Sacramento’s independent music venues get one shot at reopening. After being closed for more than a year, the venue owners and managers who’ve kept some of our favorite local haunts alive throughout the pandemic are now faced with even more uncertainties as they slowly welcome patrons back at the bar and musicians onto their stages.
In June, historic venues such as the Torch Club and Old Ironsides started hosting live music again indoors as California shed its tier system and most of its pandemic restrictions, which included capacity limits. That meant bars, restaurants, nightclubs and music venues were essentially given the green light to operate business as usual.
But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Sacramento paired with stagnant vaccination rates of less than 50%, venues are forced to adapt once again, reinstating mask mandates and, in some cases, checking vaccination cards at the door to not only ensure the safety of employees and customers, but also to keep their businesses open as landmarks in Sacramento music.
“It’s a mixed bag of emotions. It was very odd to go from completely closed to 100% open,” says Marina Texeira, owner of the Torch Club. “It was almost like I really didn’t believe that we could do that. I kept waiting for someone else to say, ‘Well, clubs can only do this.’ I’ve been really, really conscious of COVID. So it was just a little strange.”
The Torch Club has been a Sacramento staple since 1934. Texeira took over the business from her late father in 2000 and has created a home for blues, funk, jazz and country music inside the small venue on 15th Street. But as cities like Los Angeles once again required masks indoors, it prompted Texeira to make some tough decisions. So she posted a flier on Facebook in July that read: “Help us stay open! We won’t survive another shutdown. Please respect the following protocol.”
The protocol: Patrons must show a physical copy or a photo of their vaccination card with a matching ID upon entry. The flier also included a plea for customers to respect people’s space and simply wash their hands.
“After 15 months being closed, I can’t afford to have to close or go back down to 25% or 50% [capacity],” Texeira says. “I can’t afford another shutdown. I won’t survive. Bottom line is I have to look out for what’s best for my business and the safety of others.”
Still, Texeira says the overall response from the community has been positive and supportive of the new safety precautions. Groups like Mind X, Island of Black and White, and Element Brass Band have all performed to happy patrons drinking, chatting and dancing to music, which gives her hope for the Torch Club’s endurance.
Over on 10th and S streets, Old Ironsides continues to be a fixture in local music with its own unique hurdles. But as a bar that survived the likes of Prohibition, it’s a place with a proverbial thick skin and savvy employees like manager Mark Gonzales, who has worked for the historic venue for the past 20 years, booking all its live music.
When indoor entertainment restrictions were lifted in June, Gonzales says, it was difficult at first to find indie bands that were still together, practiced and ready to play. But as time progressed, his calendar naturally started filling up with familiar events such as Wednesday open-mic nights, Thursday karaoke and live music on the weekends.
“I’m just making sure that I’m able to book music that people still want to come out to see. All three nights were just crazy. It was really good to see all the people coming back out again to support live music,” he says. “I think there’s a kind of warmth and inviting feeling that you get from local music venues. When you come to a place like ours, or the Torch Club, you know the bartenders. You know the people that work there because you’re familiar with them being there.”
And the Beat Goes On . . .
Rod Elliott, co-owner of Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub, recalls the very day when he knew access to live music would drastically change. It was March 13, 2020, and British R&B group Loose Ends was headlining the bill. Elliott had booked Loose Ends at Harlow’s before to a sold-out crowd, but this time, it was much different.
“This one didn’t even come close, and that’s why I remember it. That’s when I first thought, ‘OK, something’s up here.’ Even before Sacramento said it’s time to stay at home, I could tell that things weren’t going the way that they would normally go,” Elliott says. “The 13th was our final show, and then the next day was lights out. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget the feeling in the air.”
Harlow’s books a variety of national tours paired with local acts, and according to Elliott, figuring out the logistics of national tours with COVID-19 restrictions varying from state to state is a difficult task. But the show must go on, and the owners of Harlow’s spent the last year implementing a variety of improvements such as a touchless point-of-sale system and QR codes to scan for menus and information, as well as upping its sanitation game with hand sanitizer stations and masks available for those who choose to wear them.
