This weekend marks the end of an era in local live music. As of Sunday, the & & FORT SPOKANE BREWERY & & will shut its doors, bringing to a close an illustrious 11-year tenure as one of the city's premier live music venues. To scene watchers, local musicians and nightlife denizens, the news came as a real shock. For as we all know, the Spokane music scene is far too fragile not to be seriously affected by the closure of even a single club -- much less one of our best.
"Thanks," responds Fort Spokane music director Geoff Miller to the compliment. "I've worked my ass off to try to get it there."
Miller has worked at the club for the past seven years and is largely responsible for the high profile it now enjoys. During his watch, Fort Spokane has gone from a blues-only club to one that consistently features a staggering variety of quality live music.
In keeping with that tradition, Miller has, for the final weekend, lined up some of Spokane's favorite performers to assure that the club will go out in grand style -- kicking, screaming and dancing. The Fort may soon be gone, but if Miller has his way, it will not go quietly.
"There's really not a lot we can do now," he says referring to the closure of the club. "It's really just been a losing battle. But I wanted to get the best of the best in here for the last week. And really pack the house."
True to his word, Miller has booked a truly stellar line-up to send the Fort into oblivion. Thursday night, the place will be shaking to the blues-rock of Too Slim and the Taildraggers. The Taildraggers were once mainstays here when the blues ruled almost every single night. Now enjoying national recognition through their label, Burnside Records, Tim Langford, Tom Brimm and John Cage will be dishing up nuggets from their vaults alongside cuts from their new CD, King Size Troublemakers.
Friday, it's Spokane's art punk & uuml;bergroup, Seawolf. This quartet is comprised of members of some of Spokane's most legendary bands, including TFL, the Flies, the Makers, Cattle Prod and the Fumes. Expect intelligent songwriting, expert use of dynamics and lots and lots of volume. I'm serious.
Saturday night, come see for yourself why Civilized Animal is consistently rated one of -- if not THE -- best live acts in town. How they manage to squeeze all those guys, guitars and horns up there on that diminutive stage is beyond me. But it's sure a blast to watch them light up a crowd with their infectious brand of ska-funk. They'll be joined by local veteran acts the Bone Daddies and Mulligan.
Okay. I know what you're all thinking: "Well that's great, Corrigan, so they're going out with a bang. But what we really want to know is why they're going out at all."
For the answer to that, I'll defer to Ryan Hopkins, the manager at Fort Spokane for the past three and a half years. Ryan attributes the demise of the brewpub to forces from within and from without.
"The biggest problem was at the food end," he says. "We're just way down in our food numbers. It started to decline a little bit when the first couple of places [Chevy's, The Sawtooth Grill, etc.] opened. But the biggest hit was with Chili's. When Chili's went in there, it really hurt us."
But the fresh competition for food dollars was really only the latest in a long string of troubles at the Fort. It was in fact (and for some time) taking hits from several different directions.
The beer (brewed on the premises) had always been one of the profit centers of the business. And through a distributor, the owners were successful in getting Fort Spokane beers in the form of liter bottles into nearly every supermarket in the region. But success proved to be a double-edged sword.
"It turned into a situation very rapidly where we couldn't make enough beer," laments Hopkins. "It was a problem with capacity and equipment. There had been talk forever about getting out of this basement. We couldn't grow the business brewing beer down there."
If you've ever had a tour of the pub's brewing operation, you'll immediately understand this fine point. The basement under Fort Spokane is like that of many a downtown building of this vintage. It's cramped, wet and crumbling. Not exactly the optimum space to brew beer.
"The Department of Agriculture doesn't like it, the Health Department doesn't like it, the OSHA guys don't like it. The floor's coming apart, we're in spaces down there we probably shouldn't be, we're storing kegs under the sidewalk. The bottom line is that we outgrew the basement and didn't move fast enough to make something else happen."
The brewery was unable to meet the demand for its own product, and the shortfall upset customers and facilitated the loss of key accounts. But most devastating of all was the six batches of bad beer resulting from the use of yeast that was erroneously marked as "brewer's yeast" by the manufacturer when in fact it was "baker's yeast." The reputation of any brewery hinges on the consistent quality of its product. Sometimes, all it takes is one ruined batch to spoil years of hard work establishing a good brand.
