People say Anchorage doesn’t have much of a scene without realizing they are submersed in it. It’s at your work, in your schools, sitting next to you in traffic on Spenard. It’s breathing your air, selling you lunch at New Sagaya and scraping frost off the car parked next to your house. The people who make up the scene represent a substantial proportion of the population as compared to other cities.
But problems exist that make the respiration of our scene difficult at times. There are the more conceptual problems of people believing they have to leave state to make anything of their music. And there are the very concrete problems of keeping venues strong and running. These two issues feed each other, compounding the frustrations of everyone involved.
So is it possible to have an all-ages venue in Anchorage with the same success as a bar? Well, it was before. One name comes to mind if you talk to any band that was here in the late 90s: Gigs.
You can’t look at the history of music in Anchorage and not pay tribute to Gigs (rest in peace). Standing two stories above the Fourth Avenue sidewalk lined with enthusiastic sceners, Gigs days were filled with outside acts Black Happy and TchKung! and locals 36 CrazyFists.
The last year of the financially doomed club, Mark Romick took over as a new owner. It was a great year, old school sceners remember fondly, right up to the last night in 1999.
“That was a party!” Michael Allen, the former booking agent for Gigs, said.
Way before Gigs and way before butt rock, Anchorage used to be littered in late-night clubs teeming with live bands, 78-year-old guitarist Clon Von Fitz remembers. Fitz brought jazz to attention of Anchorage in the 1960s pipeline boom.
Having played with greats Charles Brown, Ike Cole, Etta James, Red Fox and Slappy White, he remembers the local scene being “hot.” In his day, nightclubs and bars in Anchorage had live music almost every night and stayed open until 5 a.m.
“We had it goin’ on back then,” Fitz said. He used to play at the Starlight Lounge and now plays often with the Anchorage Jazz Ensemble.
Unfortunately, bars and music until 5 a.m. hasn’t been a reality in over 30 years here.
Another thing missing from Fitz’s day is vinyl. But the slip of records into antiquity didn’t take Joe Robert’s Records with it. And thank goodness. We know them now as Metro Music and Books tucked back in the Metro strip mall. This store and its employees are an authority on the history of Alaska music. Along with Mammoth Music, they consign local groups’ albums for sale and assist in ticket sales and display show fliers for any band that wants the attention.
And the bands do want attention, but many think they can’t get enough of it here.
The rock: To stay or leave?
“Until we do what we need to do in Alaska, I don’t see a need in leaving,” X-Nilo drummer/vocalist Tyler Williams said.
They play often at high schools and have found a venue home at Club Millennium downtown.
Other under-aged bands don’t share X-Nilo’s mentality. They see older bands packing off for Portland all the time, such as Dropt, Railer and 36 CrazyFists. Often, bands that stay don’t receive enough credit for trying to make it in their home state.
“I just gotta play all the time,” TS Scream’s newest member Clint Sanders said. The band was born in the local scene, left state and then came home, realizing that for them there was no reason to take music away from Anchorage. “As a band, you gotta pay your dues [to your scene].”
Venue owners and promoters all have different ideas as to why venues struggle so much. Even the band members are divided on feelings for or against the venues available in town.
The hard place: Some venues fly, others fall through
Sanders, also a Mammoth Music employee, said it’s a band’s duty to play anywhere they can book. TS Scream recently did a show in the banquet room at Fiori D’Italia restaurant.
“Venues have always been the issue for the last 20 years,” Allen, Metro Music employee and member of the band Mallaka, said.
“It is hard for under-age bands to make it here because they can’t quite play in bars yet and there aren’t a lot of live music venues around,” Henry Hartman of Nothing Less said. Nothing Less does a lot of their shows at the UAA Wolf Den in the Campus Center.
One group within the scene that definitely feels the stress of being labeled “all-ages” is Anchorage punks. To follow their scene over the last year would take you to the recreational centers with the likes of Martyr’s Union, Brokin, Wupt, Unknown Citizens, or Ariel Descent.
The Spenard and Fairview rec centers offer their own security for hire and can pull several bands together for an all-ages show, but the shows typically end in the early evening.
Another more recent venue attempt was Club Celsius. Unfortunately, it went belly up, a fate that befalls many venues.
Chilkoot Charlie’s houses live music all week with house bands Barbarella 54, Ettinger and Bad Candy. Metal and hardcore bands such as Outlet, Incide and Subconscious have found it to be a pretty steady roof over their heads as well.
The difference between Subconscious and the rest is they are minors hailing from East High School. While Koot’s is strictly 21 and up, the promoters have worked out a deal allowing them to play with their parents present. It gives Subconscious a decent place to get their music out–at least to part of the population.
Anchorage has very few bars or clubs that allow the under-aged to participate.
“That’s part of the problem,” 36 CrazyFists’ Brock Lindow said. “Down south the kids can come to the bar and they just slap a wrist band on them so you know they can’t drink. They get to see the show though.”
There are a lot of people here who thirst for live music but are confounded by a lack of venues, especially for the under-21 crowd. Leaving the state is an option many bands choose to exercise. But with the recent developments of Alcatraz Records looking to Alaska to sign Nothing Less and other bands launching independent labels based locally, people are giving second thoughts to making it big on the home front.