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The Year in Music 

A year of paving new roads in the local music scene.

click to enlarge The Riddle sisters closed Empyrean in January
  • The Riddle sisters closed Empyrean in January

The Places

You could argue that Spokane’s home for live music — the cozy living room of the indie rock and folk scenes — went away in 2011. The year was still brand-new when the music scene was dealt one of its roughest blows in years: the closing of the beloved Empyrean Coffee House. After fighting to survive at its original space on South Madison, and then moving to the Big Dipper on South Washington, owners Chrisy and Michelle Riddle called it quits in mid-January.

But without Empyrean — where every high school band and guy with a guitar was given a chance — where would the music scene’s new headquarters be?

It’s a question that remains undetermined as 2011 closes and 2012 opens.

It seemed that no venue could fill Empyrean’s shoes this year. But they tried.

A Club rose as a player this year with ex-Blvd/Seaside booker Bill Powers in place. When management changed about four months ago, he jumped to the Red Room — a fresh, comparably sized space one block away.

A new face, Quinn Tanzer, has appeared at A Club. Tanzer, who booked as “Save the Scene” for the last year, says the club is now trying to book larger national acts and is working hard to “educate bands on how to gain exposure and really launch their bands outside of Spokane while also in town.”

Tanzer says the staff there has worked hard on the environment and the atmosphere. “You walk up the stairs and there’s memorabilia and autographed guitars from Zach Wilde and Bush,” he says. “It’s a hard-rock-meets-machine-shop vibe.”

Tom Chavez, the brusque, fatherly cheerleader for the punk rock scene, proved that the Cretin Hop — or the Hop!, as it’s called now — is the biggest local champion for the all-ages scene. The venue moved to a gorgeous new space in late February and has hosted everything from raves to hip-hop and, of course, punk rock.

While many places — Mootsy’s, Carr’s Corner, the Knitting Factory — did continue to book on a consistent basis, Patrick Kendrick, of Platform Booking and Terrain, says 2011 wasn’t defined by venues. He points to Merlyn’s, a downtown comic book shop, the Garland Theater, the Globe Bar & Grille and the Museum of Arts and Culture — all new places that are open to hosting live music. (Leah Sottile)

click to enlarge music_BuffDeathBeam_young_kwak.jpg

Buffalo Death Beam

The Styles

Homages to older genres of music and a focus on electronica took Spokane’s music scene by storm in 2011.

Since moving back to Spokane, Jason Campbell and his band Mirror Mirror have become kings of the lonely-hearts club with their 1960s garage rock, and bands like BBBBandits breathed new life into instrumental surf-rock. Even bands like Buffalo Death Beam and the Terrible Buttons created folk-inspired melodies with nods to the dark and lovely music of the ’60 and ’70s.

But no style could complete with the surge in electronic music this year.

“It took a long time for electronic music to grab hold here,” says Justin East, a longtime Spokane music fan and half of the DJ duo Brothers of Midnite. “But I think any new genre — any new underground scene — is good for the city. Everybody is hungry for new music right now.”

East and his collaborative partner, Dan Ocean, are the only DJs in Spokane playing drag, witch, goth, and grime music, typically set to the backdrop of inverted crosses, fog machines and strobe lights at Mootsy’s. Their sets are a far cry from what most people think of as a DJ night.

“It’s not for everyone and we understand that,” East says. “It’s not like we’re trying to appeal to the masses.”

While the Brothers of Midnite’s taste in music is unique, the niche electronic scene is not. HeadyWorks and Dreaded Productions threw countless raves at the Masonic Temple, “Womp Sessions” at the Knitting Factory, and parties introducing dubstep to Spokane audiences.

Meanwhile, DJ Das 00ntz and his 20XX concerts, featuring DJs Yoda Pimp and H0bG0bl1n, dominated audiences at The Hop, effectively introducing industrial electronica to the masses. Even venues as unlikely as the Sons of Norway Lodge hosted raves.

“The electronic scene has got something going on every night of the week,” East says. “They have an organized niche, and they know what they’re doing, so they’re not getting shut down.”

East and Ocean say electronic music is here to stay in Spokane. But next year, they predict ravers will turn their ears to drum and bass. (Jordy Byrd)

The People

While music venues in Spokane struggled for momentum this year, a new place in Pullman, of all places, made some serious waves.

This year, the Belltower, an old church-turned-venue, has transformed the Palouse college town into a destination for indie music, thanks to booker Larson Hicks. His Stereopathic Music is responsible for the Birds on a Wire festival, and since he started booking in 2008, he’s brought well-known acts like Wovenhand, Dawes, STRFKR, Vetiver and Horse Feathers to Pullman. His shows draw hundreds of people, some even selling out the main room at Belltower, which has a capacity of over 400.

So how is a venue in tiny Pullman netting so many great acts? Isn’t that supposed to be hard to do?

“It still is. It definitely still is,” says Hicks. But his approach has served to counteract that.

“I think being honest and being helpful and caring … that sounds like standard, no-brainer stuff, but bars and clubs tend to get jaded to bands after they’ve been doing it for a while,” says Hicks. “Things get stressful with money and everything else, but it makes an enormous difference, from the band’s perspective, if you treat them well.”

Hicks is studious about booking. He even volunteers at bigger festivals, like Oregon’s Pickathon, to learn more and pick the organizers’ brains. The skills he picks up have helped him a lot, he says, and his approach has gained him some influential friends. One such person is Eric Johnson of famed indie band the Fruit Bats.

“He tells people that Larson and Stereopathic treat bands well,” says Hicks, who adds that Johnson often refers bands to him and assures them that Pullman is indeed a great place to play.

Hicks says that 2012 is still pretty open for him but that he’s shooting to bring in Joe Pug, Horse Feathers and Laura Gibson, all of whom are touring with full bands. (Tiffany Harms)

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