Making Spenard Great Again

December 30, 2018 GMT

For the past 4 years, I’ve enjoyed the blessings of traveling the state as leader of HarpDaddy & the BackCountry Mojo. This past summer, I had the privilege of bouncing down the highways and dirt roads of Alaska with septuagenarian guitarist Mike Lassley, the tastiest blues guitarist in SouthCentral Alaska, hands down.

I loved hearing his stories of touring the globe with the Drifters (1976-77) and the Coasters (early 1980′s and 90′s). We also spoke often of the Anchorage live music scene from that time, when there were tunes blowing every night of the week and it was hopping.

“You could quit a gig one night, walk across the street and have another gig the same night. And there was real deal talent,” Lassley said. “The real JZ… John Zuleger…. Best damn guitarist I ever saw. I’d just sit there and watch him…”

JZ went on to play with Doug Kershaw the “Rajin Cajun”

And then, the over-arching theme of these conversations inevitably drops… “We got paid $125-250 a night… 5 or 6 nights a week, back in the 70s and 80s,” Lassley recalled.

And now we bouncing 100+ miles down this highway to play out of town gigs for that or less — 40 years later. My biggest concern, as a bandleader, was finding gigs that made financial sense, and paying the Bargelskis, Arrowsmiths (David), and Lassleys what they deserved. We stayed busy, but it drove me crazy as a businessman, because these guys deserved so much more.

As I’ve been going around interviewing musicians, venue owners, and fans of live music over the past few months, I keep hearing that our local music scene is dead. It’s what has sparked me to start reporting on this scene and the unique talent wherein I see a trend developing ‚— IT’S THE ECONOMY STUPID. The big Oil money is drying up. Many high income jobs have left the state. There is also a real fear of DUI’s and the fact that we live in a Smartphone culture where people stare at their friggin’ palms all day. It seems like people just do not go out and spend time and money like they once did.

Live Music is medicine. A recent study was conducted by concert promoter Live Nation, wherein they surveyed 22,500 respondents, rating the satisfaction of live music as being superior to watching sports, playing video games, streaming music, or even having sex. In addition, there are recent evidence-based clinical studies that show that live music has positive effects on reducing pain and anxiety.

This scene here in Anchorage is not dead and there has never been a greater need for the therapeutic effects of live music more than now. You just need to know where to go… and I’m about to tell ya…

Spenard has always had her own identity — her gritty personality and dangerously seductive beauty — and if ya haven’t noticed, the live music scene is happening on the southside of Benson. I hereby deem it the ‘SOBE District’ — feel free to use that. Within a few years we lost the Taproot/Route 33 (a couple of times), the Carousel closed, and there was very little happening music-wise in this district, with the exception of some house parties. But within the past year, something beautiful has blossomed.

The NEW Carousel Lounge, and its owners Paul Berger and Linda Bucinsky Coffer, have created something far beyond a dive bar. Trying to get a minute to interview with Linda is truly a challenge, because I find it tough to write and run, but thankfully she took a minute for me. This woman has vision and purpose; so ya better keep up... “We have a deep sense of community. We are not a bar just to make money off of selling alcohol. My whole vision has been to create a gathering place with a sense of family and neighborhood. That’s where the idea of free daily soup comes from. No cover charge for our live music events. . I never charge for my venue for any memorial service, wedding celebration of any kind. That’s part of the whole family values.” She continues: “We pride ourselves in having a very diverse crowd, ages 21 to past 70 on a regular basis, and everyone gets along, again the family/neighborhood bar. Carousel Lounge: your friendly dive bar!”

What I am so excited about is Carousel’s growing commitment to live music. It’s a great room to play, although I wonder what happened to the painted ladies paintings. I love the feel of the crowd and the staff is top-notch. Linda has heavily supported the local music scene since the previous Carousel model.

“Stretching back over 15 years now, bands like Decepticide, Rebel Blues, StephInfection, — all of the old school bands, some that are still around; and some have left — and I love working with the newer bands on the scene as well, like the Boogie Shoes,” she said.

The Carousel has recently added an Open Mic on Wednesdays, hosted by Jacob LaBoeuf and Motown, Soul, and Rock-n-Roll Thursdays hosted by Tyson James, and I hear that they will be adding Tuesday nights to the mix in the near future. The Carousel is doing it right and so pleased that they have committed to more nights of live music…

Next door, La Potato (formerly the Fly-By-Night/Taproot) is having music on weekend nights. They have dedicated themselves as a restaurant, that is providing live music, and I hope that they add additional nights as they evolve, as it is such a historic and important room with an amazing stage. It was always a big deal when I was given the opportunity to play the Taproot and I am glad to see that La Potato is reaping the rewards of their good timing and community support. There is great need in the music community to see venues like this thrive. There is also a nice collaboration happening here, because La Potato has earlier shows and closes their doors at 11 p.m. so often much of the crowd filters over to the Carousel or other area venues.

A block or two down is the old Love Church, now known as the Church of Love. The COL was slated for demolition, but Cook Inlet Housing Authority stepped in and through an ArtPlace Community Development Investments Grant, they have truly developed a unique gathering place. Truly an “out-of-the-box” concept, melding artists and community with corporate funding. Making a shared vision happen, The Church of Love has rental studio spaces for artists and is becoming a space for artists to connect, collaborate, and learn from others.

Just around the corner and down a few blocks sits The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe, on the site of the old Adults Only XXX video parlor. I’ve seen acts ranging from Kat Moore, jazz guitarist Joe Craig, and most recently the Hip-Hop Classical show of Kuf Knotz & Christine Elise on harp. I was immediately taken in by the warmth of the room. It is a super-cool little intimate venue, the feel of a house party, or as co-owner Dawnell Smith calls it, “a listening room”. Dawnell and the 3 other owners of the Writer’s Block are all creative thinkers.

Smith went on to tell me that the team’s vision was to ”support the artistic community through workshops and tutoring, and to support artists to help them translate their ideas into art, music, and activism…” she said., “We have become what the community was asking for — the community made us.” In addition to live music events, The Writer’s Block provides a space for panel discussions, workshops, art occupations, a free wifi workspace, along with proper coffee, a beer and wine menu, and a tasty, healthy international menu.

“Music is everywhere, it just happens to be visible here… None of this is new. It’s a very old idea, Music around books and food,” she said. Dawnell goes on to tell me how they are trying to be the opposite of the music and food competiion shows. “Food is meant to be made and shared. It’s about being together, not in a competition where there are winners and losers.”

Certainly, the economy is not what it was in the “good ol’ days” and the local live music scene is not what it once was, but I am excited about what changes are occurring and the talent that is here grinding it out.

There are fewer music-focused venues and less money and opportunities to go around, but I am enthused when I see what is happening in this quirky part of Anchorage long known for having a good time.

Let’s hear it for Spenard. Thank You… “Old’s Cool”