I give bars a lot of shit for existing. I don't particularly like going to shows at bars, I don't like playing bars, and most of all, I don't like that people under the age of 21 can't go to shows in bars. What is the point of having live music or an art show in your space if not everyone can attend, just because they aren't old enough? It seems so counterintuitive to what venue operators and performers should be desiring when they invite an audience in. Afer all, an audience can only get bigger when there are fewer restrictions on who is "allowed" to be there.
But I've changed my mind about bars (a little bit). Not all of them are shitty. In fact, where live art — and especially music — takes place is more about the people inside that space. Human beings are what make all the difference, not the container they choose to occupy.
I came to this conclusion as I spent the first part of this month on a short ten-show stint as the bass player for Lisa Prank, my dear friend (and former Westword writer) Robin Edwards's project. She's normally a one-person band, playing guitar and singing to tracks she's written and programmed into a drum machine she plays along with. This time around, I came along, as it seemed easier for her not to be traveling alone for two weeks on the road — and as a bonus, I got to play on three of her songs during each set. We played so many kinds of places: house shows, storefronts, DIY and nonprofit spaces, legitimate venues — and bars.
My main beef with bars is that, as an advocate for art and music spaces to be all-ages and accessible to everyone, I don't see bars as a viable place for creativity. In general, I find myself terminally perplexed by most bars — the ones that don't have live music or a dedicated DJ playing in them, yet still have a line of people outside waiting to get in. What's the point of waiting in line to get into a place that has not much to offer other than the same people you were just in line with outside?
When I did drink (I quit ten years ago,) going out downtown was based strictly in the interest of getting trashed, but I never had to wait in line to drink too much. My best friends were the bartenders, and they made sure I could bypass any line and get a drink as quickly as possible. If anything, LoDo is for getting completely hammered; that's one thing that's never changed (at least since the area was coined "LoDo" in the ’80s) and probably never will.
To my surprise, one of the best shows we played was at a little bar called Strangers West in El Centro, California. The quick trip of a tour began in Portland, wound its way along the West Coast, dipped into Nevada and eventually dropped me back in Denver, but it was this border town's bar show that really struck me. Among other things, El Centro is where I learned a lot of things in a short amount of time, like the fact that you can cross back and forth to "Mex" fairly easily, and bands/people do it often, creating a cross-country music community (which is a whole other awesome story for another day).
Although the show was just us and locals/friends Sweetie Darling, the quaint bar room was packed, and Strangers West owner Ernie Quintero and his small, devoted staff made sure the night ran smoothly. It didn't feel like a bar at all; it felt like a house party with really good food and drinks. Everyone was friendly and seemed excited to see us play. We were able to meet a lot of cool folks and learn more about El Centro itself. One thing was clear: If Quintero and his crew weren't devoted to bringing touring bands to this town, it probably wouldn't be happening at all. And to me, looking back on the show, it didn't even seem to matter that it was a bar. But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the simple fact that it was a bar and bars make money from selling booze, funds that allow them to book artists.
Later on in the tour, we played at Club Congress in Tucson, which is both a bar and a full-sized venue that turns into a club after shows end. Though the room was quite large, it was packed, thanks in part to a really great, diverse lineup of locals Logan and Lucille, Foxx Bodies and the recently signed Lando Chill. It was all-ages, and while obviously not DIY in any capacity, we still had a wonderful experience with everyone from the manager to the sound person of the place. People being nice to you might seem like nothing to people who often perform in legit venues, I'm guessing, but that's not always the case, especially when you're women. Even in 2016, we still get talked down to, generally ignored and treated like lesser beings in the music world. When we get treated like humans, it's a big deal.
Along with these bars and "legitimate"-venue experiences, we were able to perform at Little Shop of Hers, a beautifully curated vintage store in Eureka, California, that felt like an affordable thrift shop that once existed in Denver's past life as a reasonably priced city. There was a Friday night art walk of sorts happening in the town, so most of our audience wandered by and shopped while we played. Then there was the Holland Project in Reno, which is an incredible performance space and art gallery nonprofit for kids by kids. The idea is to get young people involved inn the working side of a venue, booking bands, running sound and managing and curating the space. (And they get paid, because it's a real job! A lovely concept.)
Then there was Junior High in Los Angeles, which was sort of a cross-pollination of these two ideas: Part store, part nonprofit art space, the venue felt like a place you just wanted to be. Free of pretentiousness and full of thought-provoking, wearable art and an energized crowd, the shop was bursting with the raw essence of DIY. Junior High is sort of next-level DIY, a new way to look at what a venue can be by hosting shows, art exhibitions and workshops at an affordable price in an accessible public space that is open to all, while easing the burden of venue revenue by also being a retail store.
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Having the chance to play shows and interact with so many different communities of creative people in different cities in a short amount of time gave me insight into what it takes to make these experiences work and be worth it to everyone involved. Bars may not be the perfect or even ideal place for a performance to happen — but if the people in charge really care about the community and desire to offer the place for people to gather, then so be it. What matters is how we treat each other once we're inside that particular space.
I'll never stop advocating for all art experiences to be all-ages, accessible and open to anyone who wants to experience them. But I'll definitely not be so hard on bars and other 21-and-up venues that are doing their part to be a good and healthy chain in the art ecosystem. And just like bars and clubs, some DIY venues can be no fun or unsafe to play in. It's the people behind the scenes, running the show, who ultimately decide what happens in the space — and sometimes that's more important than the space itself.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies