Plight of the Raven 

Popular cafe and music venue announces closure

By now, Missoula music scenesters are almost numb to the cycle: enterprising promoters identify new venue for live music, build the room—stage, sound, etc.—to fit modest needs, cultivate the spot by booking a steady stream of shows, overcome some challenges, collect some pretty great memories along the way, and then, just as things seem to be hitting full stride, the venue closes due to circumstances beyond the promoters’ control. It’s happening again: The Raven Cafe, a popular Missoula coffeehouse/restaurant since it opened in 1999 and one of the best local spots to catch live music since a stage was erected in February, is closing Oct. 1.

“It’s a huge loss,” says Jon Markley, a local music promoter, Raven employee and one of those responsible for starting live music at the cafe. “We became the home for all sorts of weird little experimental indie noise bands that had nowhere else to play. Local bands, touring bands—we had some big shows. Now we have that hole again.”

“It just breaks my heart,” says promoter Niki Payton. “It just seems like part of an ongoing struggle to nail down a regular venue.”

“It’s horrible,” says promoter and International Playboys lead singer Colin Hickey. “We get one, we lose one. It’s the same old story. The scene’s taken so many hits, and this is just another one. What makes this so terrible is that it was one of my favorite places in town—good room, right downtown, just good people who worked there.”

“It definitely sucks,” says Shane Hickey, Colin’s brother and singer/guitarist for Volumen. “When [Chris] Bacon told me about it last week he said, ‘You know, I’m starting to get the feeling, like when Jay’s closed and the Ritz closed, there was a feeling that there was always another place. But I don’t know how many other places there are.’ You start to get that feeling after a while.”

The Raven Cafe is closing because co-owners and founders Gavin Mouse and Rose Habib are, according to Mouse, “just ready to move on”; the business is for sale for $99,000. After building the establishment as a low-overhead coffeehouse and billiard hall in 1999 it slowly evolved, mostly through public demand, into a full restaurant with a coveted cabaret license. But, Mouse admits, “There’s definitely some mojo involved in running a restaurant—and we don’t have it.”

Late last year, to help increase traffic, Markley and fellow employee Mike Gill (also a member of local rockers Victory Smokes) approached their bosses about hosting live music. After a successful test run with a Playboys/Victory Smokes/Racetrack show, Mouse decided in February to build a full stage, add lighting and rearrange the venue to host music regularly. The shows were a huge hit, but not enough of a moneymaker to sustain the business.

“I could look back and be optimistic and say maybe we broke even,” says Mouse. “But not nearly enough to warrant staying open.”

Adds Habib: “It’s safe to say the only reason we’re still hosting shows now is because Jon and Mike have been so dedicated and diligent and responsible.”

The Raven is now following in the tradition of a long line of alternative music venues: Jay’s Upstairs closed in October 2003, The Ritz closed in May 2004, and Area 5 and MARS closed in March and June 2005, respectively. Similar to those venues, the Raven distinguished itself during its short but eventful run as one of the best rooms to see smaller touring bands and top local acts; it typically hosts an average of 10 shows per month. Markley and Gill were there for most of them, and looking back they point to some of the highlights: the Volumen CD-release show, featuring an opening lineup of four high-school and junior-high bands, drew more than 300 fans in March, and last month’s Magnolia Electric Company concert, which drew more than 200. In perhaps the best example of how The Raven serves Missoula’s music interests, Markley and Gill also point to the time they took a risk on a double-bill of lesser-known Brooklyn bands, Parts & Labor and Wilderness.

“That was one of those shows with a huge guarantee because they were from Brooklyn and we were nervous about booking it because nobody really knew of these guys,” says Markley. “But we went for it. People want to hear new things. Even though they were unknown bands, that really drew well. It turned out to be one of our better shows.”

Despite its busy schedule, the Raven enjoyed a remarkably clean track record with local authorities. After Mouse and Habib sold the cafe’s liquor license late last year, the late-night concerts adopted a loose BYOB policy—IDs were checked at the door, wristbands were distributed—and they still experienced almost no problems: according to Mouse, only one ticket was ever issued for underage drinking—and that was to a member of a traveling band who didn’t pass through the usual checkpoint. In fact The Raven’s biggest ordeal had nothing to do with alcohol or live music; during an otherwise tame evening concert, William Quealy, a transient known as “Uncle Billy,” barreled from outside through the front window, spraying shattered glass and attracting a curious Missoula County sheriff’s deputy to the scene.

“I thought that was going to be a short end to everything,” Markley recalls. “But once they understood what was happening, that it wasn’t our fault, it all worked out. My favorite part is that Bacon & Egg never stopped playing. Someone goes through the front window and they never missed a beat.”

Even with The Raven’s closing, local promoters are looking to salvage positives from the situation. Payton says, “It puts us back in that creative realm of finding somewhere else again.” Shane Hickey agrees, quickly moving past the fact that Volumen had pretty much resigned themselves to playing only The Raven. “I don’t know where we’ll play next, but we’ll find somewhere,” he says. “It surely won’t be as nice as The Raven. It’ll be some real shitty place that’s not making money and doesn’t care what we do as long as we’re not helping them make even less money.”

As for Markley and Gill, they’re not only left without a place to host shows, they’re also out of jobs. Gill seems confident things will work out. He’s still focused on promoting the last six weeks of shows at The Raven, and he’s already on the lookout for the next venue.

“I walk into businesses now and look at how big the room is,” he says. “The thing is, people weren’t just calling The Raven to book shows, they were calling us. We want to keep that relationship going and find a new place.” After a pause he adds: “I want to turn AmVets into a rock club. That’s underground, literally. That’ll work. Maybe that’s next.”

The Raven Cafe will continue to host live music through the end of September. The next show is Friday, Aug. 18, featuring Japanther, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Delay and Abstract Anthem.

arts@missoulanews.com

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