Feb 1, 2007 Los Angeles Times
ID? No way
Clubs for the under-21 set are coming of age. Besides giving kids a place to hang, they are often barometers of the next hot thing.
By Jessica Gelt, Special to The Times
The tiniest boy to ever don a Misfits T-shirt hops onto a raised platform above a writhing mosh pit at the Allen Theatre in South Gate. His doe eyes are wide and dark and his tight gray Dickies bunch around his small behind. After a breathlessly fast number, the lead singer of the up-and-coming Latino and Filipino punk band Defied says, “We’re gonna speed it up,” and the pit erupts in howls. Round and round the rockers go — in a knotted, fist-flailing circle — while the boy watches with unconcealed awe.
The littlest Misfit is not yet old enough to realize that the wild people in the boiling pit below him are just kids themselves. Beneath the Mohawks and the leather and the metal-adorned attire, there are likely pairs of underwear washed by Mama.
All-ages clubs — not empty warehouses or skating rinks or dumpy basements, but proper venues with snazzy sound systems and snack bars full of salty-sweet savories — are a relatively new phenomenon. They have cropped up mainly during the last decade and have since become uncannily accurate barometers of what is about to become hot in music. The reason is simple: They provide a safe, alcohol-free place for young people ages 10 to 20 to see the bands they love, something the jaded 21-and-older set takes for granted. This is approximately the same excitable demographic that, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, was responsible for more than 20% of all music sales in 2005. They are also the MySpace generation. Through them trends flow like white water.
The Allen Theatre is a monument to faded glory; its hundreds of royal-red seats are stained and torn, its floors are soda-sticky and its bathrooms ooze mildewed character. In short, it is the perfect place for rock ‘n’ roll. The neighborhood kids feel that instinctively.
Teens at the show say they come to the Allen regularly, and a number of them say they know the security guards and the owner. “I’ve been here before,” says 17-year-old Walter Ticas, who came with his 24-year-old sister. “I like it because I get to see the bands up close and have fun.”
Owner John Riley opened the Allen because he recognized the need for a teen haven. Ten years ago one of the kids in his neighborhood was fatally shot while sitting on a street corner on a Saturday night.
“It was like he died because he didn’t have anywhere to go,” says Riley, who, with his wife, Cory, began running shows out of a signless building they called Our House before moving on to the Allen. “I’ve done this long enough to see how the kids are developing and what paths they’re taking. One of our bands, Left Alone, is signed to Hellcat and doing really well.”
Brian Defied, the 20-year-old singer for, you guessed it, the band Defied, remembers when the only shows his band could get were in friends’ backyards: “No one wanted to give us a chance. This was the first place that had us come and play. John, the owner, and I are good buddies. It’s like family here.”
That sense of devotion is key to the success of all-ages venues, most of which are not big money-making endeavors. “Labor of love” is how owners describe their work, which is why within a 50-mile radius of downtown L.A., only a dozen or so such places (with the wherewithal to mix touring bands with local acts) exist.
“Everyone wants the alcohol, because that’s where the real money comes in,” explains Andy Serrao, 24, the booking agent for Anaheim’s Chain Reaction. Serrao matriculated from being a patron of the club to working as a security guard before taking over his current duties. On a recent Saturday night, indie-pop favorites Meg & Dia and Daphne Loves Derby attract a capacity crowd of 240. Mini-hipsters roam the black room in tight, giggly cliques with a perfection of style that comes from hours spent self-consciously grooming. A shy couple holding hands shells out $2 for a Slushie at the well-lighted snack bar.
Over its 10-year existence, Chain Reaction has gained legendary status among all-ages clubs. Like most venues of its kind, it has a reputation for being tightly run and well-policed. Its tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster, and the bands who’ve paid their dues there read like a who’s who of modern rock: My Chemical Romance, AFI, Jimmy Eat World, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, Transplants, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fall Out Boy, Avenged Sevenfold and Panic! at the Disco, to name a few.
Tim Hill, the club’s owner, says that one of its original success stories was Capitol Records’ signing of the band Yellowcard onstage after a show. In fact, major labels have looked to Chain Reaction and its ilk more than a few times for the next big thing. On this particular night, the vice president of a major label is at the show with a red Harvard baseball cap pulled low on his forehead.
“That really says something, for someone from Hollywood to come down to Orange County to get the pulse of the nation,” says Vincent Pileggi, the manager of the band Reel Big Fish, who, with Hill, has started a cottage industry around Chain Reaction. Next door is a record and lifestyle shop called Off the Chain, and a soon-to-be-opened cafe in its rear will be called Food Fight.
Twenty miles east in Pomona, the cavernous Glass House has also opened up an adjacent record shop. In addition, one of its owners, Paul Tollett, is the president of promotional firm Goldenvoice and founder of the massively successful Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
“Paul uses the venue as a tester for up-and-coming bands. It’s a gauge for Coachella,” says the Glass House’s manager, Erick Palma. “The band tonight is Black Lips, and they’re really blowing up.”
