The sweaty, gleeful crowd at Andrew W.K.'s Palace set last Friday reminded me of the first shows I went to in Missoula as an 18-year-old college freshman, when I discovered the joys of dancing around like an idiot late into the night. I remember, too, being incredibly frustrated when shows were 21-plus. Even if the bands weren't great, anything was better than being stuck at home on a Friday night.
All-ages venues were dear to me then, and remain so now. When Zoo City Apparel closed its Main Street storefront in March, it seemingly took Missoula's last all-ages venue with it. But now a former DIY venue is rising again. On Sunday, April 21, the newly spruced-up basement below the Zootown Arts Community Center is scheduled to host bands Criminal Code, The Funs and others for an all-ages event.
ZACC Executive Director Kia Liszak says she hopes the nonprofit arts center can help keep all-ages venues alive in Missoula.
"I'm really excited about it. I was in a band for 10 years, played tons of all-ages shows and that's really important to me," says Liszak, who played in local group Sasshole.
It wasn't long ago that a previous tenant rented the basement below the ZACC as a private art studio, and frequently held DIY, all-ages shows. The space was called the BSMT, and bands like RVIVR, Thee Oh Sees and Bare Wires played there. The BSMT wasn't officially affiliated with the arts center, though. "The ZACC has never had control of the basement before, we only recently started renting it," Liszak says.
Anyone who remembers the BSMT shows will recall it resembling a dark concrete bunker. Liszak says thanks to some remodeling efforts, it now boasts a glittered floor, cloth-covered walls and a stage and sound system donated by Zoo City Apparel. Liszak says the basement makes for a better venue than the upstairs area, which hosts a bevy of workshops and art displays.
Besides rock shows, Liszak would like to see all kinds of events in the basement, such as theater productions. A grown-up puppet show is already slated for April 23. She would also like to put the "all" into "all ages" and have earlier performances that kids like her 6-year-old son could attend. She also emphasizes that the space will enforce a strict no-alcohol policy.
"I need to do everything right if I want to sustain this venue," she says.
Alcohol is, of course, the biggest obstacle to hosting all-ages shows in traditional venues. Missoula has plenty of viable performance spaces downtown, but Colin Hickey, the booker for the Badlander and Palace, says all-ages-specific venues are a far better option than bars for letting teens see live music. The only all-ages event at the Badlander is the annual Total Fest.
"Kids aren't very well behaved most of the time, unfortunately," Hickey says. "I mean, I was horrible before I got a job at Jay's [Upstairs]. I was there at 19 sneaking in drinks."
Hickey says if bands or promoters ask, he won't turn down 18-plus events, though they cost more because he hires extra staff to keep underage attendees in line.
All-ages venues start up and shut down all the time for many reasons, ranging from irritated neighbors calling the cops to problems with vandalism and underage drinking. But perhaps the most crucial ingredient to a viable venue is having people willing to run it. Liszak says shows in the upstairs part of the ZACC stopped when musician Tyson Ballew moved away last summer, and nobody else volunteered to take the reins. "Like everything in Missoula, a lot of great things, people don't realize that it's just the passion of one person, and Tyson Ballew was that person," she says.
Liszak hopes others will step in to help organize ZACC shows, since she doesn't want to take it all on herself. But she's already taken the first step in offering the venue to an underserved but dedicated segment of the local music crowd. Both Liszak and Hickey point to their personal experience attending all-ages shows as the reason to go through all the fuss. They simply want to pass on that experience to the next generation.
"I want to offer kids an opportunity to see great music," Hickey says.
As someone who still remembers that pre-21 time, I realize now that I owe the fun I had (and trouble I got into) to the volunteers and promoters who made those shows happen. It's good to see that spirit continue.