Jazz Club at Smith Center for the Performing Arts beginning next spring. In the aftermath, the hotel was still aggressively seeking a strong headliner, and execs were impressed at Moreno’s recent performances at The Lounge at the Palms, where he and his well-suited band have built a fun and freewheeling scene that hearkens to the days of classic Vegas live entertainment (Moreno said those Tuesday night shows will continue in a stripped-down form).
And Moreno was concurrently looking for a bigger room for his beefed-up band. Having played about 1,000 shows just at Rush Lounge over the past several years, Moreno said he realizes that there are innumerable resorts in Vegas that would be well-suited to feature him and his band.
But the Stratosphere is willing to back Moreno with a strong marketing campaign. The hotel is retooling the 600-seat showroom to his liking, giving it a fresh look with new chairs and carpeting. The long tables will be dumped in favor of circular tables seating four, similar to the seating pattern at The Lounge at the Palms. When Moreno suggested serving cocktails in actual glass rather than plastic, the hotel consented. When he said the post-show photo op would be more appealing if guests could pose at a piano instead of a dull black backdrop, they agreed.
“It would be cool to play a place like the Wynn, sure,” Moreno said, “but I doubt I could go into the Wynn after just playing the Rush Lounge and say, ‘Steve, let’s make these changes.’ ” Moreno also will be the top-billed draw at the Stratosphere, which would not be the case if he were to move on to Wynn-Encore (home to “Le Reve” and Garth Brooks), or Mandalay Bay, as it preps for the Cirque du Soleil-Michael Jackson arena and resident shows.
“I’m the poster child for the Stratosphere, and we’re doing a strong marketing campaign to tell people who we are,” Moreno says. “We’re trying to do something that’s unique, that is not the latest Cirque show or an impressionist or a magician. We’re so different from all of that.”
Both sides are operating at high risk, the hotel putting ample energy and resources behind someone who has never headlined on The Strip and the performer partnering with a hotel that is fun to look at, but practically sits on an island.
The onetime star of Crazy Armadillo uses a baseball analogy to explain his decision:
“I’d rather risk striking out to hit the home run.”