Palma continues, “Jack White from the White Stripes says this is one of his favorite venues in America — Conor [Oberst] from Bright Eyes, Conrad [Keely] from Trail of Dead, the Hives — every band on their way up comes through here.”
Out front of the venue a jocular group of fans of the band the Hitchhikers gathers to talk. These fans are old enough to be at a bar, but they’ve chosen to come here, which highlights another aspect of all-ages clubs that makes them special: They really do draw all ages. Rick Randow, 27, who claims to be a “super Hitchhikers fan,” says he is 19 days sober, a feat easily sustained during a night at the Glass House.
The lack of alcohol at these clubs creates a different atmosphere. Drunken aggression is replaced by a sort of attentive Zen. In this way, all-ages audiences are like harmonious tribes.
The more niche-market the sound, the more tribal the audience becomes. Il Corral, a raucous all-ages art space near Melrose and Heliotrope that specializes in “experimental and noise” music, attracts avant-garde eccentrics ranging in age from 13 to 40-plus. James Edwards, a 26-year-old UCLA grad student in musicology, waxed poetic about the scene at a recent show featuring the ironically named Smooth Grooves and the acoustic stylings of the shirtless John Thill. “I have yet to think through whether it’s legitimate,” Edwards says, “but this is the closest you can get in L.A. to a more self-sufficient and less alienating artistic culture.”
Aaron Goodell, 48, with his salt-and-pepper hair and black fanny pack, puts it more simply: “It’s beautiful. I’m not sure what they’re doing here, but it just looks like it grew organically in this building.”
Sean Carnage, a mustachioed 35-year-old promoter for the venue, says that one night Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung around for a show. “The great thing about all-ages is that it brings out older people who wouldn’t go to Spaceland or the Silverlake Lounge — maybe they’re burned out and this is where they come,” says Carnage, who recently directed a documentary about the club and its scene called “40 Bands-80 Minutes!”
Inside, Thill, with his small white pastry-puff of a belly, balances on a chair beside the venue’s climbing rope. As the entranced crowd gathers around the 24-year-old library assistant, he croons a ballad of destruction: “The day I started laughing at the motorcycle crash, on the shoulder of I-10 / I knew I’d committed the cynic’s sin.”
Freedom of expression — or at least the sense that adolescent angst deserves a forum — is vital to such venues, which is why a hole in the wall called the Smell in Harlem Place Alley just off 2nd Street in downtown L.A. is the stuff of legends.
“That was the whole point from the beginning,” explains Jim Smith, one of the Smell’s founders. “To open an all-ages club that was strictly geared toward the art and the music without all of the things that got in the way of that, like alcohol, the bar atmosphere and bouncers. We just wanted a space where people could hang out and be creative.”
The Smell has been run by volunteers for most of its nine years; Smith keeps a day job as a union organizer. With its CBGB’s-worthy, spray-painted bathroom, vegan snack bar and well-lighted bookshelf full of political zines, the Smell has never concerned itself with the next big thing, an attitude that has made it a magnet for just that.
Jaime Lopez, the brazen lead singer of the hard-driving all-girl band Traeh (“heart” spelled backward), says, “I saw Le Tigre here when I was 16 — it was a really important show — I still remember that show. The power went out, like, three times; everybody was sweating.”
Lopez remembers a now-closed all-ages incarnation called the Alligator Lounge. “Their Monday night house band was Incubus, and I read an old journal entry of mine where I was, like, ‘I hate that hippie house band Incubus.’ “
Every venue secretly dreams of nurturing a house-band-makes-good like Incubus, and owners seek out that special sound. At the just-opened Wire in Upland, dedicated husband-and-wife team Donavan and Rachel Foy took out a second mortgage on their house and sold both of their cars to showcase the musical hopefuls of the Inland Empire.
Located on 2nd Avenue in quaint downtown Upland, the Wire is clean and professionally run, with art-covered walls and a fabulous sound system. Donavan, who taught middle school science for five years, told his wife, “I didn’t want to be a burned-out teacher who made life miserable for his kids.” Rachel laughs. “He kept his word.”
“We could have done a nightclub, not a place for all these kids to go,” Donavan says. “Nothing against anyone who does it differently, but we didn’t feel it was the right thing to have alcohol — we could certainly make more money if we did that — but it takes away from the bands.”
The Foys’ idealistic strategy is beginning to take off. “We’ve been having between 120 and 150 kids show up for four to five shows a week; and we’re starting to get people who are up and coming and on their first tour as a signed band.”
For every indie kid who shows up at the Wire, two hard-core fans might appear at the much larger Alley in Fullerton. The decade-old venue, run by intense, beanie-clad James Barnum, attracts distinctly iconoclastic fans.
