It’s a recent Wednesday evening and the downstairs bar at the Elk’s Lodge is packed. Two bartenders scramble to fill drink orders before the next set of music kicks off in the adjoining room. The crowd is not your stereotypical Elk’s assembly: they’re young, “alternative,” some with piercings and most in black. The energetic and appreciative throng is here to see Melt Banana, a speed-metal quartet hailing from Tokyo, Japan, best described as frenzied industrial noise with a hard-charging, spastic vibe.
Brian D’Agostino, 25, is called in to bartend at the Elk’s for larger events. Lately, due mostly to more punk and metal shows, he’s been working often; four times this week, he says.
“This is a good crowd, good to see,” says D’Agostino, navigating the bottles and taps with fellow bartender Joanne Boudreau. “I feel like it’s nice to have every type of crowd in here.”
When Melt Banana finally takes the stage just before midnight, Niki Payton, KBGA DJ of “The Local Music Show” and occasional show promoter, says, “This is going to be awesome.” Yasuko, the band’s female lead singer, shrieks rapid-fire lyrics over the throbbing guitar of Agata, a dude decked out in a surgical mask and a stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. They play a blistering set, trying to rattle the walls on which hang Elks of the Month and filling a dance floor more often frequented by ballroom and salsa dancers of a different generation.
A mosh pit forms, bodies thrash and one person dislocates his elbow, prompting the arrival of an ambulance and Emergency Medical Team that few in the crowd seem to notice as Melt Banana charges on.
Norm Laughlin, an Elk for 33 years, digests the scene and stands back calmly, unfazed. It’s good for the club, he supposes, to have more than 150 people in the room. Still, he can’t exactly relate. “When I was this age, I had just gotten out of the Army and was making a civilian life,” he says over the music. “It wasn’t like this.”
Finally, at the end of a block of songs midway through Melt Banana’s set, as the mosh pit comes to a dizzy stop, Yasuko’s voice hits a sweet note in a rare pocket of silence and says, “Thank you, Missoula. We were here in nineteen ninety…,” she pauses, forgetting the exact year, and looks at Agata before finishing the broken thought with, “…at Jay’s.”
The crowd erupts.
The legacy of Jay’s Upstairs hangs around Missoula like cigarette smoke on Friday night clothes; the scent brings back staggeringly fantastic and blurry memories of moments that will not and cannot be recreated, and are stubbornly hard to make go away. One of the main reasons memories of Jay’s are so bittersweet and long-lasting is that nothing has been able to fully take its place since the doors were closed for good in October 2003. In fact, when the Blue Heron closed shortly thereafter and The Ritz followed in May 2004, Missoula’s live music scene was left nearly as naked as the drunken crowd at The Ritz’s last show. Three of the scene’s largest puzzle pieces were taken off the board, leaving a fractured landscape. The relative stability engendered by the old establishments was replaced by a hodgepodge of house parties, temporary venues, expensive or inappropriately sized fallbacks or, worse, shows simply passed on by promoters due to the lack of a sensible space.
But the landscape is changing. Two months ago, Melt Banana probably would not have had a place to play in Missoula. The emergence of the Elk’s Lodge as a consistent venue for weeknight shows (weekends are reserved for more profitable banquets) is just one part of a new crop of options for promoters and local bands. The Elk’s hosts as many as three punk rock shows a week, with a capacity approaching 350 and a full bar. It’s a step up in size from other reliable venues, such as the Union Hall, located upstairs of the Union Club, which holds 100 people and hosts all-ages shows, and the Boys & Girls Club, another all-ages venue that can hold about 70. The newest incarnation of Area 5, a punk rock venue hampered by noise complaints and building code violations, has also recently debuted, this time in a new downtown venue (above Missoula Free Cycle) and with a new name: MARS.
Similarly, but with a different approach and on a larger scale, The Other Side, Missoula’s truest music nightclub, is having its own ripple effect on musicians and fans alike as it operates under new direction.
