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Northern Territories 

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & Y & lt;/span & ou can almost set your Julian calendar by RAWK's Final Four. Every year for the past six, the Spokane-based nonprofit does more or less five weeks of hot high school band-vs.-band competition beginning more or less on the second Saturday in January. Those particulars remain pretty much intact this year, though the circumstances surrounding them have changed dramatically.

For the first time since 2003, the competition won't be held at Fat Tuesday's, which closed last year. Rather than stay downtown, though, where RAWK shows at both the former Tuesday's and at the Big Dipper routinely pack the streets with listless youth, the nonprofit has moved the competition north.

Way north. The Service Station, a coffee shop, studio and concert venue where RAWK has hosted touring acts twice before this, is still in the city limits, but barely. Situated behind the Northpointe strip mall at 9315 N Nevada St., the venue sits just four lanes and a median from the lawless scrub pine frontier of north Spokane County. A bit further still and the land turns untamed -- all split-entry, single-family tract housing as far as the eye can see.

The location is a far cry from the image of Christian hard-rock urbanity that RAWK has fostered since its formation in 2000, but that doesn't bother Dale Strom, the organization's promoter in chief. He's employed some of the nonprofit's cleverest marketing to date in hopes of getting kids to make the trip.

Strom brought the competing bands to the venue as a way to hype them. The venue itself, just 16 months old and possessed of a massive sound system, is certainly exciting, even if the location isn't totally. RAWK is hoping that buzz will be great enough to translate from the competing groups to their fans. The strategy for success at RAWK is to essentially sell your way to victory. Bands are given blocks of tickets. The more they sell, the bigger their fan base. The most raucous crowd wins.

The most appealing thing about the venue, admits Strom, is the size. It easily fits 800, just about the turnout they're hoping for on the final night of competition, aiming to best last year's marks of around 500 for the four previous rounds.

Of course, without the familiarity, proximity and built-in draw of Fat Tuesday's, RAWK has had to put more emphasis into hyping the spectacle itself. Strom knows it's a hike to a venue largely unknown south of Francis, so in October, for the first time since the Final Four began, the organization held a five-night "showcase" of potential RAWK bands to weed out the unknown talent from the unknown dregs. "I think that's really given us our strongest field," says Strom, which he believes will attract stronger crowds. Of course, since it was held at RAWK's frequent stomping grounds, downtown at the Big Dipper, he's also trying to hook downtown kids on the competition itself, banking that a few who attended the downtown shows will want to make the trek up north.

"I don't think they're very well connected, yet," said Strom of the newish venue. He blames the lack of buzz on a dearth of industry types -- promoters, bands and journalists (guilty as charged, Dale) -- making the trip to the north side to see what the place is all about. Of course, with one jazz act a week on average, the occasional acoustic set and a 20-minute drive from downtown to see it, even with the hard rock Strom brought last year, the Station hasn't exactly commanded attention.

The venue will certainly have our attention for the next five weekends, though. And the first week features semi-veterans Cyrus Fell Down -- reason enough to make the trip.

RAWK Final Four 2007, Round 1, featuring Laodica, Fires of Scottsboro, Ambassador Nate, Cyrus Fell Down and Sean Saugen (non-competing) at the Service Station on Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7 pm. Tickets: $8; $10, at the door. Call 466-1696.
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