Survival of the hippest
Music venues in Chico have come and gone—what’s the solution to keeping them around?
It was the ideal scene for “being seen,” if you were into that sort of thing. At the least, it was a comfortable all-ages space to watch some live music
Like many a Friday, Fulcrum Records was teeming with kids on a cool night in late 2004. Porch, a band featuring guitarist Todd Huth, one of the founding members of Primus, had notified owner René Stephens at the last minute that it wouldn’t be able to play because Huth had cut his hand. It was a mostly teenage crowd—pimply faced kids with swooping mop tops that fell over their eyes—who stuck around to watch local noisemakers Botchii and Agent Meecrob, well, make noise.
The night’s bill was representative of what drew people to a Fulcrum show—an established local band in Botchii and a rough-around-the-edges high school band in Meecrob, both offered the chance to open for a national touring act, with the admission at just a few bucks a head.
Those were the days.
Fulcrum Records closed its doors last November after a three-year run supplying the kiddies (as well as the older kiddies) a cramped but cozy joint to call home. Clubs continue to drop like flies. And it goes beyond Chico. As you read this, The Space and The Dip, two longstanding all-ages venues in Redding, are about to go the way of the dodo.
And, with clubs like the new Market Café already hosting live music and Lost on Main opening soon, people in the local music and arts communities are still trying to solve the elusive puzzle of how to make a music venue survive in Chico. Many agree: The puzzle is made up of more than just a few business-savvy individuals. The common thread seems to be simply creating that “place” like Fulcrum Records—providing consistency and bringing in others, including the bands and a strong supporting staff, willing to do it for love.
While it probably won’t happen anytime soon, Stephens said she wants to take what she’s learned and make another go of it.
“I want to do something,” she said. “I love this town; I don’t want to give up on it.”
One of the major dilemmas facing all-ages clubs is that there are no booze sales to help cushion the high cost of renting space in Chico.
In the case of Fulcrum, Stephens was selling CDs in place of liquor and making “a decent profit with little overhead.” But big-box retailers like Best Buy came to town, all but destroying that component of her business. Fulcrum became a strictly live venue, with the paltry $3 or so she charged for shows going toward rent and utilities.
Stephens said if she were to do it over again (which she intends to do at some point), she’d make sure to use the space efficiently when she wasn’t hosting shows. Another key, Stephens said, would be to go the nonprofit route, which would make the venue eligible to receive grants.
Although it’s not a music venue anymore, the Blue Room Theatre annually receives a decent chunk of change from the city, averaging about $20,000 a year from 2001 to 2004. The 1078 Gallery (which recently added a live-music element) received just over $7,000 per year in that same span.
“Exploring grants could really make something good work,” Zeke Rogers, guitarist for local metal band The Makai and former member of post-punk band Stars Upon Thars, explained via e-mail. “Chico really needs an all-ages venue; it would be great if the city pitched in and helped out.”
While the city may not give out money automatically, the arts funding program consists of a yearly allocation by the City Council of transient occupancy tax (TOT) funds to arts organizations and programs in the Chico urban area for those who can present a strong business plan to the Chico Arts Commission.
Rogers, in addition to being the cofounder of the now-defunct all-ages venue the Do It Yourself Rock Garage (D.I.Y.R.G.), has made major contributions to the local music scene, creating the indispensable Chicolist (an online listing of Chico underground shows) and producing records for local acts at his studio The Black Lodge.
He said location is the key to an all-ages venue, as well as having a solid business plan, and that offering something in addition to music would remove some of the financial burden from potential club owners.
“For instance, a lot of coffee shops have been successful at having all-ages shows because their main business is coffee and drinks, and that’s how they pay the bills,” Rogers said. “Another idea would be renting out rehearsal time to bands.”
Moxie’s Café & Gallery had a long run of live music, but staying open later for shows was too expensive. Now the shop holds only an occasional performance.
The lifespan of music venues has historically been short-lived with the exception of places like The Brick Works, the Lava Lounge and Humboldt Studios which, by Chico standards, all had decent runs. And LaSalles has been putting on shows for decades and is still going strong.
The Burro Room was once described as being “to Chico what CBGB’s is to New York City.” But the club lasted only three years, closing its doors in June 1991, though not before hosting memorable sweaty performances from bands like Mudhoney, Steelpole Bathtub and The Afghan Whigs.
“Definitely in the case of The Burro Room, a couple of the early bookers got too excited with the Seattle sound rolling through town (Cat Butt, L7, Walkabouts) and booked anybody and everybody,” explained West By Swan bassist Conrad Nystrom. “Booking every night in a town like Chico probably doesn’t always work.”
Nystrom played classic Chico venues like The Burro Room and Juanita’s with his numerous bands, such as The Vertels and Disaster Scrapbook.
