They Built This City
Published November 2022
By Nathan Poppe | 11 min read
Like so many great celebrations, this party began with a toast. On March 31, Chad Whitehead and Stephen Tyler lifted their drinks and welcomed hundreds of concertgoers shortly before the first notes rang out at their new music hotspot—Beer City Music Hall. Aglow with stage lights and a bit of well-earned pride, Whitehead said it felt like a battle to arrive at this special moment after slew of pandemic-related delays.
“If you even knew all the pieces that it takes to make rock-and-roll: It takes accountants, it takes builders, it is way more than just music and beer,” toasted Whitehead, who shares the operating responsibilities of Beer City Music Hall with Tyler. “We want to raise our glass and say a toast to everyone that helped bring this to life.”
And then, the venue started breathing. The opening celebration had a secret concert lineup, which only added to the night’s excitement. Nia Moné, a self-described Saturnian R&B singer, sizzled onstage as her band dropped the first set of songs at Beer City. Before one especially sultry number, Nia took a step forward in her knee-high leather stiletto boots embossed with red flames and asked if there were any freaks in the audience. Hands shot up without delay.
Oklahoma City band Jason Scott & the High Heat played Beer City to celebrate the release of their new album "If We Make It Til The Mornin'." Photo by Nathan Poppe
If these walls could talk, they’d say it’s been many years since anything so interesting sprung up in this long-vacant building. Beer City was redeveloped from an old testing laboratory along a construction yard. Now, this western slice of downtown Oklahoma City is home to dozens of concerts a month—ranging from local album releases and dance parties to punk rock legends and Americana acts on the rise.
What else is Beer City? Rest assured, it’s not actually a city—it’s far too small with its five-hundred-person capacity. Also, it doesn’t just serve beer. The first thing you’d likely notice when walking into the venue is a massive bar serving strong drinks, seltzers, and even burritos.
Managing partners Stephen Tyler and Chad Whitehead with production manager Emily Egerton. Photo by Nathan Poppe
A mural by Oklahoma City artist Jack Fowler hangs above the beer taps and fridges full of Beer City’s own specially brewed beer. It’s a nod to Pussy Cat Nell Jones, a trigger-happy businesswoman who more than a century ago ran a saloon in a town called Beer City in Oklahoma’s Panhandle at a time when laws felt like suggestions. That Beer City was more of an outlaw territory once called the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the Plains.” This Beer City is more like a punk rock club—with way, way better bathrooms.
The most exciting thing about Beer City—outside of a sold-out show—is that it’s the brainchild of Whitehead and Tyler, two managing partners who believe in the power of live music and love to boost it alongside a passionate staff. After all, they’ve been doing this for awhile.
Driving down Northwest Twenty-third Street in Oklahoma City, it’s hard to miss Tower Theatre’s hulking neon sign and glowing entrance with the old-school glass box office. That’s Whitehead and Tyler’s first baby, reopened to great fanfare—and even greater success—in the summer of 2017. What they did there could be called a small miracle, but it’s not magic.
Oklahoma City’s Beer City Music Hall opened in March 2022. Although it does serve adult beverages, it is an all-ages venue. Photo by Nathan Poppe
Through hard work, tasteful booking, and community-focused events, Whitehead and Tyler slowly willed into existence one of the best public spaces in the state and even turned Tower’s neighboring bar, Ponyboy, into a viable concert space. And it’s safe to say they’re working toward success again at Beer City. How? By getting out of the way.
“You’re not buying a ticket to Beer City; you’re there for the band,” Tyler says. “I don’t want you having to spend so much time at the bar that your back is always to the stage. I don't want it to take so long to get you through the front door that you’re missing the opener. We created a room that was great at respecting the performance. Everything else is just there to make sure you have a good time.”
From the front entrance to the back door, it’s possible to zip through Beer City in a handful of seconds. It’s significantly smaller than other local venues like The Jones Assembly and The Criterion. While those can cater to thousands, Beer City is far more intimate. From the second you get past the ticket taker, you’ll walk through the glass doors and quickly understand the lay of the land: Beer and liquor are on one end, and music on the other. There are no soundproof curtains or VIP booths with personal waiters.
Artists who’ve graced the Beer City stage include Detroit rapper Danny Brown, pictured, and local acts like Nia Moné and Twiggs. The music hall hosts a variety of national and international performers and local musicians.
“It is built like a tank,” Whitehead says with a sly smile. “We can hose the thing down after a show, turn the lights back on the next day, and run another. We can run a show seven days a week out of that place as long as we can staff it. We built it to be a workhorse. Our goal is to present a very simple and entertaining night out.”
And if the music ever feels too overstimulating, take your drink outside to the massive courtyard that joins Beer City to Fair-Weather Friend, a craft brewery that drops inventive creations like Watermelon Gucci, a sour that mimics a watermelon milkshake with hints of pink Himalayan salt. The pizza kitchen, with standards like pepperoni and Margherita alongside unique pies like pancetta and dill and mortadella, also slaps.
Be warned, however: At a packed Beer City show, you will sweat, and so will everyone else. It’s hard to escape it. You will not see a balcony or Ticketmaster Official Platinum Seats with wildly inflated prices separating you from the crowd. Everyone’s more or less in the same boat. There’s a friction that makes this place come alive. It’s just you and as many as 499 strangers soaking in perspiration as well as live music. If you missed concerts during the early days of COVID-19, then Beer City is ready to greet you with an audible hug.
The staff will go pretty far out of its way to make a concert happen. When the seven members of Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian pulled into town, they needed a massive outdoor electric generator to help power the show. Beer City’s production manager Emily Egerton—freshly returned to Oklahoma after years of touring the country and working in venues such as Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern in Chicago—made it happen. Egerton said Oklahoma’s concert scene has come a long way over the past several years—evident in Beer City’s all-female production crew, which is a rarity in the industry.
“It’s a surprise for most folks, but I think what matters the most is how often we’re told this is the most helpful crew the artists have ever worked with,” Egerton says of the venue’s production staff. “The excitement to grow and the passion to progress is so much more than I thought was possible.”
What else might you see and hear at a Beer City show? Oklahoma bands like Jason Scott & the High Heat turn the venue into a honky-tonk paradise, and metalcore road warriors Knocked Loose part a crowd like the Red Sea for a mosh pit in just a matter of seconds.
There’s really no mystery to what makes a great concert. The recipe has been passed down for generations, and it’s up to concert enthusiasts like the Beer City crew members to add their own twist to the experience. Still, the song remains the same. It takes a small army to set the stage, a band to bring it alive, and fans to make it feel like home. Beer City was built with all of that in mind. It’s just missing you.