Northern California Dreamin'

The Phoenix theater is the best clubhouse a local music scene could ever have

I'm fascinated by the Sonoma County indie rock scene. Bet you didn't even know such a thing existed, huh? Well, it does. It has nurtured great bands like the Velvet Teen and the Rum Diary, both of which practice in these quaint little weather-beaten shacks smack-dab in the middle of grass fields -- no shit!

When I think of rural areas like Sonoma County I tend to imagine a bunch of Korn fans sitting around drinking PBR on the flatbed of their cousin's pickup. That's not this scene at all. The Petaluma scene, at least the parts that I've experienced, is very much like my old music scene when I was in high school in Orange County (we're talking before The OC, and an influx of 10 kajillion new residents). It's full of skinny kids in tight, tattered clothing experimenting with piercings and haircuts. For the most part the kids drink coffee instead of beer, because at that age the world is still interesting and worth staying up to explore, not depressing and better off being slept through.

The main difference, however, between their scene and mine, is the Phoenix Theatre, which was where we were headed last Wednesday.

"I don't think I'll ever get over how beautiful California is," said Frances as we drove up the 101 at around 8 p.m. with the sunset shining purples and oranges over the folded hills. Frances is from Detroit and it was she who prompted our journey: She wanted to catch one of her favorite bands, Des Ark, for the second night in a row (the group played Bottom of the Hill the night before). She was right: It was a beautiful drive, the kind of scene a native Californian like me stupidly takes for granted these days.

The Phoenix is the best clubhouse a local music scene could ever have. It's basically a grand old theater that a bunch of kids have taken over and turned into their playground. I like to imagine its origins thusly: Retired vaudevillian Grandpa Gus is on his deathbed, his family surrounding him like a pack of hyenas waiting to score the old man's loot. Only Lil' Jimmy, seated in a corner, a tear running down his cheek, is genuinely sad to see Gus go.

Says Gus, in between coughing fits, "And to my family I leave ... nothing! Except you, Lil' Jimmy. Only you shared my belief in the power of music, so I'm giving you the old Phoenix Theatre. It's a bit run-down, could use some elbow grease, but I'm sure you'll know what to do with it."

And Jimmy did. He called all his friends up, pillaged the local hardware store's stock of spray paint, and started redecorating. He took all the seats out and laid down wooden floors. He built a half-pipe skateboard ramp and installed rail-slides so that when bands weren't playing you could grind the place up. He turned the lobby into a side stage for opening acts, and covered every last inch of every last wall in graffiti. Then he started booking shows there as Grandpa Gus looked down from on high, smiling. (Fact is, the Phoenix is a converted movie theater that's been attracting bands since the late '80s; everyone from Weezer to Metallica has played there, but I like my version better.)

"What is this place called?" asked Aimee Argote, singer-guitarist for North Carolina duo Des Ark, which performed on the floor instead of the massive stage behind it.

"California!" yelled someone in the audience.

Des Ark was in the middle of a long cross-country tour, and was understandably disoriented. Not that you could tell by the music. Next time this band comes to town, be there. If the White Stripes weren't so concerned with being on magazine covers and marrying supermodels, if they were less worried about impressing people with their knowledge of Motor City garage rock and more worried about freaking them out with eye-gouging guitar muscle and lots of screaming, then they'd sound like Des Ark. Good heavens, go here: www.des-ark.org.

After the show, Frances and I said hi to Argote (about whom my only complaint is: take a shower), and the three of us all agreed that performing the good-nasty in a hollowed-out theater with 50-foot ceilings wherein a hammered snare drum reverberates like a fart in St. Paul's Cathedral is a very good thing indeed. Another good thing is that immediately following Des Ark's set, the New Trust, the Petaluma-based side project of Velvet Teen bassist Joshua Staples, was already playing in the side stage/lobby. The kids who hardly filled out the cavernous theater quickly migrated there, squishing themselves into the tiny space. The concession stand was selling water, soda, and Gatorade (no alcohol) for a buck or two. If you needed to use the bathrooms you took one of the two winding, carpet-covered staircases that lead to the mezzanine, where doors to the balcony were locked, and covered in paint.

We left halfway through the New Trust's set because a) there were too many people crowded into the side-stage area to see shit and b) I had to get home in time to make a collage for a focus group I was participating in the next day wherein I would earn $250 to share my feelings, such that I have any, about beer. As we left the theater and walked toward our car, we passed a posse of kids who had commandeered a stoop and were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" boomed out of one of their cars. That used to be me, I thought, sitting around outside the venue, drinking coffee with melted M&Ms on the bottom of the cup while we waited for the next band to set up. Of course, our venue was the musty old Huntington Beach library. These kids have a fucking indie rock temple. Lucky bastards.

 
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