“The crowds we bring to downtown Fullerton are the kids that may not express themselves well in the classroom or on a football field,” Barnum says. “These are the kids that express themselves better on our stage in front of a crowd.”
From 1997 to 2001, the Alley played host to bands such as Linkin Park, Hoobastank, Alien Ant Farm, Strung Out and Zebrahead.
Outside the high-ceilinged, sweat-stained club on a recent night, a young man with a shaved head stood before a semicircle of tattooed compatriots screaming inarticulately about the uselessness of the Iraq war. One monkey-sized hanger-on stood behind him extending his middle finger; the kids listening to the diatribe shooed the interloper away in anger.
The political discourse at all-ages clubs may be shrill, but it’s as important as the music. The lead singer of the punk band Resilience, who goes by the name Fury, says: “People who are working 9 to 5 get really jaded. We’re singing about world change, so it’s better to hit them when they’re younger.” Adds the band’s guitarist, Skut: “Playing to one kid with a lot of heart is better than playing to 100 fans without that energy.”
After all, it’s raw, unaffected energy, that elusive zeitgeist of change, that drives musical revolution. At the Cobalt Cafe, the 15-year-old all-ages haven in Canoga Park, the scene smacks of youthful anarchy.
The dingy storefront room resembles somebody’s bed-ridden aunt’s house, replete with a dirt-stained carpet emblazoned with pastel flowers, a white cottage-cheese ceiling and mismatched faux-leather furniture.
On a sleepy Wednesday night, the venue’s owner, Dave Politi, is sick and there are no adults visible in the Pleasure Island-gone-mad interior. About 20 or so patrons flail around the room to the wailing of singer Chris Sanders of the New Jersey-based hard-core band Anchors for Arms, which had a show fall through and was booked at the Cobalt at the last minute. “We play all-ages clubs about three-quarters of the time,” Sanders says. “When [fans] get to be a certain age, [they] stop caring about these sorts of things.”
Maybe. But through the years, all-ages venues have spawned many a dedicated fan who returned to the scene of his or her rock baptism.
Next door to the Cobalt Cafe, Chris Funk, 29, tends bar at a low-key pub called Scotland Yard. “When JFA [Jodie Foster’s Army] played there, there were 40-year-old dudes rocking out with 10-year-old kids, and everybody knew the words,” Funk says. “When I was in high school, I was going there too; it’s the only place you can go when you’re under 21 to see punk rock bands in the West Valley.”
Indeed, such venues supply the sugar to feed the musical sweet tooth of their teen demographic.
“This is the melting pot of all the original music that goes on in L.A.,” says Aaron Buckley of the experimental band Anavan, which recently played to dozens of screaming fans at Il Corral. “Places like this are prime, because everybody who comes to them really, really wants them.”
Calling all ages
The Allen Theatre, 3809 Tweedy Blvd., South Gate, (323) 249-9775. http://www.theallentheatre.com. A giant old theater run by a dedicated husband and wife who set out to create a place for neighborhood kids to safely blow off steam.
The Alley, 139 W. Amerige Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6934. http://www.thealleyclub.com. A sweaty, all-out rock venue located in downtown Fullerton. In April, the Alley will open up a fenced-off beer garden for patrons who are 21 and older.
Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. http://www.allages.com. The darling of Southern California all-ages clubs. If you’ve heard of a band, it has probably played at Chain Reaction at some point.
Cobalt Cafe, 22047 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 348-3789. http://www.cobaltcafe.com. Kids roam free in this tried-and-true venue, which is never too full of itself to give unknown touring bands a chance.
The Glass House, 200 W. 2nd St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802. http://www.theglasshouse.us. This giant venue is located in the Art Colony of Pomona and is co-owned by Coachella founder Paul Tollett, who uses the space as a testing ground for the festival.
Il Corral, 662 N. Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles, no phone. http://www.ilcorral.net. An all-ages art space that hosts live music special events. The draw here is “noise and experimental” sound, and the crowd is a bit older and more eccentric than at your typical all-ages venue.
Koo’s Art Center, 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-7584. http://www.koos.org. Once a Santa Ana mainstay, Koo’s has relocated to Long Beach and promotes creative expression, including visual and performing arts, and live music.
Showcase Theatre, 683 S. Main St., Corona, (951) 276-7770. http://www.showcasetheatre.com. Kids from downtown L.A. to Whittier drop the venue’s name in casual conversation about their weekends.
The Smell, 247 S. Main St., Los Angeles, no phone. http://www.thesmell.org. It smells like teen spirit in this nitty-gritty performance space in a downtown L.A. alley. The neighborhood is swiftly gentrifying, making punk shows here feel even more punk.
The Wire Music and Art Venue, 247 N. 2nd Ave., Upland, (909) 985-9466. http://www.thewire247.com. One of the most well-maintained of the venues on this list. A young husband and wife who care about kids and music hope to keep it that way.