Night club struggles to keep the music going

A sluggish economy and a recent change in state liquor laws are among the challenges facing Backstage Bar and Grill. Some of its customers are stepping up to make sure it does not become the next music venue in town to shut its doors.

Joy Hutt opened the establishment, located at 6409 6th Ave., last year. She recently asked her friend Jud Morris to take over management. Morris quickly organized a show to raise money for the club, which took place on Aug. 15. The bands Big Fish, Degree of Disorder, Mechanism, Sin Circus, Magic Carpet Ride and Hookerfist all performed free of charge. The cover charge was $6 but patrons were encouraged to donate more. Raffle tickets were sold, with donated prizes including recording studio time and use of a public address system for a show.

Morris said the evening raised about $5,000. Many patrons made $20 and even $50 donations upon entering the club. “We owe it to the musicians and fans,” Morris said. “They showed their true colors.”

Two mainstays of the local music scene have closed this summer. The Mandolin Café hosted many shows by singer/songwriters, folk acts and some blues and jazz. Hell’s Kitchen catered to punk rock and heavy metal. The former closed when its building was sold. The latter opened on 6th Avenue in 2002 before moving downtown. A new state law requiring such establishments to have sprinkler systems was out of the club’s financial reach in that location, so it moved to the home of a former Mexican restaurant downtown. But eventually necessary repairs to the building became too expensive and the operators decided to cease operations after 10 years. A new club called the Loch’s is set to takes its place early next month.

There are other venues with live music, some that book the type of harder rocking acts the Backstage is known for. Morris points to Louie G’s in Fife as a good place to catch a band, but it does not quite have the rock club atmosphere of the Backstage.

He grew up in Los Angeles and used to catch local bands in the legendary clubs of the Sunset Strip. He recalls hitting Gazzarri’s and catching Motley Crue before they became one of the major rock acts in the nation.

The Backstage was designed to replicate the vibe of the L.A. Display cases include items related to some of the biggest rock bands of the past 30 years, including guitars autographed by rock stars.

“Joy created something amazing here,” Morris said.

He said Hutt brought him in to oversee management and booking. “This place has been run by Joy’s heart and not a business mind,” he remarked. “If we can save it for Joy we will.”

Morris is trying to determine the right mix of musical styles for the establishment. He wants to have live music six days a week. His plan is to have heavy metal on Mondays and classic rock on Tuesdays. Wednesday would be ladies night, perhaps with blues as the musical genre. He is considering country on Thursdays. Saturdays would be hip-hop nights. Fridays would be set aside for rock acts on national tours, or if none were available Morris would book some of the popular Tacoma-area metal bands. Sundays will continue to offer local rock music shows organized by Levi Lyon.

“I want to have the right mix for the right days of the week,” Morris observed.

The ongoing economic doldrums are partly to blame for the Backstage’s situation. “The economy in general is having an impact on a lot of clubs,” he said.

A new development is the state’s recent departure from the liquor business. “This has made it harder and more expensive for bars to get their booze,” Morris said. “We have a hard time keeping it in stock.”

He would like to see some of the major national liquor distributors step in. “Now everyone is going to Costco and Safeway to get their booze,” he said. “The big boys need to come here to make it easier for us to obtain liquor.”

Morris plans to revise the club’s menu. “Our chef is phenomenal,” he observed. Morris would like to offer more items like steak and lobster and shrimp scampi, while still offering some of the bar food staple it currently serves. He noted that back in his hometown, Gazzarri’s was famous for its fine food as well as being a top-notch music venue.

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