Trading Spaces

'Speakeasy' to street legal: Some scenes make the move; others don't.

EVERY MINUTE, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 245 people are born and 107 die. Similarly, as you stagger out of bed for a glass of water at 3:35 a.m. on a Saturday night, one Seattle after-hours club may be hosting its debut party, while another throws its last.

Even if this city doesn't boast a particularly vibrant late-late-night scene, it plays host to more after-hours venues than you might think. As recently as a year ago, Eastlake's Lo_Fi Performance Gallery (429B Eastlake Ave. E., was having parties—complete with live music, dancing, and alcohol—between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. In the early days, for obvious reasons, parties at Lo_Fi didn't rely on any conventional forms of advertising, says manager Michael Leone. "It was completely word of mouth and e-mail lists," he says. "Basically, every single person that walked in the door, we tried vigorously to get their e-mail, and then I would put out a mass e-mail just to those people. Sometimes there were little handbills, but nothing that was posted on the [telephone] poles."

Once he started investing serious money in the place, Leone decided it was time to go legit. Today, Lo_Fi has a full liquor license and attracts a cultured, arty, laid-back crowd without descending into the tiresome cliché of Belltown yuppiehood or Capitol Hill hipsterism. Better still, its out-of-the-way address makes it a destination, not a place you stumble into randomly after a few too many appletinis.

From outside Lo_Fi, you can peek through a rounded window at the deep red lighting around the bar. Stealing a glimpse gives you a sense, at least, of what it must have been like to be "in the know" during Lo_Fi's underground days. But what you find inside—a stylish, carefully developed labyrinth—recalls other local multimedia venues like Consolidated Works more than the drafty warehouse spaces glorified in rave movies. If visual artist Christian Marclay were a doctor, his waiting room would probably look like Lo_Fi's front lounge, which has a working turntable and a deconstructed keyboard mounted on the wall. When you follow a narrow, mysterious corridor back to the dance floor and DJ/band area, you feel like you're discovering something hidden. Tuesday nights at Lo_Fi, according to Leone, are devoted to "a hip-hop, break-dancing, urban art scene." Early on a recent Tuesday, a dozen people stood in a circle against a floor-to-wall video backdrop, watching the dancer in the center pull off a spinning headstand. To make it a true performance space, not a traditional club, Leone programs everything from visual art to video installations and books dance, jazz combos, and DJs.

WHILE LEONE was remodeling his space and preparing to become a legitimate operation, another local after-hours entrepreneur was operating on a business model that said all shows would begin—not end—at 2 a.m. Brian DeWade used to book parties at Lo_Fi during its pre-legit days; at the same time, he was organizing after-hours events at his home, a converted warehouse in a largely industrial neighborhood. Bands like Living Daylights and Rockin' Teenage Combo were already playing parties there when DeWade moved in six years ago, but he "took it to the next level," attracting national jazz and drum-and-bass acts and charging admission. Still, he says, each party felt like "more of a hang and jam sesh" than a formal club event.

Unlike Lo_Fi, DeWade's space—which he calls the Loft—continues to operate as an after-hours venue, hosting parties roughly once a month. DeWade minimizes his risk by not serving alcohol at parties and avoiding a ravelike atmosphere that can attract police attention. "People ask me often, 'Why don't you do more [parties]?'" he says. "We just wouldn't be able to do it if I did more. I feel like somebody would shut us down." By its very nature, the after-hours party is a rare bird in Seattle.

The now-defunct Common Fire serves as a prime example of why many local late-night underground venues prove short-lived. "They were around for a year doing late-night parties every weekend," says Leone of the Fremont club. "Unless you're superhuman, it's extremely exhausting." Leone says financial shortfall played a role in Common Fire's decline as well. "They weren't making the profits that they needed to make," he claims. "After-hours parties really don't make [much]. . . . You charge 10 bucks, you're not selling alcohol, you've got to pay bands half the door." Presumably, every after-hours club manager must eventually face the nagging question, "Why am I doing this?"

Still, the impulse to throw a party in the middle of the night, when most of us are sound asleep, is hard to deny—or suppress. Although Common Fire and others are gone and Lo_Fi is now on the up and up, other late-night clubs continue to emerge. See if you can hear the thumping next time you're fumbling around for a glass of water.

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