Caspian venue change—from Art to Alex’s—highlights Long Beach live music void

The East Coast instrumental indie band Caspian is landing in Long Beach this week, capping off a two-week West Coast tour at Alex’s Bar on Wednesday.

Only, they weren’t supposed to play there.

Originally, the post-rock outfit was scheduled to perform at the Art Theatre, Long Beach’s last remaining independent movie theater which predominantly shows first-run and independent films, but also hosts live performances such as Midnight Insanity’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” which has been shadowcasting on the Art’s elevated stage since the late ’80s.

Hours before the band knew of the venue change, they talked about how excited they were to play for the first time in Long Beach, recognizing the unconventionality of the space. Earlier this year, Caspian performed at Hollywood Forever’s historic Masonic Lodge theater, just across the street from the famed graveyard that regularly hosts outdoor music events and movie screenings.

“We’ve been on tour for a long time,” said Philip Jamieson, Caspian’s guitarist/keyboardist. “So anytime you get an opportunity to play something just like a little bit different, it just adds a nice spice to the mix.”

Ultimately, the change came down to audio capabilities; the Art Theatre sound system could not support the specificities Caspian requires to play live. Not an altogether shocking reality given the theater’s orientation, but it was exactly that which appealed to the band’s decision to book.

The Caspian predicament highlights a void in the city’s greater live-music community. Where do acts with prominent followings, such as Caspian, who tour internationally and have more than 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, come to play in Long Beach? There simply isn’t an all-ages place in the city reaching mid-size proportions—500 to 1,000 capacity—that is first and foremost a music venue, not a bar, with adequate capability to host those acts.

“There’s not really a Troubadour here,” said Jon Halperin, primary talent buyer of Pomona’s The Glass House who also booked all the talent for Long Beach’s own Music Tastes Good Festivals. “We need something like [Orange County’s] The Observatory.”

The Troubadour’s 500-person capacity is that staple, mid-range venue that’s missing from the Long Beach music scene. It’s a space that caters to more formidable, up-and-coming acts, backed with a history of landmark shows, like Dave Grohl drumming publicly for the first time with Queens of the Stone Age in 2002 or Mumford and Sons in 2010, who performed their debut headlining North American show at the night club.

Consider that this week, on Feb. 15, Ani DeFranco will be playing The Observatory in Santa Ana, with a capacity of 972. As an indie folk-rock artist and LGBTQ activist, DeFranco would have been a perfect fit in Long Beach. Just last year Long Beach was rated, yet again, a top city in the nation for LGBTQ equality. And for years Long Beach’s Folk Rock Revival Festival drew hundreds to the Rainbow Lagoon Park.

Yet she won’t be playing Long Beach after Santa Ana. No, the following day, DeFranco will travel north to San Luis Obispo, a city a tenth of the size of Long Beach, to play the Fremont Theater with 600 fixed seats and standing room that can accommodate about another 300 patrons.

Although uncommon, it’s not entirely unheard of for the Art Theatre to host live music events. Jan Van Dijs, owner and board president of the theater notes that they enjoy booking the half dozen or so concerts they host there each year.

“I think people really appreciate them, so it keeps the venue fresh for people and we love it,” he said. “I think it fits Long Beach.”

One of the last music performances at the theater was during the Cambodia Town Film Festival in September, 2019. Rapper praCH Ly performed a selection of songs from his groundbreaking album “Dalama,” which documented the Cambodian killing fields and was informed by his own youth, growing up in North Long Beach. It was perhaps the last show Cambodia’s “first rap star” would ever perform.

Just over a decade ago, Vampire Weekend kicked off their mini California tour at the theater, with tickets for the show selling out in minutes, maxing out the venue’s 380 seat capacity.

“It was a huge show for Long Beach,” said Halperin, who booked the sold-out show.

Perhaps what the show did best, aside from giving Long Beach music lovers the chance to see a rare, big act, one that would normally require they drive at least 30-minutes north or south to see, was put the space on the radar for agents looking to book their bigger bands for intimate, all-ages shows in Long Beach.

Before momentum fizzled at the theater, Halperin landed other big draws in like the RX Bandits and Of Montreal, with Streetlight Manifesto’s lead singer, Koh Tay the last to perform in Dec. 2014.

Long Beach isn’t in short supply of spaces to catch live music, of course. Far from it. Alex’s Bar, Que Sera, 4th Street Vine, The Prospector and the Federal Underground are just a few of the live-music venues, with dozens of other spaces in the area hosting DJ nights, hip-hop shows, open mics and acoustic performances pretty much every night of the week.

The Queen Mary Exposition Park is quickly growing into a festival destination spot with major festivals like the just-completed One Love Reggae Fest, along with Just Like Heaven, and Tropicalia drawing thousands of concert-goers to its waterfront grounds each year.

Sublime with Rome surrounded by a massive crowd during the band’s performance at the One Love Cali Reggae Festvial Friday, February 7, 2020. Photo by Gaby Mungarro.

And yet, despite the palpable buzz, Long Beach remains a passed-over location when it comes to mid-level touring bands. In that regard, the city remains that part of the 405 freeway between OC and LA’s larger live music venues.

There are only three all-ages venues in Long Beach. Fingerprints, which has landed substantial acts like the Foo Fighters, Cold War Kids and Taking Back Sunday inside its record store, but it is not essentially a venue. DiPiazza’s, practically an institution, hosts all-ages, live music gigs and has done so over the last 36 years, including Weezer in the late ’90s. But they’re able to throw these shows because they are technically a restaurant.

Toxic Toast Theater is and, its owners say, will remain an all-ages venue, but the space doesn’t have the licensing to sell alcohol—which may deter concert-goers who can’t imagine enjoying a show without a beer in hand—and caters to a certain niche: they’re recognized for booking hardcore, punk and ska shows.

As Toxic Toast owner Andy George admitted in an interview last year, punk shows are Toxic Toast’s “bread and butter.”

Toxic Toast booking agent Jacob Williams (left) and owner Andy George pose with George’s rescue dog, Toast. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

There are a number of factors agents consider when it comes to booking live shows.

Aside from capacity, location and whether or not they’re trying to keep their show an all-ages gig (bar shows dominate our music landscape) there’s also calculating whether or not the band fits the venue’s aesthetic, a decision that’s harder to quantify, but equally as imperative.

Admittedly, Alex’s Bar books just about anything, from local to national acts, pop to death metal tones, but it’s got its style too.

“They tend to cater to bands with distortion pedals,” Halperin said. “They tend to book more punk and rockabilly. And, they have a certain clientele that goes there. There isn’t an indie-rock venue agents are super stoked where they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to put Modest Mouse in this room.’ ”

After Millwork’s CEO Michelle Molina and former husband John Molina of Pacific6, who owns the Long Beach Post, purchased the Vault 350 in 2015, it seemed that maybe the tide was turning in Long Beach.

During its heyday in the mid aughts, the music venue hosted formidable acts such as B.B. King, Kanye West, Flogging Molly, the Killers, Pennywise and Ghostface Killah. The couple spoke of wanting to breathe music back into space and for a shining moment, Vault 350, centered in the heart of downtown, seemed to be the answer.

But just three years later, the space was sold to Antioch Church of Long Beach, effectively ending that pipe dream.

Until Long Beach finds its Troubadour, indie bands with pronounced followings like Caspian, won’t be directing their gaze toward the city anytime soon.

But for now, you can catch their show Wednesday, at Alex’s Bar.

Caspian plays this Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Alex’s Bar; 2913 E. Anaheim St. Tickets for the show are $17 and will be $20 day of show. You can purchase your tickets, here.

 

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Cheantay Jensen is an editorial intern who covers art and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post.
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