It was during the same time period that the one performance took place at The Blue Max: Nirvana on Feb. 21, 1990. The club, located on the corner of 9th and Main streets, where Herreid Music now resides, mixed it up with dance nights, reggae nights and a whole lot of rock. In addition to the Nirvana performance (played to only a handful of people, about a year before Nevermind blew up), the club was on an eclectic, month-long hot streak with performances from Chico legends Spark ‘n’ Cinder, Davis indie darlings Thin White Rope and Primus, which would release its now-classic Frizzle Fry a month later.
Then there was Juanita’s, which outlasted all of them. In a cramped space with a tiny stage plopped under a window facing Second Street, local bands like Trench went shirtless and played some of the loudest rock ‘n’ roll imaginable only a few feet from where couples now tranquilly sip their Schlumberger Cabernet Sauvignon at Monk’s Wine Lounge and Bistro.
CN&R Calendar Editor Jason Cassidy, songwriter and guitarist for bands like Cowboy, Pep Rally and his current rock outfit Holocene, said the reason Juanita’s remained a fixture for almost seven years (closing its doors in the summer of ‘97) was that it was consistent—there was a steady stream of bands playing regularly at the same location for a long period of time. “Somewhere along the way, it becomes ‘the place.’ “
Cassidy said one of the true blueprints for success in a music venue was the Blue Room Theatre—there wasn’t really any money to lose, it served other functions, it had nonprofit status, people weren’t concerned with getting paid, room was made for playing music and there were always two or three shows a week.
Music at the Blue Room came to an end, too, after some of the major players responsible for bringing in live shows moved on.
Is there a secret to making a music venue work? A magic formula, perhaps?
Cassidy probably put it best when describing what makes a venue succeed in this town: “The common denominator among all the places that have had any measure of success is that the people working there understood how Chico works. It’s more about the handshake and the party and having a good time than it is about contracts and contract riders.”
There does seem be some value in the “handshake and the party.”
To this day Brad Lambert, bassist for local punk band Gruk, is a perfect example of the tried-and-true DIY approach. He sets up countless underground shows for local and touring punk bands at places like The Hell House and Broken Glass.
And, on a larger scale, Off Limits has become the Juanita’s for a new generation of local musicians—a fun atmosphere that has become the premier music venue in town for the 21-and-over set.
On any given night bands like Machinegreen and Gorgeous Armada turn the premises, located just south of downtown, into “the place” while touring bands like Kinski and Calling All Monsters have found it to be an adequate spot to stop en route to San Francisco or Portland.
The club has gone through its share of changes over the past few years, morphing from sports bars in Bull Shooters and The Wild Hare into its current incarnation as a bona-fide music venue.
Mary Messina, the bespectacled “den mother” of Off Limits, has played a major role in turning the club a viable music venue, handling most of the booking and bartending since June 2004.
Like Juanita’s, what the club lacks in sound or stage it more than makes up for in personality. It’s become a major hub for local musicians—whether playing or supporting the other bands or taking in the $1 Pabst Blue Ribbons—while retaining the core of regulars who still utilize the pool tables in the back of the bar, even when the rock is blaring.
Off Limits came dangerously close to changing yet again, as an outside party recently expressed interest in turning it into an eating establishment. Bands and promoters refused to book shows past May fearing they would be cancelled.
“Off Limits would have died and I would have left,” Messina said.
Instead, it looks as if things might be getting better for the club. According to Messina, he current owners, Ken and Barbara Rensink, who bought the place in 2003, are holding onto it. And longtime bartender Ryan Horner is stepping in as the club’s general manager to help take some of the pressure off Messina.
Horner, a Reno transplant, started bartending in December of 2004 and said he took a pay cut to be able to do what he loves with a crew that seems to genuinely like one another.
“Once you stop having fun, morale, everything goes down.” Horner said. “But if you enjoy people and you can connect, it makes all the difference.”
Messina agreed with Horner’s sentiments.
“I want to be there, and I want everybody who’s there to want to be there.”
The two have already gone to work. The sports posters have come down, fresh paint has been slapped on the walls, the kitchen equipment will soon be ripped out, and plans are in the works to construct a new stage. They’re even providing a suggestion box for those who have ideas of their own.
The outspoken Messina doesn’t sugarcoat it when talking about the connection between musician, music fan, music promoter and music venue in a small town like Chico.
“You’ve got to come to the shows, kick down a buck for a band. Not only that, you’ve got to come down and play with people who respect you—who actually acknowledge who you are, are happy that you’re there—and have a good time and fuckin’ rock out.”
But one has to wonder sometimes if people are even going for the music.
There’s always that handful of scene kids who won’t go to shows unless the rest of the scene kids are going. And anyone who’s been to a decent number of shows can attest to the fact that a few complain about the price and, if they do go, hardly pay attention to what’s happening on stage.
The bar setting even has its disadvantages.
Singer-songwriter Aubrey Debauchery had this to say during a recent radio interview on KZFR’s Chico Butter: “We try to avoid bars because that’s where people tend to want to drink and not pay attention to the music.”
