Live original music’s death rattle in Claremont?

by Mick Rhodes |

The  slow but steady death of live original music in the Claremont area sustained two massive body blows this week, leaving one to wonder if the art form might just vanish entirely from the 91711.

First, the inevitable: surprising no one, The Press, closed since March 2020, is for sale at the eye-popping price of $2.5 million.

The second gut punch was even worse. Last Name Brewing will host its final live performance in the spacious room adjacent to the Upland brewery on Saturday, March 25.

The Press was already considered dead and gone by most local musicians and music fans. But Last Name? Since booker, producer, sound engineer, podcast guru and all around musical octopus Solid Ray Woods took over at LNB about two years ago, the venue had been on an ever upward trajectory with better sound, lighting, and acts. Just last month a wonderful tribute to George Harrison brought out an impressive array of notable young and not so young musicians and songwriters, and was by all accounts an artistic and sonic success.

The Press, closed since March 2020, is for sale for $2.5 million. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

But the word from on high is the art and commerce could simply not link up at Last Name. The expense of keeping the massive warehouse space open was in the end too much, and the receipts from beer and LNB merch sale from music fans wasn’t cutting it. Something had to give, and unfortunately for us fans, it was music.

For those keeping score, The Press, Last Name Brewing, The Hip Kitty, and the Black Watch Pub have all gone to the live music graveyard over the past few years. (The Black Watch is of course still open, and in fact recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, but live music has been off the menu since 2018.)

All this carnage on top of David Lindley’s March 3 death is just demoralizing from both a musician’s and music fan’s perspective.

There remain a few venues booking mostly acoustic singles, duos and trios, including Walter’s (occasionally), the Back Abbey, and Union on Yale. But these are populated almost exclusively cover acts.

Thankfully, the Folk Music Center continues to book interesting mostly regional and national acoustic acts. And Ophelia’s Jump in Upland has recently begun booking original music in its listening room-like small theater. It’s a wonderful spot to play and to see original, mostly acoustic music.

The Hi Brow in Pomona does book original electric music occasionally, but it’s a less than ideal gig, with no stage, no sound, and no lights. In other words, bands are required to bring in everything, which is a big ask for meager pay.

Claremont’s city-sponsored Friday Nights Live books a smattering of original acts in the spring-late summer months, but it’s mostly cover bands, and pay is bad there as well.

Larger venues the Fox and the Glass House in Pomona are sporadically active, but we’re talking about touring acts and significant cover charges at those spots. They’re both great, and I am grateful they exist (I’ve seen everyone from Neil Young to Lucinda Williams there over the years), but neither is a booking option for most local songwriters.

Up until March 2020, The Press was a beloved home to so many locals, as well songwriters and performers, myself included. Opened in 1997, the noisy, bustling bar/restaurant/venue played host primarily to local acts, but also the occasional regional or national musicians. Its fate had been up in the air for a time. I had been checking in regularly with owner Steve Rudicel from the outset of the pandemic, and as Covid restrictions eased in 2021 he had hoped to reopen. But in early 2022 he stopped returning my texts, and the optimism I once felt for the possibility of resurrection began to wane.

It’s no surprise The Press is gone. But still, it hurts. The finality is especially disheartening considering its cruel timing, coinciding with the announcement of the demise of Last Name Brewing’s live music juggernaut.

Last Name impresario Woods was even more disappointed than I when we spoke late last week. He’d spent the previous two years making single-handed improvements to LNB’s sound, lighting and staging. At one point there was talk at LNB of turning the large room into a legitimate venue for touring acts, and his recent upgrades seemed to be moving that prospect closer to reality. Now though, all that sweat and psychic energy seems to have been for naught, and Woods is contemplating his next move. He may land at another local brewery, bar, or other venue, any of which would be very lucky to have him.

Us songwriters are left with nary a local venue for regular work. There are other breweries in the area that feature live music, including Old Stump in La Verne, but they book cover and tribute acts exclusively.

How did we get here? There was a time when live original music was cooking every weekend in Claremont and the surrounding areas. One could play Friday at the Green Door (RIP many years ago!), Saturday at the Black Watch, and Sunday afternoon at the Hi Brow. There were bookings to be had at the Claremont Colleges as well. With advent of DJ culture, the rise of tribute acts, and general distaste among aging live music fans for anything other than their favorite songs from their high school years, songwriters have slowly been edged toward the door.

I’ve long wondered why Claremont has continued to tout its bona fides as art-centric community. Yes, visual art still enjoys strong support. Fancy folks will pay $$$ for dinner and easy listening music at oodles of fundraisers. The Claremont Colleges continue to bring us all manner of wonderful classical symphony orchestra and band concerts, mostly for free! But for us long-suffering rock, country, punk, and pop songwriters and musicians, it’s slim pickins’.

I’ve written about this before and had pushback from folks defending the city’s support of the arts, but there’s no denying the overall climate is poor for songwriters and musicians in my circle.

Last Name Brewing abandoning the live music ship and The Press selling off the last legitimate live rock music spot in town could be the end of it all, I don’t know. I do know both events are profoundly sad for us music creators.

My hope is something new springs up and fills the vacuum. Anybody have $2.5 million lying around?


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