Says Hopkins: "People really started wondering what we were doing. And we started losing customers there."
Ironically, the brewery was just gaining back the confidence of distributors and local beer drinkers when the new horde of restaurant chains invaded.
While all the problems with the food sales and the brewery elements of the business were waxing and waning, the popularity and the success of live music at the club was steadily growing. Again, Hopkins gives much of the credit for this success to Miller.
"On the live music end, it couldn't be better. Within the last two years, we really got the live music thing dialed in. We also opened things up to a more eclectic and varied music selection. Geoff had really got it all together."
Ultimately, the Fort may have been just too small to adequately accommodate and grow three individual (yet connected) businesses.
"Yeah, we've tried to do so many things in this little 30-foot-wide by 130-foot-long box. All sorts of ideas surfaced. You know, get rid of the brewery and knock the kettle room out and make that band or patron space. We could move the office downstairs and move the stage back another 20 feet. All these ideas came up, but we just couldn't get one to work for one reason or another."
Hopkins says that of all his experiences here, it will be the live music he will miss most -- those nights when stars aligned, the bands played all night to a packed house and everything fell into place.
"Those were some of the best nights we've ever had in here. All because we had three little local college bands that played for the door and split the money three ways. The sound guy would get his 30 bucks, we'd sell a bunch of booze and everybody would be happy. That's the thing I'm going to miss. When we all got together and made it happen."
& & & lt;i & Too Slim and the Taildraggers play on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 9 pm. Cover: $7. Seawolf plays on Friday, Dec. 8, at 9 pm. Cover: $5. Civilized Animal, the Bone Daddies and Mulligan play on Saturday, Dec. 9, at 9 pm. Cover: $6. Call: 838-3809. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
& & Right Over The Plate & & & &
& & FASTBALL & & is here to serve notice that album oriented rock music -- the kind that used to dominate FM radio before Britney, N'Sync and Bizkit moved in -- shall not perish from the Earth. That's not to say that AOR isn't represented on the dial. It's just that, well, it certainly has lost its lofty position in the Billboard charts in recent years. And what the hell, I needed an excuse to paraphrase the Gettysburg Address. The Austin-based trio will play Outback Jack's on Tuesday.
Fastball serves up accessible guitar pop that pays homage to the band's rather obvious influences. Vocalist/guitarist Miles Zuniga, bassist Tony Scalzo and drummer Joey Shuffield take Midwest alt rock a la Soul Asylum and mate it with Elvis Costello-styled vocal inflections. The results are comfortable enough to draw you in and engaging enough to make you want to hang around for a while. This is mostly due to the formidable songwriting talents of Zuniga and Scalzo.
The band's follow-up album to 1998's smash All the Pain Money Can Buy was purposefully formulated to provide listeners with an experience that maintains its luster after multiple exposures. Guitarist and vocalist Miles Zuniga describes the concept behind The Harsh Light of Day.
"Instead of tailoring the music for short attention spans," he says, "we tried to make an album that holds up well to extensive listening, kind of cinematic, where you notice new themes entering the frame each time you see the film."
The result is somewhat more subdued and gentle compared to the album that spawned the singles "The Way" and "Out of My Head." And more diverse as well. For the recording of "Love Is Expensive and Free," for instance, Fastball elicited the guitar talents of Brian Setzer and the big mariachi band vibe of Jose Hernandez and his orchestra. Even one-time Beatles sideman Billy Preston is brought in on piano to add dimension to the rinky-tink barroom sing-a-long, "You're an Ocean."
The Harsh Light of Day isn't especially ground-shaking or even innovative. Nevertheless, Fastball has created something that's relatively rare on commercial radio these days -- songs that resonate in the brain long after the dial light has gone out.
& & & lt;i & Fastball plays at Outback Jack's on Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 9 pm. Tickets: $6, advance; $8, at the door. Call: 624-4549. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &