When it comes to nightlife, Spokane is like a perpetually awkward teenager. Seemingly caught forever in entertainment adolescence, it’s not grown up enough (like, say, Seattle) to foster a robust and thriving nightclub scene. Yet, it’s not so small as to dismiss all hopes of a good time.
At best, the scene is a tease.
At worst, the scene is standoffish.
It’s a struggle for those in the Inland Northwest who thrive on a lively nightlife — those who want to consume live music, diverse crowds and stimulating conversation as much as they want to consume alcohol.
And for those who have aspirations of making a living as musicians and entertainers — the well of opportunity can at times seem downright bone-dry.
On any given night at any number of local bars and clubs a grumbling can turn to a near-deafening whine. It goes like this: “There’s nothing to do here. The Spokane scene sucks.”
But does it really?
Certainly, nocturnal recreation isn’t doled out like so much entertainment welfare as it is in big cities. We have to work a little harder, dig a little deeper to find something to do when we head out for a night on the town.
But as almost anyone who’s spent time in Spokane will tell you, it may not be Seattle, but there are things to do.
If you know where to look.
Step out at 11 p.m. on a Friday and three blocks along downtown Sprague are swarming — by Spokane standards — with night life.
College kids. Twentysomethings. Mid-lifers out for an evening. Drunks trying to sustain their sozzled state.
Mootsy’s, Gabby’s, Outback Jack’s, Hour Place, The Mars, Ankeny’s and The Satellite Diner are the main stops for those on this night train. All are within walking distance of each other.
If you want to find the nexus of downtown night life — this is it. Certainly, it’s miniature compared to our metropolitan neighbors. But an entertainment diversity does exist here.
If you just want to hang out, Mootsy’s is, at the moment, the reigning king of a cool place for beer, a little pool and conversation. It’s dark, often crowded, and the bartenders are friendly. Gabby’s is brighter and has better seating. It serves up the harder stuff — Jagermeister and Goldshlager.
If you want to dance, Hour Place on the south side of Sprague is a good option. It is a gay club, but it’s ideal for those with an open mind and a lick of rhythm. Ankeny’s atop the Ridpath is home to Soul Proprietor, a cover band that plays all manner of soul, funk and dance hits. Here, the “more mature” crowd can dance to familiar tunes.
Because it’s Friday night, a rock band is playing at Outback Jack’s just down the way. The crowd is young and the band is likely from Seattle or Portland or maybe farther away. Or perhaps it’s one of Spokane’s bands.
At The Mars you can play blackjack and pai gow poker into the early morning hours. And once the bar doors have closed, there’s The Satellite Diner, a classy joint that serves up hot plates until 4 a.m.
Spiraling outward from this downtown core are plenty of other options: the Fort Spokane Brewery for blues, Dempsey’s for more dancing, Thudpuckers for more Top-40 music, Ichabod’s North for punk, Hobarts for live jazz. There is karaoke and line dancing, pool and poetry readings.
On a good night, when people are out walking from one club to the next, socializing and mingling, when a sizable crowd has turned out for a good band, Spokane feels just a bit bigger. It feels almost like it has a scene.
But then there are those nights — and they come far too frequently — when the bar stools sit empty, when a good band steps on stage to a roaring crowd of six, when it seems nothing interesting is afoot anywhere.
It makes you start to think, it makes you start to grumble: “Why don’t I live in Seattle?”
“Spokane’s still a little city and thinks like a little city,” says John Cage, drummer for Too Slim and the Taildraggers.
He’s right. Sure, a handful of tall buildings jut out of our landscape like crooked teeth, but let’s not fool ourselves - we’re no Big City.
There is no major university here. We have only a small international community.
“We’re a heartland town, not a coastal town.” says Don Adair, former SpokesmanReview music writer and long-time observer of Spokane’s entertainment scene.
Not only are we a heartland town, we’re a heartland town known for being a good place to settle down, to have children, to raise families.
And that means staying home at night.
Consequently, some of the bigger-name bands that tour through clubs in Seattle or Portland don’t even consider stopping in Spokane. Even Missoula and Boise get shows we don’t.
“I’ve watched the club crowds dwindle,” says Wayne Kissire, who has played music in the Inland Northwest for the past 30 years. “I remember years ago when I played places, it would be packed all night long.” Those who were of age back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s say those were the days of late nights, jammed clubs and raucous crowds. But in those days the Baby Boomers were younger weren’t they? The Boomers - that great mass of people whose every movement affects nearly every aspect of our society - were in their 20s.
For them it was party time.