Added together—and combined with the multitude of bars that also host music, like Sean Kelly’s, The Old Post, The Top Hat, the Union Club and Hammerjacks—this abundance of available and appropriate space hints at the possibilities of a new day in the nightly music scene. The pieces may be markedly different, and more spread out, but the puzzle may finally be beginning to take shape again.
“It’s better now than it has been for a very long time,” says Payton. “Things have changed. I don’t think it’ll ever get to the point of Jay’s again, when you could just depend on one place to see a show seven nights a week. But after Jay’s closed, there was a real dry spell and it was a struggle. Bands weren’t stopping here anymore, figuring it wasn’t worth it. It’s not like that, finally. We’re out of that stage. There’s a whole new light.”
Josh Vanek, a promoter in Missoula for nine years and founder of the Wäntage USA record label, used to book all his shows at Jay’s Upstairs. That was the place and the setup was easy.
“At Jays, you marked it in the calendar, hung up some flyers and told some people and everyone came,” says Vanek, who notes Jay’s took a cut from the door and shared a portion of the bar. “It made us lazy. Jay’s was really awesome, probably in far more ways than it wasn’t, but it also had us in the status quo. We assumed there wasn’t anything besides Jay’s…[Since it closed] it’s forced some real practical discussions. I guess you could say we’ve had to diversify who we do business with.”
If stereotypes were followed, few would have imagined the Elk’s Lodge to be one of the venues Vanek would turn to for hosting punk shows. But Clayton DeVoe, chairman of the Trustees at the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks at Missoula’s Hell Gate Lodge #383, isn’t content with old-school impressions of his fraternal club. DeVoe is interested in money.
In 2000, the Elk’s Lodge was put up for sale due to financial woes and declining membership until DeVoe, owner of Alpha Real Estate and Lord’s Jewelers, stepped in to help turn the place around. His priorities for saving the building were to cut costs, improve facilities and maximize revenue from non-members. In pursuit of the latter, he made it a point to book more community events.
“The main goal since I’ve been involved is to revitalize the Lodge, and we’re trying a lot of things to fill up our evenings. It’s been primarily a mid-week thing with these concerts and it’s been working great so far,” says DeVoe. “But this isn’t carved in stone, though—make sure you note that. This is on a trial basis, but right now it’s been great.”
Jake Shear and Vanessa Parchen are in charge of booking at the Elk’s. When they heard in mid-March that Area 5 was shut down, it occurred to them that there was a piece of the music market in need of space that they could supply. Their plan was different from that of their predecessors—rather than charging a steep fee for use of the room, like the $500 reservation for weekend banquets, they proposed to take $1 per head from the door (or $2 for shows that charge more than $10) and focus on accumulating bar receipts. The idea came to fruition quicker than Parchen and Shear imagined.
“We had been talking about [how to host punk rock concerts] and Clayton was open to the idea. Then I got a call about a show [The Hermans and The Icicles] needing to be relocated that day from Area 5,” says Parchen. “The bands were in town, ready to play, but had no place to go. So we made the calls to get permission. Three hours later, the show was on.”
Word of the concert—and the Elk’s new business plan—spread quickly. Vanek was among those intrigued by the possibilities.
“The Elk’s Lodge has always been around, but there was a reputation of it being an expensive alternative,” Vanek says. “I remember going to see shows there in college, like Seattle’s Gas Huffer and The Cows from Minneapolis. It wasn’t frequent, but it happened. The room was great, good acoustics, but it was always expensive.”
When Area 5 was closed down, Vanek ended up talking with Shear and Parchen about moving his DMBQ show, another Tokyo metal band, to the Elk’s. The event attracted approximately 225 people, and Shear and Parchen say the bar made over $2,000 that night. At Melt Banana a month later, another show promoted by Vanek, the turnout was over 150 and the tally behind the bar was over $1,000.
For the last two years, according to DeVoe, the Lodge has operated in the black for the first time in three decades. Members have not complained one bit about the concerts and DeVoe has actually attended a few.
“They’re noisy,” he says. “But we have to change the image of this lodge to attract younger members.”
