There's really no other way to say it. Live original music venues in Spokane --rock clubs in particular -- are at a premium these days. For as much as I try to put a positive spin on our various and ongoing local music scene agonies, it's hard to dress up this one. Spokane's live music scene has always more or less existed on the brink of destruction, precariously perched on a precipice and buffeted by a multitude of forces including audience indifference, club mismanagement and artist exploitation. I hate to sound alarmist, but the way I see it, the future of live original rock in this town is in peril.
Last year at this time, I was cautiously optimistic about the outlook for local clubs and musicians. But almost as soon as our 2000 Local Music issue hit the stands, the news came down about the demise of the Fort Spokane Brewery, which had recently emerged as a live music leader on the local scene. Following the Fort into oblivion was Boomerang's, which has since been transformed into an under-21 dance club.
Standing firm during this recent purge is Ichabod's North which, despite a few problems of its own, manages to hold on as a venue that dishes up loud, live original rock on a consistent basis. The Quarterhorse on West Second currently has live music on most Wednesday nights. The Double Dribble Sports Bar on North Division has sporadic original rock offerings.
"It's another lull in Spokane's history," observes Jon Swanstrom of the local band Seawolf. "It's kind of grim. But there's always been venues popping up and then dying. I think we're probably just going through another change."
Swanstrom has been involved in the local original music scene for more than 10 years. In that time (as the primary guitar slinger for bands like TFL, the Flies and now Seawolf) he's witnessed the best of times and the worst of times. He's seen the rise and fall of the all-ages scene, the opening and closing of nearly a dozen local clubs and the exodus of some of Spokane's best and brightest songwriting musicians to Seattle, Portland and beyond.
"Our luck hasn't been that good recently, except for Mootsy's," he says. "For Seawolf, we're just concentrating on out-of-town shows instead. We'll occasionally play at Mootsy's. It's pretty cool down there because it always fills up whenever there's a show, and they give you the whole door. They're all real honest. I like that about them."
Mootsy's -- a small, dark and intimate bar on West Sprague Avenue -- looks from the street like one of those places old sailors go to trade war stories and gripe about varicose veins. Seven years ago, Rick Turner turned the place into a haven for punk rockers, misfits and pretty much anyone with little tolerance for pretense and snobbery. Here they don't give a rip if you're a janitor or the freaking King of Siam. Everyone gets treated the same. But who could have imagined that this modest little boozehound hang would turn out to be one of Spokane's favorite live music venues? Not Turner, that's for sure.
"I keep telling myself, I can't believe I'm doing this," he says. "I hadn't really even planned on doing live music here because it was so small. Then we thought, oh we'll just have it like once a month for a special occasion. But now, I'm getting CDs in the mail [from bands wanting to play the club] every day. It's amazing."
What's amazing is this: Mootsy's has no stage -- just a tiny spot along one wall where the performers set up. It gets pretty cozy in here, too, for the bands and the crowds. There's no lighting system to speak of and only a rudimentary sound system.
"I know nothing about it either," Turner admits with a laugh. "It's kind of up to the band to make it work."
But Mootsy's is popular among patrons and performers alike and seems to thrive in spite of its shortcomings. The reason is simple -- and elemental to the success of any business.
"Well, we try to treat the band guys right," says Turner. "We're really straight with them, and we give them 100 percent of the door money because, you know, they're just blue-collar guys. They're just working their buts off, trying to get from gig to gig. When they leave here, they remember. Most bands that play here want to come back. So that says something about the bar."
Good club-band relations have also helped make Tom Capone's namesake pub in Coeur d'Alene one of the best live music venues in North Idaho.
"If you treat the bands poorly, you get a reputation for that," he says. "They all talk. I think that's why we're getting some of these good bands. They've had a good experience here, and we get recommended."
Along with notable local talent, Capone's routinely brings in high-caliber national touring acts, exposing area blues fans in particular to the kind of talent they'd normally have to travel to a much larger market to experience live.
"We're the local neighborhood bar over here," says Capone, delving deeper into the reasons for his pub's continued success in these shaky times. "And people still want to go out and do things. Five bucks to see a band is pretty cheap. In any major city, you're gonna pay double that. Our whole thing is just to break even at the door."
On both sides of the stateline, as the
number of rock clubs have dimin-
ished, the coffeehouse scene
(bolstered by the success of the Shop, Common Grounds and the Rocket) has flourished. Also, bars not originally oriented to accommodate live acts (such as the Blue Spark) have set up makeshift stages to provide yet another outlet for homegrown talent.
Still, what Spokane desperately needs is a well-run, smartly booked, medium-size club featuring local performers and quality national acts. Any investors out there with a deep and abiding love of live music? I can't think of a better time or a better way to signify such a love than with the creation of a new club. Like now -- while there's still a massive void to be filled. Spokane is littered with shamefully underused real estate. All you would need is a decent-sized room (strategically located and brought up to code, of course) with a bar, a makeshift stage, a few lights and a moderate sound system. All it would take is a little vision -- and some cash.
"People will go if there's a venue," says Swanstrom. "But I think that there's just not enough [investors] here who want to take the chance on that. I think maybe they're a little afraid. It's that risk factor, you know. And I'm not sure what it takes to get all those licenses."
Any entrepreneur worth his or her salt is bound to require some measure of assurance that such a venture would have a reasonable chance of success. And those kinds of guarantees are pretty hard to come by. But be assured of this, all you potential rock club investors: the bands are definitely here (just check out the list on these pages) and so is the audience. In our humble opinion, if you build it, they will come.
"You gotta just keep plugging away at it," advises Capone. "On some nights, you're gonna do okay, and others, you're not. It's a crapshoot like anything else. We don't depend on the music for our major focus, but it's the fun part of the business for me. I love it. And I'll keep doing it."