By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
The optimists among us imagined that it might land in the hands of someone who appreciated what a great bar it is, what an ideal, unpretentious venue it is for live music. The realists among us worried that live bands might give way to table dancers.
Well, on June 23, Nita's finally changed ownership to a three-person collective, and the initial word is worrisome. For one thing, the place will change names to The Heat (a bar name so generic, you'd half expect to see Patrick Swayze working up front as a bouncer). For another, Charlie Levy, the club's booking agent for the past three years, will step aside to make room for the new owners. In fact, Levy has already sold his PA system to the new ownership of Balboa Cafe.
Nita's was purchased by two sisters, Tammy and Laurie Biddelcomb, and an unidentified silent partner. The Biddelcombs' uncle, Ron Whittle, will serve as operations manager for The Heat. Whittle says that the new owners have no previous business experience, and that he's helping them to revamp the club.
After Nita's shuts down on July 12, the new owners are expected to close the venue for two weeks, while they paint the floor red, install red carpeting onstage, and take down the band posters on the wall in favor of pictures of nude women and devil murals. Whittle says the new owners will probably feature "more outdoor concerts and more food." The music will move in a heavier, aggro-friendly direction, apparently with the intent of competing with the Big Fish Pub. "It won't exactly be thrash music, but it will be more of a metal sound, kind of like Metallica," Whittle says.
Surely, the new owners have good intentions, and they have every right to reshape the bar in their own image. But anyone who's loved Nita's for the warm, welcoming, down-home dive that it is, who's marveled at the club's tasefully eclectic musical choices, has to be tempted to launch into a "Say it ain't so, Joe" lament. Though often pegged by some as a roots-rock establishment, Nita's tended to accommodate anything that had genuine musical merit, whether it was the state-of-the-art turntablism of the Bombshelter DJs, the old-school punk of Jeff Dahl, or the artsy rock of Sleepwalker.
The recent sale has made me think about the many great shows I've seen at Nita's in the short year that I've lived in the Valley: the sadly underattended Ron Sexsmith, the rambunctious Oblivians, the booze-soaked Whiskeytown, the less-than-reverent Frank Sinatra tribute by Vic Masters, and any number of Wednesdays with the Revenants or Thursdays with the Bombshelter crew. And that's just scratching the surface.
Without Levy, who brought a genuine music fan's sensibility to the place, The Heat will inevitably be a different club. But if the new owners were wise, they would keep as much intact as possible. It simply makes no sense to drive away the longtime regulars to go chasing a new clientele that may or may not materialize.
But sense and logic really don't have much to do with my current thinking about Nita's. I'm simply going to miss the place. Even if the new owners' proposed overhaul resulted in big profits, I'd still feel that the local music scene came up on the short end. After all, the Big Fish Pub is good at what it does, but Tempe surely doesn't need a second one. Although clubs like Hollywood Alley and Boston's will surely pick up some of the slack created by Nita's departure, some shows just might fall through the cracks. Perhaps some of the Nita's sensibility will follow Levy's PA to Balboa Cafe, which is already showing hints of Nita's appreciation for rootsy fare.
Levy is now turning his attention to full-time band management. He currently represents three bands: Gloritone, the Revenants, and the New York-based Niner. Fortuitously for Levy, the changing of the guards at Nita's coincides with the national release of Gloritone's RCA debut album, which offers much commercial promise.
"I would love to go back into promoting music in the nightclub business, but I doubt that will happen," Levy says. "I wish [the new owners] the best of luck. It was a fun three years that we did music at Nita's. Life goes on."
Levy's still putting together a band list for Nita's farewell show on July 12, but he promises it will be a free show that will include many of the acts that defined the club.
"It'll be a free, free-for-all," he says. "I'm gonna get loopy. I don't think I've ever really gotten loopy at Nita's."
Hammer of the Gods: The Hammertoes have their roots in New York, but they've really formed their musical identity in the Valley. Nonetheless, it's easy to hear the traces of Gotham in their fearless mix of Brechtian cabaret folk, breezy bossa nova, and jazz-inflected pop. Vocalist and founding member Casey Wade has a gruff, slightly Tom Waitsian vocal delivery that can take some getting used to, but when he and his songs do eventually kick in, they make a good case for The Hammertoes as one of the more interesting bands on the local scene. What other Valley pop group can you name that includes sax, clarinet, tuba, trumpet, and the musical saw?