Parchen notes, “Before we started booking these shows I’m not sure people even knew we were here. On a regular night we can be empty.”
In fact, exactly one week after the Melt Banana show the downstairs bar at the Elk’s Lodge closes at 9 p.m. Boudreau, a self-proclaimed “Jimmy Buffet girl” who worked during Melt Banana, is behind the bar again and hasn’t seen a customer in two hours. Ben Harper plays on the stereo system.
“Tonight? Let’s just say I made enough to cover the gas for my ride home,” she says. “Barely.”
EVERY SHOW IS A BUSINESS PLAN
James Roof, known to most as J.R., doesn’t mince words when he talks business.
“On my shows I’ve never lost money,” he says, adding the one exception of a gig sidelined by September 11.
J.R. is a veteran of environmental and peace campaigns since the 1980s, having worked 14 years for Greenpeace and co-founded The Ruckus Society before moving to Missoula in 2000. He’s been promoting shows locally for the last four years, most notably reliable sell-out acts like the Gourds. The work had mostly been on the side and independent until J.R. recently took over booking at The Other Side, a music-only venue with a capacity between 350 and 400, depending on how the room is set up.
“I was hired to get this place running on more cylinders,” he says. “To put it simply: to make it more profitable. The way I see it, we’re a showcase nightclub. The band and the show is the main attention. It’s a matter of choosing who we showcase smartly.”
If the Elk’s Lodge is a new piece to the music scene puzzle, then The Other Side is an older piece that’s changing its place on the board. Under J.R.’s direction, the nightclub intends to host a series of larger, national shows, taking advantage of an intimate room suited specifically to music. He’s not looking to fill dates so much as he’s looking to be strategic enough to book only acts that can guarantee a full room. The Other Side charges bands $150 to use its top-of-the-line sound system, but otherwise relies entirely on bar sales for profits. J.R. has told outside promoters and local bands that he needs a 150 to 200 person headcount, minimum, in order for a show to fiscally work.
“Otherwise, we’re losing money,” he says. “The cost for running this place is high. I can’t afford to do a show and have an empty room. What I’ve told local bands is ‘we want you here, we want to support you.’ But it has to be the right show: Everything needs to be conceptualized well in advance, promoted aggressively and intelligently planned. Every show is a business plan and if the numbers don’t add up, I can’t do the show.”
So far, J.R.’s plan appears to be working. Hungis Productions, run locally by Jimi Nassett and Chris Henry, has hosted three consecutive hip-hop shows at The Other Side with national touring acts such as Atmosphere (400 tickets sold), Zion-I (275) and The Project Blowed Tour featuring Aceyalone (300). J.R. has also secured his own national acts, including Camper Van Beethoven and another local appearance by the Gourds in September.
“He’s trouble-shooting the problems,” says Nassett of working with J.R. “He’s running the show good and he has a presence where people listen to him; you know what you’re going to get. I think it’s the best room in town, best sound and best atmosphere. It’s professional.”
One side effect of J.R.’s business plan is the impact on local promoters and bands that may not be able to consistently hit his attendance marks. If a smaller act or specialized hometown event can’t guarantee a certain draw, then the drop-off to alternate venues is considerable. For example, most of the Hungis productions are weekend events, and Hungis’ step down in size, the Elk’s Lodge, is reserved on weekends for cash-cow banquets. Vanek’s largest shows typically draw right at The Other Side’s low-end, making them risky propositions.
“I’m a little disappointed about it,” says Nassett, who used to book his smaller shows at The Ritz before it closed, and then, pre-J.R., at The Other Side.
“How are we supposed to build up that momentum for smaller acts? There’s no room to try out great artists that may not have the big following. Our last couple shows, those should be drawing 300 to 400 people, so it’s been an easy decision. I haven’t had to pass on any cool shows, but I do foresee that as a problem in the future.”
