How The Grateful Dead Changed Promoter Peter Shapiro's Life and Why He Created A Rock and Bowl Empire

June 16, 2014

Red Bull in hand, the perpetual motion man that is Peter Shapiro whirs in his office, fielding calls and texting about upcoming shows. In Central Park, the next day, he’s producing a concert featuring Phil Lesh. It’s for families. Shapiro confirms there’ll be face-painting, clowns and free Brooklyn Bowl t-shirts. He sweats the tech specs to make sure the sound will be awesome for the Grateful Dead vet. “If you don’t get details right,” says Shapiro. “It fucking kills it for everybody.”

Shapiro is part of a rare species, a thriving independent promoter in an industry dominated by behemoths like Live Nation and AEG. Central to Shapiro’s business model is doing right by artists ranging from Grateful Dead alums to the The Roots, who all share progressive political sensibilities. Keeping the values of the music alive, Shapiro learned, is works for the soul andbusiness.

“I’m happy to partner with the big guys, just as long as we  keep creative control,” says Shapiro.

Central to Shapiro’s budding musical empire is the wildly successful Brooklyn Bowl, the Williamsburg space that he opened with longtime cohort Charley Ryan.  Shapiro has taken the concept beyond Williamsburg and partnered with MSG. In March, they opened Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas, an 80,000 square foot venue, as an anchor tenet in The Linq, the first entertainment complex on The Strip without a casino. In addition, he and Ryan opened a Brooklyn Bowl in London next to the giant O2 Arena, where they partnered with the O2’s owner AEG. All three venues are cutting edge from the 3-D screens and impeccable sound to energy conservation. They even share a menu, catered by New York-based comfort food aces Blue Ribbon.

Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg was the first green bowling alley in the country,” says Shapiro. “We take what makes the original special wherever we take the name. We embrace great music from all generations from The Roots and the Meters to The National.”

The same holds true for Shapiro’s other gem, the legendary Capitol Theatre, in Port Chester, NY. The “Cap,” where The Dead and Rolling Stones once played, hadn’t been a rock venue for 15 years. Shapiro reopened its doors two years ago with a Bob Dylan concert to anoint the lovingly restored rock palace.

Shapiro’s light-filled corner office is in the Manhattan headquarters of Relix,the music magazine he purchased five years ago, saving it from going under. “You don’t buy a music magazine to make tons of money,” says Shapiro. “Relix is about music I love and it fits into getting the word out about everything else we do.” Bands often play in an area adjacent to his desk and on the building’s roof and the videos are posted on the magazine’s website.

“Peter is the reincarnation of the ’60′s and ’70′s entrepreneurs. He’s as close as we have to Bill Graham with the Fillmore East and West,” says Steven Van Zandt. The Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band guitarist and actor {“The Sopranos ,” “Lilyhammer}, Van Zandt produced the Broadway musical “Once Upon A Dream” staring The Rascals, which debuted at The Cap. “Without Peter there wouldn’t have been the first Rascals reunion in 40 years,” says Van Zandt.

A self-described New York City “upper-middle class kid,” Shapiro says his career began to take shape after having a “life-changing experience” at a Grateful Dead concert in Chicago in 1993. So impressed was he by the music and community around the band, he became a full-on Deadhead.

That summer Shapiro, then a Northwestern film student, followed the Dead and made the documentary “And Miles to Go: ON Tour with The Grateful Dead. ” “ I couldn’t get the band to talk, so it was a movie about the fans,” says Shapiro, noting the irony that Phil Lesh is a collaborator and Jerry Garcia’s daughter Trixie is a partner in Garcia’s, the bar.venue next door to The Cap.

The Dead’s prescient sense that rock and roll revenue was shifting from record sales to concerts and related business left an imprint on Shapiro who embraced the peace, love and ancillaries paradigm.

In 1996, at age of 23, Shapiro bought his first club, Wetlands Preserve. A favorite spot for jam bands, hip hop artists and community activists, the Tribeca club was at best a break even proposition. “My father was like ‘What the fuck are you doing?” says Shapiro “But I made all these relationships with all these incredible musicians.”

Wetlands shuttered after 9/11, and Shapiro returned to producing  concerts and films, including “U2 3D.” Meanwhile, he was looking to build an anchor venue. Shapiro found the site for Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg in a former factory. Five years ago, he opened the doors. Rock royalty, like Elvis Costello regularly perform there. Bill Clinton has bowled there and it was where New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio held his victory party. “Peter’s done quite the job,” says Chris Blackwell, the producer who signed both Bob Marley & the Wailers and U2. Blackwell adds that watching “U2 3D” at Brooklyn Bowl was “about the best U2 concert I’ve ever seen.”

Shapiro urges me to mention projects he produces for love not money, like the free  fall “Jazz & Colors” series in Central Park presenting 30 groups in 30 locations, all playing the same set list. “I’m looking to do things differently,” says Shapiro. “There’s a reason The Strokes played their first gig in years at The Cap and that Questlove, calls ‘Brooklyn Bowl’ his ‘home away from home.’”

Says Lesh who will be playing Lockn’: “Pete thinks like a musician. He understands the spirit of the music.”