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Dec. 30, 2004


The Hum


Heading graphicAS ANOTHER YEAR STUMBLES TO A CLOSE, it's once again time for a furtive look over the shoulder at the last 12 months. At the risk of sounding negative, I'd have to say it was not exactly a great year for music in Humboldt County.

Sure there were bright spots -- there are plenty of fine musicians here, dedicated music lovers who do their best to keep people entertained and keep a scene alive, and scensters ready to party at the drop of a hat -- but forces, mostly economic, seem to be working against them.

Let's face it, running a bar/restaurant/coffeehouse is not an easy thing to do in today's financial climate, and it's seldom lucrative. Booking music adds to the complexity, and for some business owners it's just too much trouble.

The last year saw an increase in the shift toward DJs in many local venues, a move that makes sense, since there are fewer people and less equipment and expense involved, and people always seem to want to dance. The result: live music suffers.

I just took a look at a column I wrote around this time last year -- things didn't look any brighter then. The big story of 2003 was the oh-so sudden rise and fall of the Arcata Theater as a music venue. The place has been dark all through 2004, but there is a promise of good news there: new owners plan on re-opening in the coming year as a multi-purpose venue including live music, adding a much needed stage to a college town that offers little in the way of spaces designed for music performance.

That's not to say there is no place to go out in Arcata. Humboldt Brewery was resurrected as a worker-owned business with live music a few nights a week after closing unceremoniously at the end of '03. And the Alibi has grown in reputation, largely due to the tireless work of Ian, aka Francois, who fills the place with alt. rockers of various types, often under the auspices of Humboldt Free Radio. Both places have had jam-packed shows with fine local and imported bands, but both have an inherent problem: There's not really a dedicated space for the bands to play, no stage or other amenities, which means that only those crammed right up against the band can see who's playing.

Muddy Waters struggles on, offering a wide range of music, sometimes seven days a week, and that includes a thriving neo-jazz scene, along with shows by touring acts that routinely play much larger venues. But the fact that they are closed until the students return demonstrates their dependence on that niche market.

Mazzotti's still shows promise -- it's the only place in town with a real stage -- but aside from their reggae/dancehall DJ scene, and an occasional stellar show, the place hasn't really taken off. There still seem to be problems with the authorities, plus some sort of conflict between the restaurant side of the business and the bar/nightclub concept, and I'm sorry to say I've heard one too many tales from local bands about gigs canceled without warning or compensation.

Not to sound gloomy, but things don't look much better in Eureka. Rumours is rolling along, with music every week, and appears to be set up well, but does anyone goes there regularly? Club West suffered some sort of identity crisis, changing its name to 535 Nightclub/MVP Sports Bar, but with the exception of the new Blue Collar Jam Wednesdays with Clint Warner and an occasional live show, the place is still basically the same disco.

It's sad to see the old brick building that once housed the vital Old Town Bar and Grill dark again, but it comes as no surprise. The place still hasn't seen its long-overdue earthquake retrofit and I'd have to say, Six Rivers Old Town didn't stand a change once the owners sold their brewery in McKinleyville.

Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville is one of the rare bright spots in this dark litany. The new owners have cleaned the place up nicely, and working with Lincoln Wachtel and others, are booking some top-flight shows there, but everything is not rosy. The music room still needs some extensive (expensive) improvements, an elevated stage and improved ventilation for starters. And again there's the heavy hand of "the authorities" at play. You might not have noticed, but the brewery has nothing booked for New Year's Eve. That's because the Alcoholic Beverage Control folks have a 12:30 a.m. curfew in place, at least until spring, apparently only because of noise issues. It might seem odd that the ABC has taken on the role of noise police, but that's the way it is, and not just in McKinleyville. I've heard the same complaint from several other business owners.

As always, music events on the HSU campus dominate, and the range of styles represented has grown with Associated Students Presents shows (most of them booked by Michael Moore, Jr.) augmenting the CenterArts season, which does not seem to be aimed at the youth-student crowd. It's often hard to get tickets to the CenterArts shows unless you act far in advance, and the cost has gone up, although I have to point out, ticket prices have gone up everywhere. Musicians want (and deserve) more money, and you can just imagine what it costs to fuel up those buses and semis. Just take a look at the Chronicle's pink sheet and you'll see that the big name acts who play at the Van Duzer for $35 or $45 charge the same price in the city for venues twice or three times larger.

There's a bit going on outside the Arcata-Eureka sphere: I have to say things do not look so bright out in Manila, where the Placebo is holding on for dear life with constant worries that one more complaint from a neighbor will turn the tide against them. The recent flare-up in which most of the Manila Parks and Rec board quit adds more worries, since the beleaguered rec coordinator is the person who initially invited the Placebo kids to set up shop in the community center.

Blue Lake is rising again with cool shows in the tiny Logger Bar featuring local bands. There's also potential in the opening of the Sapphire Palace, a new large room at the Blue Lake Casino. And Blue Lake's Red Radish has become the area's de facto folk venue. Add to that a move toward house concerts, and an infusion of new blood, and the folk scene in general seems to be blossoming.

The saving grace in all this relates directly to the growing number of house concerts. People want to play music and people want to hear music -- all they have to do is get together. And those who love music will always find a way. The DIY ethic has always been strong in Humboldt, and a dearth of venues can only serve to make it stronger.

The last show I went to was not in a nightclub or a coffeehouse, it was a house party. Four wild and crazy bands played, one came here all the way from Japan, all of them created music with passion and abandon with, as Frank Zappa put it, no commercial potential. It was music designed to upset the neighbors, but no one complained; it roared on until all were satiated, too tired to go on. The whole thing was simply for the joy of making music -- and isn't that the way it should be?


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