Presto, Change-O!

by Mike Corrigan

Derek Almond got his wish last week. And the keys. The young Spokane entrepreneur, known to downtown lunch crowds and local live music fans as the indomitable force behind Caf & eacute; Sol & eacute;'s intriguing menu and eclectic evening entertainment schedule, has, after some negotiation, finalized a lease agreement with owner Steve Spickard for operation of the Big Dipper. On Friday night, Almond will officially re-establish the Dipper's full-time live music venue status with an all-ages show featuring More for Me, Toby, American Zero, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Rock Ness Monsters.

"I've got the lease in my hand right now," says Almond. "I'm leasing the building and will now be in charge of running everything. I've got my own cabaret license. I've got sound, power and light. I'm basically taking over."

If there's one music venue in town that enjoys almost universal appreciation, it's the Big Dipper. Spokane live music fans get positively misty whenever the subject of "the good old days at the Dipper" is broached -- and for good reason. Those days (roughly 1989-97, if my foggy memory serves) were indeed good, a relative golden age in Spokane for live original rock/punk/blues/reggae/what-have-you. And the Dipper -- as one of the best-sounding and most accommodating rooms in town -- was at the center of the action. The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the club's demise have been widely reported in the local press but basically boil down to two fundamental problems (as perceived by city officials): noise and inadequate crowd control.

Expectations concerning the re-opening of the Dipper have been inflated before, only to be dashed on the jagged rocks of failure. But with Almond's dedication, obvious business savvy and healthy working relationship with local officials, the outlook for a successful Big Dipper renaissance appears good. Almond has a great track record with crowd control at his Caf & eacute; Sole shows. Big Dipper shows will all start early and end early (by 10 pm in most cases), so noise shouldn't be a problem. And since the all-ages venue (which Almond and Spickard are calling an "urban grange hall") doesn't serve any beverages stronger than water and juice, alcohol-related problems should be non-existent.

Aside from the club's new all-ages, alcohol-free status, Almond says he'll be making very few changes to the venue itself.

"We aren't changing the name or anything inside," he says. "We've done some painting and a lot of cleaning. But it's still the Big Dipper. We want to return it to the grandeur of its heyday before it died."

And that includes mixing up the live music choices. Almond says he'll be expanding his already diverse music offerings to include everything from rock, punk and reggae to techno and hip-hop. Though the Sol & eacute; restaurant won't get moved into the Dipper until the first of September, the music has already commenced (check this paper or for shows).

"It's an ideal venue to check out live music," says Almond. "And I mean, everyone has great memories associated with this place. It's right downtown. It's the Dipper."

Hip and Happy

The dark horse of Canadian alt-rock is back with a new album and a U.S. tour. Canada's Tragically Hip have managed what few bands in the modern music industry climate have -- a rewarding rock career that has almost nothing to do with mainstream success and almost everything to do with great songs and impassioned live performances. Politically aware, introspective and smart, the Tragically Hip's songwriting has always explored individual struggles, Western culture and world issues from a deeply personal, decidedly north-of-the-border perspective. The latest addition to the band's long discography is the wonderfully brooding and luminous In Violet Light (on Zoe/Rounder). In support, the band has launched a 20-city U.S. tour, including a stop at Spokane's Met Theatre on Wednesday night.

Like the rest of the band's lineup -- Gordon Downie (vocals), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums) -- guitarist Robby Baker has been with the Kingston, Ontario-based Tragically Hip since its genesis in the early 1980s. Hugely successful in Canada, the Tragically Hip has flirted with broad stateside appeal, although its members tend to define success in their own terms.

"I felt successful the first time we strapped on guitars and made a good noise together," says Baker. "Then we wrote a song, and I felt like that was successful. And when I walk offstage after a show, I know whether it was a good one or not. It doesn't matter how many people were there or how loud they screamed or how much merchandise we sold. We never really needed anyone else's approval."

The hoops that the Tragically Hip's contemporaries (such as fellow Canadians the Barenaked Ladies) had to jump through to reach American audiences weren't in the least appealing to Baker and his bandmates.

