We'd rolled up a half an hour earlier and been greeted from the street by this mass of bodies. The main door stood ajar, held open by the leg of some dude who was watching Olive Green, a sweet-sounding, diminutive redhead wearing a spazzy-colored J-Pop sweatshirt. The guy wasn't trying to air the joint out, he just couldn't get any farther inside the place and still see.
It took that entire half-hour to find a suitable place to stand -- we ended up weaseling our way behind the bar, posting up near the exotic teas and trying our best to stay clear of the on-duty shot-slingers -- settling in just as Fairbanks was surveying the crowd's show of hands. "I definitely don't think Empyrean's ever had this many people from Whitworth before," she mused.
Neither has any other downtown venue. Except maybe Caterina Winery.
The last time Dane Ueland played.
Ueland -- a Whitworthian and and buzz-magnet with only one show downtown under his belt -- was the main attraction here as well. The sight of this audience, though, had the more ambitious musicians in attendance (and the one onstage, it seems) looking the way pack animals regard distant prey. "So ... to get Whitworth kids out," whispered pianist and songwriter Kaylee Cole, "you have to put on a free show with other Whitworth kids playing." In a songwriter scene where two or three venues host the majority of shows, this gaggle of hip, moderately attentive strangers was fresh meat.
There's the sense in Spokane that, despite being some of the most musically engaged fans in the area, Whitworth students never leave the grounds of their University. Ueland himself told me he rarely makes it south of Francis Avenue -- no car -- much less downtown. Vi Nguyen, the campus activities coordinator responsible for maintaining and expanding the legacy of pop concerts at Whitworth that Thomas Ruble built, said about the same. Chelsea Sweetin, a junior who works at the Saranac Art Projects and thus spends about two days a week in the core, said she had tickets to last week's David Bazan show, but didn't go. "It just depends sometimes on whether I've seen someone before." She'd seen Bazan last year, at Whitworth's Huxley Union Building (the HUB). "-- and also who's going," interjected Kelly McCrillis, another junior and former Inlander intern. "It's more about being around friends than just seeing music," he said.
There's also the inverse to consider, that -- despite the HUB becoming one of Spokane's great, if sporadic, small venues -- local artists don't really get up to the Presbyterian university to play. Nguyen wants to change that. Thomas Ruble concentrated his time and his budget -- a magical $40,000 purse supplied by the associated students, with no return on investment expected -- on hosting a few touring bands. Nguyen did the same her first semester. In her second, she wants to fill out her dates, fitting more small showcases with local singers into the HUB's coffee shop space.
I made this known to every pair of hungry eyes I bumped into at Empyrean that night. There were glints of excitement, but nothing more. People were out to see Ueland, to see if he lived up to the hype. (He seemed to.) The night was about art, not business. When I got to the office on Monday, though, business was on. Blinking on my computer screen as I sat down was a Google Talk instant message. It was Kaylee Cole. She wanted to know if I had Vi Nguyen's number.