Vanek chooses to avoid it altogether. “It’s more of a headache than it’s worth. What they’re looking for makes sense and I understand the business end of it. And I’ll take responsibility for not bringing them the level of professionalism or whatever that they may need. It’s stressful enough to promote a show [without having] to wonder all night if you’ve brought in 300 people for beer sales or if you’re going to have to pull your credit card out.”
Vanek says he’s “completely arbitrary” in the bands he chooses to promote, picking only those he’s interested in or thinks deserve attention. Vanek’s goal is to cover expenses, pay the bands as best as possible and put on a great show. He makes little money. In fact, none of the promoters interviewed said they gain any significant profit from shows.
“Are you kidding me?” says Nasset. “We’re not making any big money off this shit. I work three jobs, man. If I were making any money at all, I’d still be working two.”
J.R. is sympathetic, but he has a job to do. He talks about the need for competitive venues in Missoula, places for smaller touring acts and regular local shows. But it’s not how he foresees the future of The Other Side.
“The vision I have for this place is no different than the vision I’ve always had ever since I’ve been promoting in Missoula,” he says. “Basically, I think we need a real quality nightclub where we can see high-end national touring acts in an intimate setting.”
CALLING ALL AGES
The larger puzzle pieces, like the Elk’s Lodge and The Other Side, tend to occupy the corners, acting as the bookends that anchor the landscape. In the middle of the board, however, are typically a bunch of smaller, jutting parts that help to make up the whole. One of the more important variables of the nightly music scene is the availability of all-ages venues.
The Union Hall, Boys & Girls Club and MARS are the three locations most responsible for filling that void. In each case, the rooms cost less because the dynamics of the profits change drastically—with no bar sales, all money to cover the space, sound and band pay comes solely from the door. Typically, if a venue that serves alcohol hosts a show with a minimum age of 18, a $2 surcharge is added to the entry fee of those under 21. But if an event is open to all ages, it’s completely dry.
“We don’t allow alcohol at all,” says Victor Sheely-Morales, proprietor of MARS with partner Mike Doerner. “We are talking about having a juice bar with lemonade and fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee. But no alcohol is allowed from the outside and no alcohol will be served inside.”
Sheely-Morales, who started Area 5 in late 2002 with a similar vision, is a huge proponent of all-ages shows. The noise complaints and building code violations that crippled Area 5, which is located in a strip of warehouses at the end of a residential street, ended a long string of grassroots shows that drew diverse crowds of teenagers, adults and families, depending on the show. Sheely-Morales thinks his experience with Area 5 was a blessing in disguise.
“As weird and brash as Area 5 was, it was a locus for international culture,” he says. “When there were complaints and we had to stop having shows, our supporters—the people who know and love and really understand what Area 5 is all about—came out and asked how they could help. The attention actually assisted us in getting into the new space, and now we can bring out all of the same things as before without any of the hassles.”
MARS, which stands for Musicians and Artists Resource Society, currently holds approximately 50 people. The goal is to eventually move into the basement space and hold concerts with a capacity of 300, Sheely-Morales says.
MARS is also run as a non-profit. Sheely-Morales coordinates with bands and promoters on a show-by-show basis to determine costs and room fees, and he currently takes $1 from each ticket sale to help cover his out-of-pocket investment into the new space. There is no room deposit or flat fee for the room. In the future, Sheely-Morales envisions all door proceeds going directly to bands, with snack-bar profits paying for the space.
“Our rent is so good that we just want to pass that on to the bands and the public,” he says. “That sounds so cheesy, but it’s true.”
Sheely-Morales adds, “We’re going in a great direction. This town needs as many open spaces for art and creativity as possible and we found when Area 5 closed just how valuable MARS will be to the community.”
The Boys & Girls Club has also recently been more active in booking local shows. Max Allyn, lead singer for local band Casual Drama and a sound engineer/mentor at the facility, juggles the additional task of booking the occasional show at the club, including the recent No-Fi Soul Rebellion concert inside cozy Higgins Hall. That show was originally slated for a different venue, but was switched because of the club’s flexible booking arrangement.