"Mainstream success is something that's there," he says. "And if that's something you really dream of, and want to go for, you can do it. The Barenaked Ladies wanted that -- they set out to do it and they did it. It took them three years of constant touring and doing the in-stores, kissing hands and shaking babies. But they did it. And more power to them. But there are some things that we've just never felt comfortable doing. We get up on stage and play a rock 'n' roll show. We write songs and make albums. Anything beyond that feels awkward to us. It's been to our detriment as far as mainstream success. And yet we sleep very well at night."

The band's one moment of extreme visibility was its appearance on Saturday Night Live during the tour for 1995's Day For Night.

"I guess there was a certain level of compromise in that," Baker admits. "TV takes you out of your natural realm -- a stage, a theater, a club, an arena, whatever. It's weird, because we had to do the songs over and over so they can get their camera cues, and rehearse to get them both down to under four minutes apiece. So it felt strange. But we did it and we had a great time. And for a couple of weeks after that, we had lots of people coming out to the shows, because suddenly we had this stamp of approval. But after a couple of months, they dropped off and we were left with the people who really loved our music. As it should be."

After years of playing industry games with major labels (MCA, Atlantic), the band has finally found an American indie (Rounder) that seems to appreciate the Tragically Hip's frequently indefinable charms, that believes in the once-dominant (now nearly extinct) industry concept of band development.

"Rounder supports us in whatever we want to do," Baker says. "Their thinking isn't driven by sales. When we first got signed to MCA in '88, they had a very forward-thinking A & amp;R guy -- who of course didn't last -- who told us that we weren't the kind of band that was going to have a huge hit song, that we weren't going to be on MTV. What we were going to do was go out and tour and over the course of four or five records, we would build up a loyal following and eventually, the mainstream won't be able to deny us anymore and would kind of grudgingly let us in. He was exactly right. That's the kind of band we are."

Bald is Beautiful

In music, sometimes ridicule is the sincerest form of flattery. Just ask Moby, who gets slammed in Eminem's new single, "Without Me," as an irrelevant, bald-headed 36-year-old.

"I think it's funny," Moby says. "I haven't seen the video, but I've seen the footage of him dressed up like me. And it certainly is not something that troubles me. I was just sort of flattered and amused that he would make the effort to diss me. The irony, of course, is that Dr. Dre, who writes the songs and produces his records, is 38."

Moby can afford to dismiss the diss because despite what Eminem says, there's little disputing the impact Moby has had on popular music in recent years. The latest manifestation of his musical vision is the Area 2 Festival, which makes a stop at the Gorge Amphitheater this Friday. Sharing the headlining stage with the most visible man in techno will be the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie, rapper Busta Rhymes and the performance art/music/comedy act Blue Man Group. The second stage brings dance, electronica and rock into the mix with a diverse cast including Ash, John Digweed, DJ Tim Skinner and DJ Tiesto.

Moby, a direct descendent of Herman Melville (thus his name), first made waves in 1991 on Britain's rave scene with the top 10 single, "Go." A subsequent deal with Elektra Records produced 1995's Everything Is Wrong, establishing Moby as a worldwide force in dance/techno/electronica. He followed up that success with the guitar-based, hard-rocking Animal Rights, which was widely panned and threatened to make him an outcast on the very scene he helped to popularize. Play (1999) and this year's 18 put him back on top with songs that combine blues vocals, instrumental tracks featuring dance beats and techno instrumentation, neo-new wave and hip-hop.

For his part, Moby downplays his own role in popularizing techno and other electronic, dance-oriented musical styles.

"I'm just trying to make nice records," he says. "That's really all I'm trying to do. If, in fact, I manage to sort of broaden musical horizons, even to a small extent, of course that's nice. But it was never my intention. I started out playing classical music and studying music theory when I was 10 years old. When I was 13, I was playing guitar in a jazz band. And then I played in punk rock bands. Certainly in the course of my life, I have made a lot of electronic music, but it's always been just one aspect of my musical output. So it always seems strange for me to be exclusively associated with the world of electronic music when as much as I love electronica, it's always just been one small part of what I do."--Alan Sculley