Checkers, Anyone?

Like game pieces, Tempe music venues keep jumping around

Last month, New Timeswrote about the Clubhouse, a rising venue in Tempe that promised to fill a niche once occupied by Nita's Hideaway. Which is to say it was becoming a small but high-profile spot for local lovers of twangy rock and for an all-ages crowd that lives for hard rock. The Clubhouse also was beginning to book some exciting national shows. Matt Sharp, former bassist for Weezer, played a solo acoustic show there in July, and the Twinemen, a band featuring the surviving members of innovative pop trio Morphine, were scheduled for an October 4 gig.

Our timing in profiling the Clubhouse proved to be eerily imperfect. Turnover in clubland is a way of life -- yesterday's Electric Ballroom is today's Clubhouse is tomorrow's Old Brickhouse Grill. The week after writer Jonathan Bond's piece ran, Maria Vassett, a longtime Valley manager, promoter and booker, accepted what she views as a dream job offer: She left the Clubhouse to become talent buyer and booking agent at the new Nita's Hideaway.

"I do want to bring everything that I was doing at the Clubhouse to Nita's," says Vassett. She admits, coincidentally, that her work at the Clubhouse -- booking a large number of shows for all ages, holding matinee performances for novice bands on weekends, stacking concert bills that featured several well-known locals -- was modeled after Nita's previous incarnation in smaller confines at the corner of McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway.

In a sense, then, Vassett's move to Nita's promises to restore some of that club's former identity. Spurred by Tempe's redevelopment plans for the Rio Salado area, Nita's owner Mark Covert endured considerable headaches (remodeling expense, objections from local churchgoers) to move the club last December into a massive former steak house just off the Loop 101. In the months since, Nita's has found success, attracting sold-out performances by Queens of the Stone Age and the Deftones. But its credo as the hip spot for rock 'n' rollers has suffered as the faithful have had to adapt to the cavernous, more impersonal new digs (which I still feel is the best room for bands in the area), and the club has worked to establish Little Nita's in an attempt to re-create its former vibe.

More crucially, after previous talent buyer Will Anderson left earlier in the year to help his company AMJ Concerts and promotional firm Nobody in Particular Presents book the new Marquee Theatre, the roster of shows at Nita's became, at times, puzzling. Take this past May for instance: The standout national acts were '80s heavy-metal leftovers Dokken and Anthrax and Texas rockers Slobberbone, which last time through town played the blues-friendly Rhythm Room. Other out-of-town dates were filled by regional no-name singer-songwriters like Katrina Carlson and Matthew Moon. As for local acts that played Little Nita's, while former hometown boy Stephen Ashbrook returned for a show, other dates were filled by nascent bands with self-contained followings like the Heartgraves and the Lymbyc System and by benefit shows, awards banquets and a birthday party for KZON-FM DJ Tracy Lea. The whole slate was a rudderless free-for-all, and had the effect of potentially alienating the club's previous faithful.

As Covert sees it, the main problem has been drawing a seven-day-a-week crowd to Little Nita's. "I really feel the smaller shows, the local shows, the make-or-break things we always did, weren't getting enough attention." By that, he means Little Nita's wasn't getting enough of his attention. The physical demands of running a larger club weighed on him. And that's where Maria Vassett enters the picture.

Vassett's presence at Nita's is already apparent. On September 5, Lucero and Drag the River, two perpetually touring alt-country stalwarts and Vassett favorites, performed a show together. Later this month, Nita's will also host shows by Canadian retro rock band Hot Hot Heat, Mexican oddballs Los Straitjackets and underground rapper Atmosphere. October's lineup promises some of the best bands in the Valley, including Stereotyperider, Flathead, Fifteen Minutes Fast and Tickertape Parade.

Nita's may just be regaining its edge, or at least the ability to compete for national acts with the Marquee -- which, with its hooks into punk bands like the Sex Pistols and Poison the Well and accomplished rock acts like Guster and Spiritualized, is the standard-bearer these days.

"It's a hit or miss," Vassett says. We're not a Clear Channel. We're not a corporation. It's a family business. [The challenge is] finding a way to get more of those [national] shows back in here."

Meanwhile, the place Vassett left behind, the Clubhouse, owned by the adjacent sports bar Horse & Hound in a strip mall on Broadway Road, is planning its next moves. From the initial looks of it, things will be moving as far away from Vassett's music-geek approach as possible (Vassett, a child of punk, still uses the word "rad"). Jeff Cragg, owner of the Horse & Hound, says he chose not to honor the departing Vassett's September and October bookings at the Clubhouse after a contentious argument.

"She wanted to do all-ages all the time," says Cragg. "We're not against all ages, but she wanted to do all-ages 24/7. We pretty much parted ways over that."

Generally, promoters keep the door fees from shows, while the club owners keep the money made at the bar. That means the bar is less likely to rake in a respectable buck with minors roaming in the crowd. Vassett, for her part, doesn't dispute that the all-ages issue was a sticking point, but says she was usually kept in the dark about how much money had to be collected to break even or make a profit.

Regardless of the shit-tossing, both parties have turned the corner ("Yes, we didn't make thousands of dollars [per show], but yes, we created a venue people could fall in love with," says Vassett, who maintains she's grateful for her Clubhouse experience). The Clubhouse is now pointedly veering toward a more upscale entertainment bill. While the club has only been open on weekends, the Clubhouse wants to expand that to seven nights a week, using theme nights to attract young adults.

It also clearly is gunning for drinkers in their 20s -- maybe it'll morph into a Scottsdale-style snob hole. Stacy Funk, formerly manager of urban-oriented Tempe club Last Call, will be handling a majority of the booking. Funk's plans for the room include comedy and other theme nights, freestyle rap battles and occasional rock shows (which, from the sound of it, may feature her own ska-pop outfit Girl Kicks Boy). Her first show at the reopened Clubhouse took place September 6. It was a hip-hop bill featuring acts such as Judge N' Jury, Fabel Fam, Megamaynx and DJ Direct, a far cry from Truckers on Speed blasting through a triumphant final set; rather, it was a few loose grooves for gin-and-tonics sipping.

So . . . Nita's is on its way to resembling Nita's again, and the Clubhouse has turned from Tempe rock savior to comfortable dive for the sophisticated set. And the moral of this story: Try not to tout today what might not be there tomorrow.

Remember September 11, 2001! Share your thoughts with Kick & Scream about post-9/11 pop music at the author's online address, christopher.oconnor@newtimes.com, or at 602-407-1715.

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