And with the constant turnaround of students in Chico, it can also be difficult to reach out to an audience that isn’t made up of musicians.
Katie Perry of Devil Kat Productions is always at shows—of course, she’s probably the one putting those shows on. She is well versed in the local scene, having booked hundreds of gigs for local and out-of-town acts at venues like Off Limits, and said it can be difficult to make it work in a town like Chico.
"[The students] rotate every semester, and I have to reinvent myself,” Perry said.
She said overexposure is another problem that sometimes plagues the local music scene—bands playing the same sets, with the same bands, twice a week.
Perry also booked the Riff Raff Rock Bar while attending Chico State and watched the demise of the short-lived music venue (located in the old Juanita’s) in August of 2003. “[Kyle Ulrich, who recently bought Mr. Lucky] kind of came in at the end to try and save it.”
Perry points out that owning a music venue is not a cheap endeavor and that there are many things to consider besides just paying the rent. There are the ASCAP and BMI publishing fees, sound guys and, of course, traveling bands that are used to city guarantees not available in the smaller venues in Chico.
The local jazz scene seems to have its own issues. Players say they’ve been stifled for years as they find themselves playing to dinner crowds that are perfectly content shoveling rib eye and lobster into their mouths instead of listening and appreciating the art.
“I don’t know why [local restaurants] hire jazz musicians to perform unless they hope it will imbue some sophistication. But the practical reality is that it just doesn’t work,” said Alan Chamberlain, a longtime jazz musician who’s played numerous gigs with his trio at places like The Black Crow.
Chamberlain isn’t shy about speaking his mind and said jazz artists don’t put in years of practice to provide a dinner soundtrack.
“I think there are plenty of people who would love to go out on a regular basis to hear jazz,” Chamberlain said. “But they don’t go to a restaurant for jazz; they go to a restaurant for food and beverage. If there’s jazz going on, even if they like jazz, it’s kind of annoying.”
Although 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz recently entered the downtown fold as a restaurant/ jazz venue, Chamberlain says Chico is still not living up to its potential as a place to watch live jazz.
The newly established Market Café (which moved into the old Bean Scene building on Eighth Street in December 2005) has the potential to provide the local jazz scene the shot in the arm it needs.
Patricia LaBreacht-Johansen, who owns Market Café with her husband, Bob, said the key to making the music work at the new space is keeping things limited to beer, wine and appetizers.
“Our whole focus is to come and hear the music,” said LaBreacht-Johansen, who was born and raised in Chico, has run several local businesses and even once ran for City Council. “And it’s from 5:30 to 7:30; we’re not trying to go all night long.”
In addition to live music, which Market Café began hosting in March, the business will also concentrate on catering and retail to help cover costs.
Chamberlain said it could be a good addition to the local jazz scene.
“I do know her to be a savvy and insightful business woman, and I expect her to succeed there,” he said, “She’s going to generate buzz, she’s going to generate foot traffic, and she’s going to generate revenue. And if she provides a nice home for some good music, that’s great.”
The local music scene is also benefiting from a new live venue downtown in a space that is accustomed to noisy rock.
Kyle Ulrich and Neil Andrus have taken over the Mr. Lucky building on Main Street and are looking to turn it back into a music venue, something it had strayed from in recent years. The space, soon to be called Lost on Main (after a painting given to Ulrich by the late Danny West), has changed hands several times over the past dozen or so years—going from Main Event to the 319 Club before it was purchased by Incredible Diamonds vocalist/ guitarist Matt Hogan in 2000.
Andrus said they are in the midst of some heavy renovation and that the club will begin hosting shows again in early May. He said they’re open to every form of music except for rowdier styles like punk and metal. The venue’s current schedule suggests a more college-friendly atmosphere, with a mish-mash of genres from bluegrass to hip-hop.
A little farther from downtown, 1078 Gallery Director Carla Resnick’s voice echoed as she talked about the gallery’s summer moving plans. Resnick stood in the empty 2,200-square-foot building on Broadway that 1078 Gallery will call home as soon as early June. The gallery, which has been putting on a diverse range of live shows over the past few months, will nearly double in space.
“Music is an integral part of the gallery, and so we’re going to continue that,” Resnick said.
The gallery will try to host one event per week, including a series of benefit shows to raise $50,000 to cover move-in costs, improvements and rent.
To Resnick, the location means more foot traffic and fewer frat houses and bars. She said bringing in the music (which is part of the gallery’s by-laws) will help both the gallery and the music community.
“We’re interested in exposing artists in whatever genre—music, literature or visual—to the community and exposing the community to them and really fostering a place for interesting things to happen.”
It all sort of makes sense, eh? The music scene is a collective effort of promoters, venues and musicians.
Just ask Messina, Off Limits’ self-proclaimed indie-rock soccer mom.
“I think bands as well as the venues need to step up their game, you know?” she said. “Take pride in what you do. It will be what we make it. If you don’t promote yourself, why should you expect anybody else to?”