But there’s a bigger challenge Elliott says is quite apparent nowadays: staffing.
“We employ 50-plus people during normal times, and I don’t know what most of them have gone on to do,” Elliott says. “From what I hear, a good number of people that were working and making a living in this industry have picked up anchor and gone on to other things. Maybe it’s because they fear this happening again. Restaurants, bars and music venues got hit really hard.”
With a full calendar booked, Harlow’s had to train new employees from scratch, a contrast from before the pandemic, when the crew at the longtime venue on J Street worked like a well-oiled machine. Still, there are positives to lean on, such as steady ticket sales for shows promoted on its online calendar, starting with old-school hip-hop artist Rakim, performing as Harlow’s first show back in August.
“We feel that we’re more fortunate than a lot of folks who went through this and ultimately didn’t make it. So we’re very thankful that we’re in the spot that we’re in, considering what the whole world has gone through,” Elliott says. “We’re gonna go for it. I think most music fans seem to take things like vaccines and hand sanitizing pretty seriously. But we’re just not the kind of venue that can operate at a percentage.”
Stockton Boulevard is home to iconic neighborhood pizzerias like Luigi’s Pizza Parlor and historic landmarks like The Colonial Theatre, which first opened in the 1940s. But it’s also home to neighboring underground music venues like Cafe Colonial, which predominantly hosts punk and metal genres.
Owners Gabriell and Ben Garcia, who used to operate the now-defunct music venue Blue Lamp on Alhambra Boulevard, say if it weren’t for the community’s efforts at fundraising, their all-ages venue wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic.
“They completely funded us the first year. We wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t just helped on their own,” Gabriell says. “We can’t go through another shutdown again. So that’s why we just kind of hibernated the whole time. We get one shot at reopening and then we’re done if it doesn’t happen right.”
Garcia says her staff was eager to come back for its reopening show on July 24 and plans to serve brunch on the weekends to supplement the costs of keeping the beloved venue open long term. It’s a place with a DIY-ethos, supported by the punks and metalheads who cherish having a place to call home and try out new material without boundaries.
Smaller venues like Cafe Colonial offer respite for those who may not fit in elsewhere, and Gabriell and her husband, Ben, are happy to provide that to a community they’ve been a part of for decades.
“Having a place to play your music and giving the kids a space is suicide prevention. A safe place to be yourself with no judgment, and to perform your art, visual or musical or whatever it may be, gives the kids a sense of community to find other people in their tribe that they may not find elsewhere,” Garcia says. “I just miss everyone’s faces, so I can’t wait to experience that connection again.” She’s eager to hear what kind of music has sprung from the pandemic and political strife of the past year. Such turmoil “usually makes for some really good art,” she says.
See upcoming live music at Sacramento’s beloved independent venues:
Friday, Sept. 24, 9 p.m.: Casey Hensley (San Diego, blues), $10 cover; Wednesday, Sept. 29, 8 p.m.: The Nth Power (New Orleans, funk), $15 advance, $18 cover. torchclub.net
Friday, Sept. 10, 8 p.m.: Grub Dog and the Amazing Sweethearts, Tattooed Love Dogs (Americana), $8 cover; Saturday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m.: Ghostplay, Lavender Blush, Dusty Miller (indie), $8 cover. theoldironsides.com
Friday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m.: Regional Justice Center, Concussive, HKFY, Bolo (punk), $12; Saturday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m.: Haunt, Saber, Knight & Gallow (heavy metal), $10. cafecolonial916.com
Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub
Friday, Sept. 3, 8 p.m.: Andre Nickatina (Bay Area rap) with special guests, $25 advance, $30 cover; Saturday, Sept. 11, 9 p.m.: Con Brio, Ideateam (soul, rock), $18 advance, $20 cover. harlows.com