“We don’t even have an up-front fee,” says Allyn, noting the Club’s mission to provide an outlet for teenagers. “I’d like the club to make some money, sure, but the band needs to get paid and the promoter needs to make back his money. Usually, it all works out. But we’re not in this for profit. We do it to put on a good show.”
The Union Hall, which holds 100 and charges a flat fee of $100 (plus a deposit) for use of the room, has been a long-time option for all-ages events. The room is bare bones, but cheap and available. As Payton says, “I think it’s a cool room because we can use it. There’s something so punk rock about not caring what it sounds like in there. Just having a place to play is what counts.”
Bruce Morris, president of the Union Hall Company, is in charge of booking shows for the Union Hall. He says he gets about two calls per week inquiring about availability.
“It’s mostly a community service for us,” says Morris. “We don’t make a lot of money off of the deal. About 15 or 20 years ago the unions decided we should open up our spaces to the community just because we can and we thought there may be a need.”
Although it is situated above the Union Club, which serves alcohol and stations a bouncer at the front entrance, Morris says no alcohol is allowed upstairs.
“We’ve only had issues once or twice,” he says, “and those folks haven’t been invited back. But the problem hasn’t been the underage kids. It’s always been the over-21 crowd that we’ve caught trying to bring their drinks upstairs.”
That situation is a double-edged sword for Payton, who recently promoted an all-ages bill at the Union Hall headlined by Seattle’s The Lights. “I’m all about the all-ages thing,” she says, “but it gets really frustrating sometimes. I’ve seen so many shows where my friends are all there, but they’re trying to get a beer downstairs between sets and they end up missing good bands just to try and get a drink.”
Then there’s the fact that there’s little reward for hosting an all-ages show. In addition to being less profitable due to the lack of bar receipts, Payton notes that teenagers aren’t attending in noticeable numbers.
“I think you need to make this accessible. It’s great music and there’s a younger crowd that comes, for sure,” she says. “But I’m shocked there are not more kids going to shows in a town that has four high schools.”
So, why do all-ages?
Because the next generation of concertgoers has to come from somewhere.
PLAYING THE PUZZLE
Max Allyn spends a lot of his time working at the Boys & Girls Club, but his real passion is playing music. Casual Drama has been around for three years—just long enough to witness the closing of Jay’s Upstairs, the looser years of The Other Side, the dearth of available spaces and the recent resurgence of places like MARS and the Elk’s Lodge. As someone trying to book as many shows as possible to build an audience for his still-developing band, Allyn seeks options—opening slots for national touring bands, smaller local gigs to headline, informal house parties for fun and even an upcoming show in the parking lot of the Armed Forces recruitment center—anything to gain exposure.
“When Jay’s closed a lot of us realized we actually have to start working at this,” he says, echoing something Vanek had said earlier. “Maybe some bands got lax on their scene, but it was just a matter of finding new places. I didn’t really see myself, our band, as much a part of the Jay’s scene as others, but I can recognize where it had a hangover affect. It wasn’t only the music. There was a whole social scene that was part of Jay’s and that’s probably suffered more than anything else.”
While more venues are presenting themselves, it’s that social sense of community that Allyn feels remains unfulfilled.
“Nobody’s really interested in creating that scene again,” Allyn says. “There are more places to play—or at least the same places as before being easier to play—but it’s all about money. There’s money to be made and they’re taking advantage of that. It’s the scene that still needs working on. Maybe it will be MARS that steps up, or someplace else. But that’s what’s still missing.”
Casual Drama recently played one of the first shows at MARS in front of approximately 35 people, and their next big show is opening for Maverick Records’ City Sleeps at the Elk’s Lodge.
Allyn stops short of describing his band’s options as unlimited, but he does acknowledge that, finally, the puzzle is filling out.
“It can still be better,” he says. “Anyone who plays music in this town can tell you that every place that’s booking today has some quirks—just some real strange, weird management things, some limitations that are less than ideal. But there are ways to make it work and find what fits for a show. It could be better, but I’m digging how it is right now.”