Neptune Rising

The University District's historic theater becomes the neighborhood's most important live-music venue in years.

The University District was in a subdued mood Friday night. Just days away from the summer solstice, the sky was heavy with clouds and the evening below only vaguely humid. A few young folks walked the Ave or along the Burke-Gilman trail, but already, a week after commencement, the neighborhood had the emptied-out feel of the academic off-season. On the corner of 45th and Brooklyn, though, the historic Neptune Theater was quietly coming back to life—not merely as the single-screen cinema it's been since 1921, but as the neighborhood's most significant live-music venue in recent memory, maybe ever. Last year, the Thompson family, who built the Neptune and have owned it since, declined to renew the building's lease with Landmark Theaters, the Los Angeles–based chain of art-house theaters that also operates seven other vintage movie theaters in Seattle, including three in the U District alone: the Varsity, the Seven Gables, and the Metro. The owners briefly considered converting the Neptune to retail use or leveling the building to make way for a Sound Transit station. Then Seattle Theater Group, the local nonprofit which preserves, and programs entertainment at, historic theaters such as the Moore and the Paramount, came in and signed a long-term lease for the Neptune with a plan to renovate it into a mixed-use venue for live music, performance, and film. The overhaul represents not only another jewel in STG's crown, but also a considerable boon for the neighborhood. "The U District has needed a venue like this for some time," says Jason Josephes, who runs the venerable Blue Moon Tavern just up 45th, "even if they did say we can expect a showing of Rocky Horror at some point in the future." "The U District hasn't lacked for venues in a while," he says, citing his own bar as well as the Galway Arms, Cafe Racer, the Monkey Pub, and Lucid Jazz Bar. "But having the Neptune is a serious upgrade in terms of what we can do in the neighborhood. It's wonderful to have them on board, and it will be interesting to see what the effects are after they get things rolling." Indeed, the Neptune is an order of magnitude larger than the neighborhood's existing venues, with an 885-person capacity, modern sound and lighting systems, a full bar, and the ability to host both 21-and-over and all-ages shows. That last point is important, because despite being the home of thousands of young people both in and out of school, the U District hasn't had a dedicated all-ages venue since the Paradox shuttered operations at the Ave's Historic University Theater in 2003 and folded back into Mars Hill Church in Ballard. But if all-ages friendliness is one of the new venue's greatest attributes, then the first concert in its 90-year history— a 21-and-over affair with grizzled Seattle rock vet Mark Lanegan—echoed the theater's old charm more than it reflected the neighborhood's youthful demographic. Out front, one venue staffer reminisced with a patron about their having met at a tattoo convention some years ago, while Metro buses whizzed by on 45th, appearing like some sudden wall of a fast-moving green-and-gold building, just inches from where a concert crowd might be congregating. Inside, past the lobby with its concession stand still stocked with Junior Mints and its popcorn machine gleaming clean and empty, the audience was seated for the show—in theater seating in the balcony and on folding chairs on the main floor, which can be cleared to standing room for livelier concerts. Backlit stained-glass panels depicting the mythical Neptune performing a variety of oceanic feats flanked the floor; presumably they've always been there, but I've never noticed them during a darkened movie screening. Lanegan stood at his microphone—guitarist Jeff Fielder beside him, pinwheels of purple and blue projected on a screen behind him—and performed songs spanning his tenure with acts like Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age and as a solo artist. In the back bar area, three bartenders made quick work of drink orders, and a sizable crowd gathered to stand, drink, and chat. At one point, an irritated bar patron shouted "Shut the fuck up!" over the general, if not unreasonably loud, chatter. The concert ended promptly at 11:15. Still, even with students gone for the summer; with construction barricades blocking the building's street corner; with the audience either seated quietly or shouting over the chatter in the bar; and with Lanegan retiring well before midnight, the venue's "soft opening" felt auspicious. (And by all accounts, things were much livelier for the all-ages, open-floor Titus Andronicus/Okkervil River show the next night.) "This was our soft opening," says STG's Kate Becker. "The grand opening will be in late September. We need to settle into the Neptune and get all of the kinks worked out, and then we'll have a big shebang in the fall when the students are back. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done through the summer at the Neptune. It's going to be really exciting to see how the neighborhood responds."

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