Street Legal 

The trials and tribulations of running all-ages venues in Salt Lake City.

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Teen-agers were and are mother’s milk to rock & roll; without swooning, it would have stopped at Elvis. Oddly, they’re persona non grata at many places where rock is served. The reason is strictly fiscal—venue owners have to make money. They can’t succeed, much less subsist, on X-equals-door-receipts-less-band-guarantee-and-expenses. Thus, the cheap and easy fix has been to serve booze (it always draws a crowd, whereas your average independent rock band may not). This, naturally, spells bummer for Salt Lake’s music fans, bands and few all-ages venues.

“Since there is so very little money in clubs without booze,” says Phil Sherburne, proprietor of the Kilby Court Gallery, “no one’s really eager to jump in and lose money trying to give the kids somewhere to see music.”

A consequence of this reality is that all-ages venues like Kilby Court have been rare and temporary around these parts. Salt Lake has had some winners, though. The storied Speedway Café hosted shows by legendary bands from Fugazi to Soundgarden and sets by locals like The Stench, Bad Yodelers and Maimed For Life. Ditto SLUG magazine founder (now a Jackmormon) J.R. Ruppel’s Pompadour, the little gothic church on 300 West and 700 South (which has also been clubs Starz, Fusion and now, Sanctuary). But both boarded up the windows in the early ’90s and as each expired, it took months to years before another arose.

Many blame harsh Utah environs—the easy target, although recent revisions to liquor laws did handicap the hybrid all-ages/private club operations like Bricks and DV8, previously the two biggest sources of all-ages shows (the minimum age there is now 18). But the problem isn’t exclusive to this locale (many touring bands echo the lament with regard to their hometowns), and it’s really not as bad as it may seem.

Today, Utah boasts at least four active all-ages venues: Kilby Court (located, incidentally, on the street of the same name behind Sanctuary), Provo’s Muse Music, Midvale’s Independent Theater and downtown SLC’s Uprok Records. Muse is a close cousin to Kilby, booking punk-ska-emo-shoegaze-etc; Uprok hosts local hip-hop and rock in its basement; the still-new Independent, housed in the former Comedy Circuit, has so far featured punk and metal. None exist easily, but they’re essential in sustaining a scene and since teen-agers compose much of the record-buying public, to the survival of the touring bands that play there.

“Local bands have no incentive to spend time and money practicing,” says Sherburne, “if there’s no place for them to play. All-ages venues are helpful in that way, and they also show the local kids who are just starting out a link to the outside world.” Muse owner Chuck Hamm seconds him, saying “when people of any age see performers do what they do best, they feel inspired to do something themselves.”

Both men balk at any glory or martyrdom—”it’s a bit too altruistic,” Hamm says—but the success of their venues is the main point of pride. Hamm says the open-mic night (held each Tuesday) shows steady increases in popularity, both in and out of Utah County. Kilby Court, which puts on five to seven shows a week, is becoming as legendary as the Speedway and the Pompadour—booking agents clamor for Kilby shows, bands across the country name-check them in interviews and on their Websites, and the kiddies love it. Even Esquire (yes, that Esquire) called it one of the “coolest venues in the country.”

Alas, Kilby only last year turned a profit—$972—but will expand to add a second room featuring art displays and separate shows. “That’s the next step,” Sherburne says. “We’ll see how that goes, but we plan to be around until Clear Channel or their buddies come in with bags of money and run us out of town. Goddamn it, I hate those fuckers!”

“I’m still in the hole,” Hamm says, “but I’m surviving. Our goal is to keep bands and our employees happy by paying as much as we can. It’s not a lot—but the atmosphere and enjoyment makes up for the difference.”

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More by Randy Harward

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