And the booze laws were different back then. Drinking and driving wasn’t nearly the faux pas it is now, not to mention the legal misstep. Designated driver? Who’d ever heard of that.
“People aren’t going out to nightclubs and staying out and drinking as much as they used to because of the laws and how stiff they’ve gotten,” Kissire says.
But improved drunken driving laws can’t solely bear the blame for putting the brakes on a night scene. Consider this: Since the 1970s, the number of movie theaters in the metro region has exploded and so has the number of new movies being released. More importantly, the advent of home videos has turned the way we entertain ourselves on its ear.
Why go out when we can amuse ourselves at home - and often for a much cheaper price?
But anybody who’s been an entertainer over the long haul says it all goes in cycles - the kind of music that’s popular, the kind of amusement people desire, the size of the crowds out at night. Looking back, Spokane’s nightlife looks like it’s on a roller coaster.
In the 1970s, the music was post-psychedelic, a great melting pot of sounds. Ahab’s Whale and The Smoke Shop were the places to see and hear live bands. The Smoke Shop would become Washboard Willy’s, then Henry’s and then Mother’s Pub.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, disco displaced live bands. The people wanted to dance. A haven for classic rock cover bands, J.J.’s at the Sheraton (now the DoubleTree) turned into a booming disco joint.
In the 1980s, bands that played covers of popular radio hits - Journey, Foreigner and Bad Company - occupied the bar stages. Heavy metal cover bands - with their big hair and spandex - also commanded popular attention. Few people wanted to hear a group that performed its own music.
Except in the underground scene. Punk rock - a bastion of musical innovation and independence - was flourishing at house parties and in all-ages clubs around town. Bands like Suburban Accessories, Social Bondage, The Vampire Lesbos and Mna-mna.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Seattle underground scene exploded onto the Northwest’s - and the nation’s - consciousness. And Spokane felt the aftershocks. “It was like a supernova and its spillover was just great,” Adair says.
Music was interesting and alive. People were excited about seeing bands that created their own rock and roll.
Terry Grob, a music fan turned promoter, had begun to convince local bar owners to let him book original bands into their clubs. He was the first to bring bands like Mudhoney, Hammerbox, The Tree People and The Monomen from out of town. He helped local bands like The Young Brians, Motherload and The Bettys pave the way for other bands to get their feet and guitars in the club doors.
Henry’s (later Mother’s Pub), The Big Dipper and Club Pompeii all hosted bands that played live original music.
But eventually The Big Dipper and Club Pompeii closed. Mother’s Pub closed for a time and then reopened last year. They tried live bands but turned to DJ dance nights. In recent years, other clubs have struggled to make live music work, as well. The Northern Corner opened and shut. The Mars hosted live bands and stopped.
And that brings us to now.
It’s hard to say how we will look back on this time. Is the club front in a coma or is it alive and kicking like never before? It depends on who you ask and what you like to do.
The younger crowd wants to dance again. These days, secret all-night raves draw hundreds of teens and twentysomethings who dance until the sun comes up. DJ-led dance nights draw the biggest crowds at places like Outback Jack’s. At other bars, karaoke is finding growing popularity.
At times, it seems the enthusiasm for live original music is waning as good bands struggle to find an audience in Spokane. Then again, Ichabod’s North still brings in some of the region’s best punk bands. Home-grown bands like Flourish, Five Foot Thick and Shrinking Violet draw good-sized crowds while The Makers and The Mayfield Four are grabbing national attention.
“The thing that strikes me is there’s more diversity than ever,” Adair says. “You have a functioning jazz club, you have a functioning blues club.”
“I think today Spokane has more original bands than it ever has,” Grob agrees.
You have bands playing funk, hardcore, metal, pop and folk. You have bars hosting open mic nights, poetry readings and free music jams.
So does the Spokane scene suck? Perhaps.
But in the end it seems to come down to this: No matter where you live, no matter what scene you move in, something somewhere else is always going to seem better, hipper and just plain cooler.
Ryan Scott, a promoter who books all-ages shows, puts it this way: “If you go to L.A., people who live there’ll say it sucks because they’ve done everything. I have friends who live in Chicago and it’s an awesome city and they’re like, ‘We’re getting bored.’
“You can say it sucks everywhere. But it’s what you make of it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:< An ongoing guide to night life It might seem like there’s nothing to do at night in the Inland Northwest, like the club scene here has the pep of your great aunt’s gridge parties. But truth be told, there are things to do, bands to listen to, bars to drink at and floors to dance on. Theis article kicks off an ongoing look at various aspects of the Inland Northwest’s night life - a kind of guide to the nocturnal entertainment that is out lot. Now go out and find something fun to do.