The music scene is dead, long live the music scene

How healthy is Sacramento's live music scene following a recent string of high-profile venue closings?

Evan Clayburg and Sally Hensel are part of the collective that runs Third Space, a music and arts venue in Davis.

Evan Clayburg and Sally Hensel are part of the collective that runs Third Space, a music and arts venue in Davis.

Photos by Wes Davis

It’s just past 9 p.m. on a warm Saturday night along a stretch of Stockton Boulevard and the air in front of the Colonial Theatre swirls in a thick haze of cigarette smoke, chatter and muffled instruments.

Nearly two dozen are here, hanging out in between sets of their favorite bands performing at Cafe Colonial and its neighboring venue, the Colony, where inside both spots dozens listen to music. In one room there’s a mix of pop-tinged punk bands; in the other a thunderous cacophony of industrial-strength guitars and Cookie Monster vocals.

Not bad for a night of music in Sacramento—and that’s just on one city block.

Not bad, in fact, for a city that often gets saddled with a bad rap: There’s no place to play. There aren’t enough all-ages venues. No one goes to see live music anymore.

The latest wave of negative buzz started last year amid a string of high-profile venue closings. First Luigi’s Fun Garden in Midtown changed hands. Then bookers at Assembly Music Hall, a club that drew higher-profile touring acts to the downtown block of K Street, announced their departure. Marilyn’s on K, a longtime spot for up-and-coming rock, blues and singer-songwriter acts, was next after its owners decided to sell. Finally in December, the owners of Witch Room, the hip Midtown venue that only just celebrated its launch nine months before, announced the venue would soon go dark thanks, at least in part, to a lack of paying customers.

God save the music scene. There is no future, right?

Actually, no. At least not according to many local bookers and performers.

Josh Cox, for example. The 25-year-old took over booking at the Colony in December and now puts on an average of three shows a week. Some are well-attended—like this Saturday night hardcore show, for example—others not so much, of course. That’s part of the game.

The problem isn’t about not having enough places to play. He says it’s in a way of thinking. Maybe this isn’t a city where bands come (or stay) to get signed, get famous or get rich, but there are plenty of stages.

“Sacramento isn’t lacking in physical venues,” says Cox, who’s done time in local bands such as FFF and Ass Backwards. “It’s lacking in the mindset that OK, let’s do it and just have fun again.”

Maybe some musicians want to move beyond the $5 cover/crappy PA paradigm, however. Is having fun enough?

Bring on the funmakers

Sacramento’s music community has long fostered a scrappy DIY vibe. There are house shows aplenty. Coffee-shop gigs and basement parties. There are longtime mainstays such as Old Ironsides, Torch Club, Fox & Goose, Press Club, Blue Lamp and Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub. There are old places under new management such as the Starlite Lounge (formerly the Townhouse), and bars like The Hideaway now also book bands.

Cafe Colonial and the Colony, located on Stockton Boulevard, are two all-ages spots that regularly showcase local rock, punk and hardcore bands.

There’s no shortage of venues—but is the scene inclusive? Are there are enough places for hip-hop acts to play? Up-and-coming touring bands? And, of course, the enduring question: Where are the all-ages places?

Of all the venues that shut down last year it was, perhaps, Witch Room’s closure that sent out the biggest distress signals.

The music room’s March 2014 launch been widely heralded as a chance for the scene to elevate itself. Here, three partners transformed the former Bows & Arrows music/cafe/art gallery/boutique space into a spot that put its emphasis solely on the music. It had a professional sound system and a stage that offered great sight lines. It had a well-stocked beer and wine bar. It even had a green room. It booked multiple genres, all-ages shows and touring acts. It was polished and professional.

Polished and professional, however, doesn’t always pay the rent, and Witch Room’s expensive lease made business financially problematic, says Witch Room co-founder Liz Mahoney.

In the weeks since its closure, Mahoney, who launched the room with Olivia Coelho and Liz Liles, says she’s watched other venues and musicians step up to fill in where Witch Room left off.

“All these shows that would have been at Witch Room, were suddenly in other places,” she says. “There was never this catastrophic void.”

That didn’t particularly surprise Mahoney, who in the mid-2000s booked art and music shows at the cavernous Fools Foundation in Midtown. She’s also played in numerous bands and toured, most recently as part of Screature. This town’s most pressing need, she says, is an all-ages place that caters to the population at large. There’s no Cattle Club, the legendary ’90s-era dive bar of a club where young up-and-comers like Nirvana once shared a stage with local bands.

That doesn’t bode well for younger generations, Mahoney says.

