Cosmic Change

Brace yourself: The cherished old Comet Tavern is cleaning house. Brian J. Barr

As hallowed as it may be, for the past few years, the Comet Tavern hasn't played a huge role in Seattle's rock scene. It's been there all along, sure, frequented by musicians and music fans alike, but it hasn't been a premier venue for newer bands to display their chops. However, two new faces at the 40-year-old dive are signaling a resurgence.

First, over the past six months, Michelle Smith (aka DJ Mamma Casserole) has helped transform the joint into a great showcase venue by booking up-and-coming bands of consistent quality.

"It's the foot-in-the-door club for bands to play," says Smith. "We're talking about bands like the Cuts and Gris Gris. Bands that never would have played here in the past are playing here now. And we're booking lots of great local acts, too, like Razrez, the Romance, Bats of Belfry. We had the Prids come up from Portland and it sold out."

For lesser-known bands in Seattle, venue options have been few and far between.

"This is the problem with Seattle as a 'rock town,'" says Jan Norberg, frontman for local band the Bats of Belfry. "There are really only about six venues to play, as opposed to San Francisco, where there are at least 15 different venues. Michelle has really started something [at the Comet], and it seems to be built off of community, not just scenester stuff."

The Comet's other newbie is former Chop Suey owner Chris Dasef, who recognized the Pike Street watering hole's potential when he purchased it in late July. "The real story," says Dasef, "is that the Comet is ready to rise as a new venue in the city with quality rock."

While Dasef insists that any changes to the Comet will be barely noticeable, some longtimers will no doubt note some polishing.

"It's cleaner," he says. "We're adding liquor. We take credit cards now, painted the walls. We're gonna paint the tables black, just to give it a darker feel. It's been here for 40 years, it needed to be refreshed."

Dasef will tell you flat out that he has a reputation for transforming dives into happening nightspots.

"That's what I do," he says. "I go into places and make them start singing again."

And he's got the résumé to back up his boast. He bought the Jackson Street mainstay Temple Billiards and turned it into a hard-liquor-selling club with an electronica-friendly basement lounge. Then, he purchased Chop Suey from club maven Linda Derschang, and gave booker Steven Severin a chance to boost the Madison Street club into a nationally recognized venue. Now, he's doing it again with the Comet, tapping Smith as the one to bring the bands.

"Michelle is really coming along as a booking agent," he says. "She's starting to really tune into shows. And though the focus is gonna be on rock shows, we're gonna cut back a little on the amount of shows and only focus on shows of extreme quality. We're not gonna force any shows. If the show doesn't have a draw and doesn't have people behind it, we're not gonna do it."

For anyone eager to get a glimpse of the spiffed-up Comet, this Saturday will mark its grand reopening with Seattle's Clash-fueled rockers the Cops. You'll find fresh paint, and a 12-foot black velvet curtain hanging from the back wall behind the slightly elevated bandstand. While graffiti is no longer allowed on the walls of the main room, Dasef points to the back room where the pool table sits as "the graffiti room."

"Look, there's 40 years of history here," he says. "I'm not gonna do anything that would damage the integrity of what people have come to expect from this place."

One thing sensitive audience members will no longer have to worry about is acoustics. While most bands there have sounded like they've been playing inside a tin can, Dasef says they've added sound-proofing materials along with a set of volume regulations.

"We've had shows in here that have hit 120–125 decibels," he says. "We've now got very set rules here that the sound guy has control of amp volume. We want it to sound good, but not so horribly loud that it drives people out of here."

For Smith, booking the Comet will remain a labor of love (she has a day job as a social worker for a veterans' shelter).

"[The Comet] has always been my favorite bar in Seattle," she says. "I mean the Cha-Cha has its place, but I like the comfortable rock bars. At the time I started booking here, the Comet wasn't doing well financially, so I stepped in, tried to do more shows, and bump the place up. And I think I've been pretty successful at that."

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