George Lyons laughs while doing his radio show “The Lyons Den” in the studios of KUNV-FM. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
It’s hard to have a reflective moment during the four-hour aural stimulation that is “The Lyons Den” radio show. But at the KUNV 91.5-FM studios during this particular broadcast — host George Lyons’ 783rd, which officially marks his show’s 15th anniversary — special guest Matthew Tuttle (aka DJ Shoe) experiences one, just as the iconic riffs of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” fill the room. It’s a bad time he recalls, one put into perspective as he walked to his car after work. Upon turning the ignition and hearing the sounds of Lyons winding down his show, he heard the baritonal host utter one of his two weekly sign-offs: “Take care of your brothers and sisters, but most of all, take care of yourself, because ain’t no one else going to do it for you.”
“It was like he was saying that to me, and then it was like the start of a whole new week,” said Tuttle. “It was like George had reassured me.”
This, to say nothing of the musical salve Lyons features every Sunday from 5-9 p.m., be it a string of Bob Dylan songs, a song by French electronic act Air he discovered while on hold for the Hard Rock Hotel operator, or a live Phish set from a 2000 show in Japan he actually attended. Nor does Shoe even reference Lyons’ musical evangelism, which is heard an hour later as co-host and producer Jay “Mongo” Brice barely finishes reading a news brief before Lyons clips the tidbit with an exclamation: “God, I love music!”
There is no doubting his passion. Lyons grew up a radiophile in the San Fernando Valley, thanks to the historically diverse L.A. airwaves. He came of age during the FM heyday of commercial rock stations — ones that might play the whole side of an album — and the more adventurous public and college radio stations. He seemed destined to be a DJ.
But that wouldn’t happen until years later, once he had moved to Las Vegas in 1996, after Jerry Garcia’s death ended Lyons’ global treks with The Grateful Dead. About a year later, he began pitching KUNV a show in which he would play a diverse mix of songs and live recordings from his vast music collection.
In particular, he hounded former program director Brian Sanders, who apparently didn’t understand Lyons’ vision. Plus, there simply wasn’t enough room on the schedule for specialty programming, now shoehorned into the weekends after KUNV’s infamous switch to all-jazz programming during the work week. Lyons then offered to pick up any empty jazz slots, which he was awarded shortly after. At the conclusion of his second fill-in, where he played exclusively from progressive jazz label ECM, Sanders approached the DJ and, according to Lyons, said, “I don’t want to make your head too big, but you’re a hit. The phones are ringing off the hook, and they love what you’re doing, I’m going to give you your own show.”
At 10 p.m. on June 7, 1998, Lyons hosted the first “Eclectic Excursions,” which later became, at Sanders’ suggestion, “The Lyons Den.” It quickly adapted a stream-of-consciousness setlist approach that mirrored what the DJ privately “would be doing in my house with my massive collection of music, picking and choosing and pulling [albums], never staying in one particular genre,” he says. “I’d listen to half a side of a Genesis album, and next thing you know, we’re listening to some Miles [Davis], and then some Zeppelin, and then some Beethoven. It’s an ongoing flow of music. That’s what I enjoy the most.”
The incorporation of live recordings followed four months later, when the DJ decided to go for broke and played an old Phish set in advance of the band’s legendary Halloween weekend shows at the Thomas & Mack. A bombardment of approving phone calls begot more live sets and a growing fan base — mostly from the underserved local jam band community, who often congregated at Lyons’ favorite hangout, the former Legends Lounge — which dug into its pockets during fund drives and kept the program on the air. “Because of my ability to procure premiums, stuff you wouldn’t be able to find on any other show, it made my show more viable to the public,” Lyons says.
His late-night odyssey dodged the shrapnel from the KUNV format/management changes and outlasted Legends Lounge, though Lyons helped promote shows produced elsewhere by the Las Vegas Jam Band Society, a group that in 2000 introduced him to his first co-host/producer, Greg “Smojo” Serensits (current president of the LVJBS). Four years later, fellow Society member Brice replaced the frequently touring Serensits.
Lyons also began incorporating underground electronic music — introduced to him through Tuttle’s sets at pioneering Strip spot Club Utopia, as well as Luxembourg DJ and UNLV student Steve Sniukas — into his radio shows. “Jerry [Garcia] dying and me moving to Las Vegas meant me hearing new sounds,” he says.
On the June 3 anniversary show, Lyons would play a song by The Crystal Method, the breakbeat duo with UNLV/KUNV ties, among other pre-EDM artists. He also threw in Radiohead, The Smiths and The Sex Pistols before the live Phish set. That blend feels as refreshing now as it might have in 1998, a programming freedom enabled by, as Brice notes, an “absence of someone telling us what we have to play.”
Lyons, who transitioned from the music business to industrial real estate after his move to Vegas, and will program the First Friday main stage in conjunction with both his anniversary and the monthly event’s “Sounds of Summer” musical theme, never imagined the long, strange trip on which he’d embark at KUNV. He can’t even tell you what he’s got planned for next week’s show. “It literally has been an ongoing experiment for 783 weeks.”
Moksha, Jazz Workshop and others, Friday, June 7, 6-11p; Lyons Den/First Friday Main Stage, www.mixcloud.com/thelyonsdenkunv, free.