“I feel bad for my 13-year-old son when I think of all the great bands that came through here during the ’90s.”

There are still bookers with similar goals. Across the Yolo Causeway in Davis at Third Space, for example, the vibe is spirited and eclectic in a just-making-the-rent kind of way.

For Third Space co-founders Sally Hensel and Evan Clayburg, the 4,000-square-foot building caters to Davis’ college town population with a DIY ethos.

The couple launched the collective in 2012. Hensel had been booking shows at Bike Forth, a downtown Davis bike collective, until permit issues shut that down.

There were always house shows, but Clayburg says they realized they needed something with a little more staying power.

“The people who were doing [house] shows moved out and there was no place to play,” he says. The couple had recently moved in together and decided to do a show at their house.

“It was really cool to get those two different crowds together,” Clayburg said.

After, Hensel says, “we started trying to get a posse together, something more permanent.”

Initially they shared the space with another partner but recently expanded to occupy the entire building. Now, Third Space is entirely volunteer-run with decisions made by a collective. There’ve been a few bumps—after a neighbor complained, the group was forced to plead its case to the Davis City Council for a temporary-use permit that allows them to stay open as they work with the city’s zoning department. Even so, Third Space operates on a month-to-month lease and there’s always the threat that a developer will come in and buy the building only to raze it.

Until then, just about anybody can book a gig there.

There was the show last summer, for example, put together by a local high school teacher who wanted to bring in the Australian pop band Dick Diver. He’d never booked a show before, so Hensel handed over a “nerdy, anal-retentive checklist” and let him at it. The resulting show also featured locals G. Green and drew in a respectable crowd, especially for a Monday night.

For Hensel and Clayburg, it’s about creating the opportunity for creativity to happen.

“We want to have an open door to people who want to be funmakers,” Hensel says.

‘There’s as much support for venues as necessary’

Local musician Charles Albright has been playing and booking shows in Sacramento for years and, he says, the scene’s always ebbed and flowed.

“There are as many venues as there are a need and interest,” Albright says. “And there’s as much support for those venues as necessary.”

If people don’t start new things, new things don’t happen, he adds. And if people don’t support the things that are there, those things shut down.

And, while Albright says he was disappointed about Witch Room’s closure, there are still options.

“I don’t begrudge anyone closing,” he says. “There are always other places to take up the slack. We’ve lost some awesome venues but the shows can and do still happen. I mostly play at the Colony and Colonial and most of the shows that happened at Witch Room can fit over there, too.”

Josh Cox, who’s been booking shows at the Colony since December, says Sacramento offers plenty of places for bands to play.

Cox, the Colony booker, agrees. The options are plenty, he says, ticking off a list of places to see shows on a given night.

“The Starlite, the Press Club—places like that get it. Most of the people running those places are in bands themselves and they’re not in bands that want to be big, they just want to play.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, are the bands that do want to find some degree of commercial success. There’s also the lingering question of having venues that attract touring acts. For many, building a healthy scene isn’t just about local bands drawing in friends for a good time, it’s about creating a community that supports artistry on different levels, financial or otherwise.

That’s how Witch Room fit in; the room was as good—if not better than—similar spaces in San Francisco, Portland or Austin.

Bret Bair and Eric Rushing, the team that books at Ace of Spades, considered taking over the space but decided against it for logistical reasons.

Sacramento is a big enough town to support many different sounds and ambitions, Bair says, but it’s not easy figuring out the puzzle when it comes to booking shows and making money.

Bair and Rushing had also been doing shows at Assembly Music Hall but found its downtown location challenging. In addition to Witch Room, they also considered buying the Townhouse but ultimately lost out on a bid to buy the property. Now the pair has taken over booking at The Boardwalk in Orangevale.

“There are so many people out here,” Bair says of the suburban club. “They need a music venue.”

The all-ages club also complements the bigger hip-hop, rock and metal shows he and Rushing are doing at Ace of Spades.

“We needed a smaller room. At Ace of Spades, it costs $3,000 just to open the doors for a show; if a show doesn’t bring in at least 300 people then it doesn’t make sense to do,” Bair says. “We got offered a lot of shows that we just couldn’t do.

“With The Boardwalk, we’re going to work with bands that tour, established local bands, bands that have good word-of-mouth.”

Don’t fit into any of those categories?

Just plug in and play, says Witch Room’s Mahoney.

Venues open, venues shut down. Plug in, perform, repeat.

“You’re always going to find a place with a PA where you can play, it’s fine,” she says. “The scene just constantly evolves.”