Backwash

Denver clubs face a fight for the ages.

Readers unfortunate enough to be born after April 15, 1980, take heed: You have about ten days to soak up as many punk shows, club nights, karaoke contests and rock concerts as you can possibly cram into your soon-to-be depleted social dance cards. Come Easter Sunday, youngish individuals who like music -- and who fall squarely in the largest music-buying demographic in North America -- will find their live entertainment options severely limited, thanks to a policy change by a squadron of City of Denver officials who are stark raving mad about Ecstasy and committed to cutting its use off at the pass.

In its own furious spasm of spring cleaning, the Department of Excise and Licenses has decided to clean the cobwebs off its municipal code by revoking a policy that has, for a decade, allowed local establishments that offer both entertainment and alcohol to host all-ages crowds. The decision follows last month's announcement that three clubs in Denver -- the Church, the Aztlan and the Ogden -- had had their mixed-crowd privileges suspended following a series of drug stings that resulted in various arrests, most of them Ecstasy-related; the city then cast the net even wider, effectively putting a citywide kibosh on every cabaret licensee that opened its doors to the under-21 crowd. (Those businesses, the department noted as a concession, are still welcome to host strict teen nights, events open to all ages at which alcohol sales -- to anyone -- are forbidden. So cheer up, kiddo!) But the city is quick to remind us that this is not a ban on all-ages or a new law -- if it were the latter, it might have actually meant that businesses and individuals affected by it would have had a chance to plead their case -- but rather a uniform enforcement of what's already on the books.

"We have been thinking about this for months," says Excise and Licenses director Helen Gonzales. "The [split-premises] policy extended what the ordinance allowed, and I don't think that's good practice. The way we're doing it now, it just makes it cleaner. We will enforce the law across the board, to everyone, with no exceptions. I know that we have good licensees who have been carrying out their part of the policy. But with this recent activity with the police department and the Ecstasy stings, which were probably the convincing factor, it was just a case of a couple of people spoiling it for everyone else."

Note the sound of the baby going down with the bathwater. In this case, "everyone else" includes the Bluebird Theater and the Cat, two venues where mixed crowds have regularly enjoyed the very same stage show from very different sides of the room. As anyone who's ever attended an all-ages show at one of these venues can attest, the ages do not mix easily: At the Bluebird, kids are usually relegated to the balcony immediately after walking through the entrance, where they can enjoy Cokes, smokes and a diminished view; if you want to drink at the Cat (and are old enough to do so), you make an immediate right at the door; a chain-link fence that runs down the center of the room pretty much ensures that you will not be cavorting with the sober young things on the other side. Alas, these arrangements will be no more once April 15. And while those in the over-21 set may feel that they have nothing to fear in the policy reversal, some local music folks see a dim prognosis for the scene as a whole.

"I think that whether it's us or the Bluebird or the Ogden, aside from the obvious -- that there's just going to be way fewer local all-ages shows -- it will be a trickle-down effect," says Mike Barsch of Soda Jerk Records, who's booked shows in both the Raven and the Cat. "The type of show that draws 150 to 200 people might just go away altogether, except in a few places. A lot of the people are not going to like the idea of going to a dry show. And in order to make it off of the wholly under-21 crowd, we would either have to completely jack the admission charge or start charging $7 for a Coke. Whichever way you decided to go, whether you do it all-ages or 21-and-up, you immediately are cut off from half of your audience."

And when you can offer a band only half an audience, it isn't likely to bother making the trip at all.

"I would say 75 percent of the bands prefer to play to an all-ages audience, whether it's a touring act or a local act," says Barsch. "I can't fault anybody for preferring it that way. It's the best concept. You get kids who come just because they love music and crave a live experience, and you balance it with the older people who want to go out and have some drinks. Without that option of adding alcohol sales to the mix, its just not viable for many promoters to host a strict all-ages night."

Mary Robertson of the Gothic Theatre agrees. Though her club has an Englewood zip code, which makes it immune to Denver law (and thus able to continue hosting sixteen- and eighteen-and-over events), she sees the city's action as a palpable blow to the music-loving citizens of Denver, especially the young ones. (Gothic owner Steve Schalk is reportedly curtailing the club's under-eighteen access of his own volition.)

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