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Grateful Dead Promoter & Brooklyn Bowl Founder Peter Shapiro Feted for ‘Creating Magic and Memories’

Independent music promoter Peter Shapiro, 43, who describes his life's work as "creating magic and memories" from his opening of the Brooklyn Bowl venues to reuniting surviving members of the…

Independent music promoter Peter Shapiro, 43 — who describes his life’s work as “creating magic and memories,” from his opening of the Brooklyn Bowl venues to reuniting surviving members of the Grateful Dead at 2015’s Fare Three Well concerts — was honored Wednesday (June 8) evening at the annual gala of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.

The 38th annual season of the festival opened with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings taking the stage before a packed crowd of some 6,500 at the bandshell in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., playing “the kind of soul-stirring music that makes me what to do what I do,” says Shapiro. 

The BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, one of the nation’s oldest outdoor performing arts series, draws some 250,000 attendees each summer and is part of the non-profit arts organization BRIC (formerly Brooklyn Information and Culture). The festival is programmed by artistic director Rachel Chanoff and executive director Jack Walsh, whom Shapiro described as “part of New York music’s soul.”

For Shapiro, the evening also marked a milestone. The promoter noted that this year marked the 20th anniversary of his career, which began when he took over Wetlands, which he once described as “a beat-up old rock club down there at the exit of the Holland Tunnel” in downtown Manhattan. 

Wetlands had been opened in 1989 by Larry Bloch, who ran the club as both a music venue and gathering place for social and environmental activists. A fellow Deadhead, Bloch struck a deal for his protege to take over Wetlands in 1996. Shapiro was 23.

“Everything I have done has been in partnership with others,” said Shapiro, crediting Bloch as his mentor and source of his ongoing goal “to do something cool” with collaborators.

The promoter also gave an emotional tribute to his father, attorney Dan Shapiro, who passed away in April, after a lifetime of encouraging his son, reviewing contracts and agreements through his final year of life. “There was no better lawyer, no better tactician,” said Shapiro.

Before the gala, Shapiro took a few questions from Billboard:

The Fare Thee Well concerts by the Grateful Dead in Chicago July 3-5, 2015 were the most successful concerts of the past year. What do you do for an encore?

I don’t know yet. I’ve got an idea or two. I feel good that I don’t feel forced. Fare Thee Well was such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was so close to it because of my love for the Grateful Dead and their influence on me.

One cool thing about Fare Thee Well: on average, once a day, whether I’m here in New York or in an airport or at a show in another city, some one comes up to me and says, “I want to thank you for Chicago.” They pause and say, “That was the best weekend of my life.”   

It wasn’t just the concerts and the music and the weather but it was people being with the friends they grew up, going to these shows.

You’re presenting the Lockn’ Festival Aug 25-28 in the Oak Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Is there a personal highlight that you’re looking forward to?

Phish! They don’t typically play festivals and certainly not two nights. They’re famous for doing their own festivals. But I grew up loving the Dead and loving Phish. I was a key part of bringing Trey [Anastasio, guitarist and vocalist for Phish] into the Dead for Fare The Well and bringing those worlds together, that kind of baton pass.

What’s next for Brooklyn Bowl, which has already expanded to London and Las Vegas? It’s been reported that you’re looking at a Nashville location.

We haven’t announced anything. So I’ll just say we’re looking at bringing what the Bowl does to new place. There are so many great venues out there. But we think the Bowl is a magic thing.   

At the end of the day, most venues are a stage facing a bar, or derivatives of that. A big part of the Bowl is not just the bowling, which is super fun, but the video screens and the food and the multi-sensory stuff happening. It’s a unique thing that most other venues just don’t have.

Steve Van Zandt, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, told Forbes in 2014 that Peter Shapiro is “the reincarnation of the `60s and `70s [concert promotion] entrepreneurs. He’s as close as we have to Bill Graham.” True or false?

(Long pause). To have Stevie say that, it doesn’t get any better. Stevie’s seen a lot. There are not that many [promoters] left who are independent. I wish there were more, doing what I’m doing.

A lot of what I learned was from Larry Bloch at Wetlands. It’s hard to create vibe and energy and identity and connection. The subtle and small things matter. People notice that stuff. At the Fare Thee Well shows one of the most important things we did was I got the security guys and the ushers to wear tie-dyed shirts.

In an age when some people — including a presidential candidate — announce their net worth in capital letters. I don’t place that first.

But if you can try to do good — for the vibe, the fans, the feel, the bands — and try to create the right environment, I think the rest follows.

Ray Waddell contributed to this story.