Local alternative rock scene takes its licks and stages a comeback
By Greg Cahill
Tina–a skinny teen with three nose rings and baggy jeans that keep slipping to her knees–is moshin’ in the pit. Not a serious vortex-swirling slam dance, but a playful, mockish sojourn around the fringe of the knot of oddly subdued fans clustered in front of the Phoenix Theatre’s darkened stage.
In contrast, Mark–“just Mark”–the 18-year-old bass player for the Irish punk band Ash, is giving it his all. Dressed in soiled Convies, tattered jeans, and a Dumpster Juice T-shirt, his long, sweaty blond locks falling across his eyes, the punker reels across the stage like a drunken dervish as he stabs the air with the neck of his vintage Gibson Firebird bass guitar.
The cavernous venue–a one-time opera house and silent movie theater that now sports restored deco wall panels beside spray-painted graffiti art–is reverberating with the melodic punk of “Different Today.” The lyrical message is pure teen angst. The music is loud, fast, and hard.
It’s Saturday night at Phoenix Theatre–part concert hall, part teen center, part sanctuary–where local teens gather throughout the week to play video games, shoot pool, and garner sage advice from owner Tom Gaffe. It’s the heart of Sonoma County’s alternative-rock scene, a suburban punk emporium that over the years has provided a training ground for such nationally known local bands as Victims Family while serving as a stepping stone for the likes of Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Jaw Breaker.
In 1993, Gaffe turned down the volume, figuratively speaking, when he stepped back from handling the booking and left that duty to a variety of local promoters. The result, for the most part, was a string of weekend shows almost exclusively devoted to local hardcore punk, hard rock, and ska bands. That has been good news for such struggling, homegrown alternative rock bands as Caffeine, the Conspiracy, and Blind Spot.
But other than an occasional national act like Fish Bone or Gwar–usually sponsored by Associated Students Productions of Sonoma State University–the shows there have kept a distinctly local flavor.
The person responsible for the new turn of events at the Phoenix Theatre is Glenn Rubenstein, 19, of Petaluma, the in-house booking agent and promoter. Soft-spoken and businesslike, he hopes to bring the venue back to its glory days when thrash-metal kings Metallica opened their 1991 world tour at the Phoenix and punk-funk masters Primus spent two nights warming up for a headlining spot on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour.
Rubenstein still plans to book local bands, but also wants each month to book four or five national acts that travel between San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest. He scored his first major coup just a few weeks ago when the Rentals–led by Weezer bassist Matt Sharp and signed to Madonna’s Maverick label–played the theater just as the band’s single “Friends of P” leapt into the Top 10 of the college radio charts.
“It was so last-minute,’ says Rubenstein, a Casa Grande High graduate and video game reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner. “I saw their video once on MTV and said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get them at the Phoenix?’ and called their booking agent. By the time of the show, there was a story on ‘MTV News’ that mentioned they were playing in Petaluma.
“In a way, that show has kind of blown open this chance to have huge bands–obviously not the Elton Johns or someone like that–but the kind of up-and-comers that the Phoenix was accustomed to having in the past.”
Two weeks ago, he landed Ash and China Drum, a British punk trio, both on major labels and seeking to garner the kinds of record sales that the San Francisco-based Green Day has elicited with its watered-down version of British-style punk.
It was a rather shaky summer that saw the dissolution of Cafe This in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, a storefront nightspot the size of a typical suburban living room, where teens lounged on overstuffed sofas, sipped Brain Drain natural sodas, and listened to touring Sub Pop acts. Its demise was a major loss, considering the slim number of local venues hosting alternative music acts.
The reinvigorated Phoenix Theatre–and other recent developments–herald at least a hope that things may get back on track for those music fans whose taste runs more towards Dieselhed than the herd of singing cowboys who cater to the 4X4 pickup crowd at local concert halls and nightclubs.
“There aren’t a lot of places to play, and for bands it is a struggle, but that’s not only true for here–it’s true for the entire Bay Area,” says Rubenstein. “If you look at things, we haven’t seen a lot of Bay Area success stories over the past few years, certainly not in the same way as Seattle or Los Angeles or other bigger music metropolises.
“Even if you look at San Francisco itself, there are very few places for local bands to get good exposure because they’re competing with big bands that are coming through. In some ways, one of the things we’re trying to do to prevent that kind of competition from happening is to give local bands an opportunity.”
