Back in 2000, A.F.I. front man Davey Havok penned the athematic single, “The Days of The Phoenix.” It was a moderate success for the band, garnering them attention from local radio stations like San Francisco’s Live 105 and exposing their unique blend of horror punk to a much larger audience then their punk local scene.
But this song holds a very special significance besides just being A.F.I.’s breakthrough into mainstream rock. Because “The Days of The Phoenix” is also a heartfelt homage to the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, the venue where A.F.I. and many bands like them began the start of their musical careers.
Originally built as an opera house, the Phoenix has survived the changing times as well as two separate fires in early 1900s and 1950s. Yet, it still stands as a bastion of local music culture. While primarily a punk venue, all manner of bands from Metallica to Green Day have graced the graffiti clad walls of Petaluma’s crown jewel, with young groups following in such lofty footsteps too this day.
Much like the building itself, the community that coalesces in the Phoenix is one that has endured through the decades. And that culture was certainly present last Saturday, Nov. 8, as I caught local bands Cold Smoke, Without Notice, The Parade Route, Subtones, and The Helen Kellers.
Sure, the audience might be a tad younger than they use to be, the crowd peppered with the spider-nested hairstyles of 14 year olds all clad in their favorite pair of drainpipe jeans. But while many of these kids might buy into the empty eyeliner aesthetics, they are surprisingly astute when it comes to judging the music itself.
The audience is critical at the Phoenix; less concerned about the volume of The Parade Route’s bludgeoning breakdowns, and more concerned about how the unit gelled as a whole. The Parade Route delivered as well, with drummer Andrew Gabriel’s manic skins work, Stephen McWeeney’s grinding bass, and front man Russ Main’s searing lead guitar captivating the crowd.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects about the Phoenix, unlike other venues, is that the audience is paramount. Bands cannot simply give a great performance; they have to truly connect with the crowd. On any given night the majority of the audience is comprised of regulars, people from the Santa Rosa/Petaluma area that have seen dozens of bands pass through. At the Phoenix, people recognize each other by name; they go to the theater much like soccer fans would go to their favorite sports bar.
In short, it’s not an easy place to crack into if you’re from the outside.
But the Subtones did their best to glean that respect from the audience. Their infectious take on 90s pop-punk with reggae and funk flourishes made for an immersive and exciting set. Front man Sean D sung and swaggered across stage as Dee Dee Varnskies’ fuzzy bass kept the groove solid. Spidery guitar work from guitarists Andrew and Dan Hansen ensured energetic compositions that twisted around the group’s steady rhythm section. And as vocalist Sean D jumped into the audience during the funk stomp of “Getting Rid of You,” it’s clear that the Subtones came to the Phoenix to bare their souls to this audience.
Yet unlike other venues that practice might musical elitism to its fullest, the community at the Phoenix is so open to a myriad of music styles that it’s almost unheard of. Just like the prismatic graffiti, that functioning like twisting ivy, bands featured at the Phoenix draw from all manners of musical styles.
Nowhere was this eclecticism more apparent than when The Helen Kellers took the stage as the night’s headliners. Ryan Rushworth led his 5 piece through a blistering set that that touched on everything from head bobbing power-pop, to gentle post-rock melodies, to messy and dissonant riffs. Songs like the “Poetry To Bleed” hung on Rebecca Rushworth’s full backing vocals, as well as its expansive chorus and Dustin Miller’s hard-hitting drums. Elsewhere, the band drew cries of astonishment with the epic closer “Not Going Home,” a track that reveled abrasive guitar work courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Kyle Stoner and the precise pulse of Drew Wright’s growling bass.
As The Helen Kellers ended their set in a sea of white noise and feedback, it was clear that the community of people at the Phoenix really took them in.
Such a show really illustrates why bands like The Helen Kellers need venues like the Phoenix. At the end of the day, it’s always about the quality of the music regardless of the image of the subculture attached. Venues like the Phoenix ensure that quality bands are properly showcased from the local community, and that these important values are passed on through this institution even as the crowd changes.
Ultimately, the Phoenix will function as it’s always functioned, as a haven for the local community to express themselves. And hopefully bands like Subtones and The Helen Kellers will one day write their own songs about their days at the Phoenix.
Author's Note: This review appears in a recent issue of the Sonoma State Star. As this is the author's own writing and this is his own blog, in addition to holding the position of A&E Editor for the Sonoma State Star, he posts it here with express consent of himself. Duh.