The state of all age

A look at all-ages venues in Tacoma

By Rev. Adam McKinney on December 10, 2009

In the local music ecosystem, all-ages venues are invaluable. I think that a lot of under-agers are agonized by being under 21, not because they’re unable to drink in bars, but because they’re constantly being deprived of the opportunity to see amazing shows. Tacoma understands this, but it has always struggled to maintain all-ages venues. Occasionally, something will open up for a little while, but it never seems to last. Unfortunately, Hell’s Kitchen has closed its doors to under-agers in conjunction with its move to Pacific Avenue, downtown. That, along with the closing of the Helm Gallery earlier this year, means that pickings for all-ages shows have become uncomfortably scarce in Tacoma. But it’s not all bad news. Though we may have very few all ages venues, the two we do have are solidly run operations that seem likely to stand the test of time.

Knock on wood.

The Den

Mostly, what seems to work in Tacoma is heavy metal. It seems permanently unflappable. Something about Tacoma nourishes furious guitar licks and mosh pits. No one could say that’s a bad thing, but those who don’t live on the metal are happy to have The Den. Located deep within the bowels of downtown Tacoma’s aggressively hip used clothing store, urbanXchange, is a venue that trades in the kaleidoscopic cult of “indie”—folk, garage, psychedelic, electronic, and straight-ahead rock ‘n roll inflections abound.

A complaint I’ve heard (and made) before regards the circular, almost incestuous nature of the Tacoma local music scene. Not to say that this is an entirely a bad thing, but after seeing your favorite local bands so many time, it gets stale and you just need something new in your diet. Luckily, The Den keeps a constant parade of new and exciting bands coming through their doors. Big names and small, local and touring, The Den consistently brings it. Our newest venue, The Den will hit its one-year anniversary in February. With any luck, it’ll stick around for a good long while—long enough to exist as an example for future all-ages venues.

The Viaduct

The Viaduct has a scrappy, sweaty background that sounds all too familiar to those involved in Tacoma’s music scene. Starting its life in a run-down building under the viaduct, it eventually had to vacate its location. For a while, its shows swam from one odd spot to the next, until finally resting on its current location on South Tacoma Way, where it’s been growing and fighting since late 2007. The Viaduct was practically forged in blood.

Hardcore music is The Viaduct’s bread and butter, once again connecting with Tacoma’s thirst for the heavy stuff. Unlike Hell’s Kitchen or The Den, The Viaduct boasts the distinction of being exclusively a venue—not a bar or a store. It depends on volunteer employees and word of mouth to stay afloat and, while things are always a little shaky, it seems to be succeeding.

The Cake Room

Nothing against The Den and The Viaduct, but with Hell’s Kitchen recently closing its doors to all-ages shows, there’s a lurking danger that the all-ages scene could possibly slip into dormancy. Being a little ahead on the all-ages tip is never an unwelcome proposition — and this seems to be where The Cake Room finds itself. Speaking with Nate Boyt, owner and director of The Cake Room, my fears the club may be a flash in the pan are mostly allayed. He seems to really know his shit.

An advantage The Cake Room has is, like The Viaduct, it functions only as a venue — not a bar or a store or anything else.

“If you go to The Den, you’re kind of going there for the atmosphere,” says Boyt. “You know, you’re getting a cup of tea, and you’re sitting down on vintage furniture, and you’re listening to a band play through a vintage PA, and it’s kind of all about that vibe. (At The Cake Room) We’ve really put a lot of effort into the production of a room.”

If it all falls together, The Cake Room could fill out the all-ages scene in Tacoma and get the ball rolling for more clubs to come. But you know what I’m most excited about?

They have a concession stand that serves nachos and hot dogs. It’s like they’ve been reading my diary.

The point is that it’s up to all of us to make Tacoma’s all-ages scene work. These venues don’t fail for lack of trying. They need you to show your support. See a flyer advertising some bands you’ve never heard of? Why not check it out?

The scene is only as good as the people who inhabit it.