Ironically, one of the most likely substitutes for the punk and trance-pop scene that once revolved around Cafe This may come from a group of ambitious young musicians and artists who grew disillusioned with what they saw as the inside politics at Cafe This. The Independent Arts Coalition plans to open an all-ages, no-alcohol, drug-free community center–probably in Santa Rosa’s industrial district–devoted to nurturing local alternative arts and music. “Until we do lure a few more artists into our, shall I say, sinister plot, it mostly focuses on music,” explains Erin Mayer, 20, an SSU student and full-time department store clerk who is booking some of the IAC shows. “It will be like the Phoenix, but on a smaller scale and run by volunteers.
“We’re hoping to be able to feature a lot more local shows, mostly aimed at high school and college students.”
Thus far, the non-profit IAC has raised $6,000 of its targeted $10,000. In the past, the group has held shows in Sebastopol and Monte Rio, including the recent Ruckus on the River, which featured almost a dozen local alternative rock, rap, and reggae bands. The organization’s next benefit concert on Friday, Dec. 8, at the Phoenix Theatre will feature seven local bands: the Invalids, Kid Dynamo, Ground Round, Mickey and the Big Mouths, Allegiance to None, Foray, and the Block Heads.
“We plan to focus on independent bands, those with no corporate affiliation–mostly people like us who are putting out our own music and shows with little or no corporate support,” adds Mayer, bass player with the now-defunct band the Twerps. “This country already has a large network of places like this, catering to local and touring acts. We just want to be the place where people can come to Santa Rosa and play a well-advertised show. I went on tour this summer [as manager of the Invalids] and saw many venues that are similar to what I want to help create through the IAC. That was a real kick for me. But the real driving force is that we’re starting to see that it can happen. People with almost no organizational skills or any connections or sponsors have raised $6,000 in the past year.
“That’s something that keeps you going, when you realize that you can actually start doing stuff.”
While the Phoenix Theatre struggles to stay afloat–in the past, the venue has hosted a series of benefit shows to pay off its huge electricity bill–the IAC is taking a fiercely anti-commercial tack. “I started booking for the same selfish reason a lot of people like me do, which is that there are shows around but they’re not the kind of shows you want to see,” Mayer says. “I get calls all the time from really sincere musicians from a lot of different places who would like to have their band play here. They’re not looking for $100 guarantees and they don’t have outlandish riders on their contracts to provide free beer and they’re not looking for thousands of fans.
“They’re just looking for a place to play in front of 25 or 50 people, and that’s the kind of thing we’re aiming at.”
Not everyone who ventures into the alternative rock scene is so nonchalant about the business side. At the newly renovated Mystic Theatre in Petaluma–where moshing punkers stood in stark contrast to the young singles and baby boomers bouncing to the beat of Bay Area Motown revues during more sedate weekend nights–owner Ken O’Donnell tried to tap the college music market and decided it might not be for him.
After just a couple of Midweek Madness shows–part of a Thursday night series of alternative rock dance concerts, featuring the Portland-based Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and several local acts–O’Donnell and co-booking agent Sheila Groves have decided to tone down that part of the dance hall’s programming. Their last scheduled Midweek Madness event, featuring the Mother Hips (in conjunction with SSU’s Associated Students), is Thursday, Nov. 30.
“We’re probably going to do alternative rock shows on a scattered basis, whenever we feel they’re worth opening the doors for,” says Groves. “Those shows require additional costs because we have to hire extra staff to deal with crowd control. That’s a real consideration because we have to open the doors to 18 and over to fill the room, while checking IDs for those to whom we are serving liquor.
“While the crowds were good for both of the first two shows, they were a lot of effort.”
On the other hand, Rubenstein sees the Phoenix as playing a key role in helping foster the local alternative music scene. “I spend a great deal of my time on the phone, talking with agents and letting them know that we’re a viable venue, because some of these agents go, ‘Oh, Petaluma. What do we want to do there?'” he says, during an interview in his cramped office.
Still, some booking agents–like those handling Ash’s tour–are quick to recognize the potential of an area bestowed with a university, a junior college, and 12 high schools in a 20-mile radius.
“It’s the perfect place to spotlight an up-and-coming band.” he says, adding that big-name acts also help give exposure to local bands opening the shows. “We took the Rentals and put Skillet–a local band that’s an eclectic mix of rap and rock–on the bill with them. Now we’re hoping that a lot of the folks who came to check out the Rentals will come back to see Skillet when they play at this acoustic Christmas charity show next month, this sort of campy, cabaret show that’s going to include all kinds of local hardcore punk, rap, and ska bands changing their sound.
“We’re still trying very hard to give the local bands as much exposure as possible, so we can build up a community feeling between the band and the audience.”
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