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By Brian Palmer
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It's nearly midnight on New Year's Eve, and the Arizona Roadhouse and Brewery is packed. The place is filled with revelers and roots music courtesy of the Rustic Record label and its cohorts: the Trophy Husbands, Heather Rae and the Moonshine Boys, Nitpickers, Grave Danger, Mark Insley, Chicken.
As the ball drops on the TV screens above the bar, the Husbands launch into a blistering and festive version of Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight."
A couple of miles away, in the corporate ghetto of Mill Avenue, Hootie and the Blowfish is ringing in the new year on the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Block Party street stage. If the law of diminishing returns holds true, Hootie and company may be busking for change on this same street in the not-too-distant future.
Back at the Roadhouse, the mood is ebullient amid a dizzying swirl of fanfare, hats and horns. It's a roller-coaster holiday for the close-knit and mostly family staff of the restaurant. Tomorrow, the club will host 400 Oregon State Beaver boosters for a pregame party, capping what has been the restaurant's most profitable month in some time. On Tuesday, the Roadhouse will go out of business.
Such is the fickle hand of fate, especially in Tempe, where a shift in entertainment tastes and an increasingly stratified culture of development has left independent business owners holding the bag.
The Roadhouse, which had been owned and operated by the Kelly family since late 1996, is just the latest victim of this trend. Its closure makes it the third major local-music venue to go belly-up since 1999. The first, Gibson's (located in Hayden Square), reemerged last year as a retro dance-a-teria called the Have A Nice Day Café, part of an Charlotte, North Carolina-based chain of themed nightclubs. The second, Balboa Café -- also in Hayden Square -- remains closed. Both were victims of a shrinking and increasingly apathetic audience for live, original music.
"Part of our theme was always 'original beer, food and music,'" says Roadhouse manager Shawn Kelly. "From the beginning, the idea was to have original music -- local and national -- and not have cover acts. That was our guiding principle."
For the most part, the Roadhouse's entertainment calendar favored Kelly's tastes in roots and indie pop and rock. Highlights in the past year included shows from Chuck Prophet and Calexico, plus memorable appearances by locals such as Grave Danger and the Zen Lunatics.
Clearly, the club's downfall was a long time in the offing. Without a strong daytime or lunch business, the Roadhouse was forced to cut its hours drastically last year, as well as scale back the entertainment quotient. Still, the Kellys soldiered on through 2000, in which it seemed a fairly profitable winter might signal a change in their fortunes.
"December was actually a pretty good month for us," Shawn Kelly says. "We could've prolonged it, but in the end, we probably wouldn't have made it through another summer. I think my family got tired of it and sinking money into it. Even though we had three or four of our best nights in the last few weeks, it was just getting to the end."
In addition to the slow shrinking of the audience for live music, part of the Roadhouse's problem was its location. Despite its close proximity to the ASU campus, the stretch of Apache Boulevard east of Rural Road (which includes other defunct businesses like the Electric Ballroom, Tempe Bowl and Peppino's Pizza) has been given short shrift by city fathers who've chosen to bolster and refurbish other sections of the university area.
"I guess our feeling is that it has been a little bit neglected in favor of other parts of Tempe," says Kelly. "They were talking about doing other projects on the street and making it a kind of redevelopment zone, but they haven't really done much in that regard, so it was a little disappointing."
Despite the presence of a handful of key remaining clubs (Nita's Hideaway, the Green Room and Hollywood Alley in Mesa), the East Valley is heading toward what appears to be a critical shortage of live-music venues, specifically the kind that book lower- to mid-level national acts.
"It seems like more and more of the music in town is going in a different direction. I don't know if it's that people just aren't supporting original live music or what exactly," notes Kelly.
Admittedly, the Roadhouse's biggest success over the past year had been its Tuesday hip-hop nights (which have since moved to Nita's Hideaway). "Without question, that was the best thing we had going as of late," Kelly says. "Maybe we should've done more of that. Unfortunately, it didn't go with other aspects of the business -- specifically the food -- but it's still hard to say, even looking back on it."
For Kelly, a longtime local-music maven, the demise of so many venues is disheartening. "I used to love to be able to go around and have four or five options on any weekend night to go see lots of great shows. It seems like it's just getting down to a few places now. I don't know."