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Life after the Rocket Room 

The crash and burn of the city's most idiosyncratic music venue, and what it bodes for the local scene

In a larger city, the loss of a single venue, particularly one that holds just a few hundred people, could easily go unnoticed.

Sure, there have been exceptions: Last week, the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood played London's 100 Club in an attempt to save it from closure. And when New York's CBGB finally pulled the plug four years ago, it made international headlines. While neither of those clubs held more than 350 people, both shared decades of history, having hosted prestigious artists like Muddy Waters, the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Patti Smith and the White Stripes.

By comparison, Colorado Springs' Rocket Room had been in business for just 3 ½ years when owners Dave and Shalonda Cantrell hauled off the pool table, patio furnishings and black leatherette booths last month. And, apart from the occasional Reverend Horton Heat or Supersuckers booking, Rocket Room acts often flew beneath the radar of even their chosen genre's most avid fans.

So why the concern?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that Colorado Springs is neither London nor New York City. Losing even a 300-capacity club in a city this size significantly reduces opportunities to hear artists who play original music. And even though financial and legal troubles had put the Rocket Room perilously close to crash-landing a year ago, the venue's ultimate demise is now raising concerns about how the character of Colorado Springs' live music landscape will change in its aftermath.

Lift off

In some ways, the odds were against the club from the start. The Cantrells had been heavily involved in the Tulsa music scene before moving here from Oklahoma 10 years ago, and the idea was to start a club with Dave's brother. But that plan was derailed when Craig Cantrell became the original events and facilities manager for the Business of Arts Center's Venue 515.

"Once he got involved with that, being able to do whatever he wanted without having to risk his own money, that left us on our own," recalls Dave Cantrell.

He and Shalonda carried on, eventually settling on a building near a lonely stretch of Wahsatch Avenue that had been home to the Prime Time Tavern & Rib Shack. The club opened on May 19, 2007, and soon began to fill a void in the Springs music scene with its combination of punk (not to be confused with pop-punk), rockabilly, Americana and indie rock acts.

"We were kind of the fall-through-the-cracks niche," figures Cantrell. "There was plenty of metal in town with Union Station and all that, but they weren't really doing any shows at the Nickel — I mean, maybe occasionally Drag the River would come play. [JJ Nobody, who owns the Triple Nickel Tavern, is also bassist for the mostly Fort Collins-based band.] So we booked everyone that couldn't get a gig anywhere else."

But life was already taking another turn for the Cantrells. Shalonda had become pregnant within a week of the lease's signing, and the combination of parenthood and day-jobs made the operation of a mom-and-pop punk-rock venue that much tougher.

Plus, there was the whole money question: "The initial investment," explains Cantrell, "came from a second mortgage on my home and generous help from two family members. Of course we poured much more into it as time went by."

And the landscape continued to change.

"The Nickel started becoming more active," says Cantrell of the club located just a couple blocks to the north. "So we started booking more metal. Say if they had the Jack Trades one night, we'd try to do something more like having a metal band, although we tried to avoid the KILO [radio]-inspired stuff."

Instead, the Cantrells booked alt-metal power trios like Seattle's Antique Scream and Albuquerque's SuperGiant. The club also became home to a wide range of local talents. One night, you might hear Pueblo's Haunted Windchimes playing Leadbelly's "Good Night, Irene." Another night, it would be the Springs' eccentrically rockist El Toro de la Muerte playing "Blood on Their Tongues."

The Rocket Room also played host to area singer-songwriters, burlesque troupes and stand-up comics. When asked to name his favorite show since the club's opening, Cantrell cites his own 40th birthday celebration, during which he, JJ Nobody and other friends performed a shambolic set of punk-inspired excess.

Through it all, the venue continued to attract a diverse and devoted clientele, as women with Bettie Page haircuts and leopard-print accessories milled among long-haired guys dressed in well-worn MC5 T-shirts. Cover charges typically ranged from $3 to $5 for three or more bands, which meant even musicians could afford to hang out on nights when they weren't playing there.

Even so, the challenges that face any music venue — aggravated by the freefall of a post-9/11 economy — were steadily taking their toll.

Second stage

"It's hard to do things in this town sometimes if you don't have unlimited funding," says Jeanette Hohman, who hosts KRCC-FM's Surround Sounds, a weekly program devoted exclusively to Colorado music. Hohman herself had worked at the Rocket Room for nearly a year and a half when the landlord took the Cantrells to El Paso County court for "Forcible Entry and Detainer," which is legalese for a tenant refusing to vacate a premises.

The dispute, which involved counter-allegations of unpaid rent and broken pipes, began with a summons and complaint on Dec. 16 of last year and dragged on until a settlement was reached Feb. 24. During that time, the Cantrells went on a month-long booking hiatus and told patrons that the club was most likely going to close.

"They actually didn't close down last year, but it was uncertain," says Hohman. "As of New Year's Eve, no one was really sure what was going to happen, and I was not really in a financial position to wait and see. I had another opportunity come up and I took it."

Clientele, meanwhile, fell off significantly. "All through January, everyone thought that we were closed," says Cantrell. "We didn't have all our vending, and so, yeah, it was kind of a pain in the ass after that, even though we've had a lot of good shows and a lot of good times."

The problems contributed to a "vicious cycle" that included a 2008 audit by the company providing the Rocket Room's liability insurance. The club's premiums had been based on an estimate of gross sales. When those turned out to be higher than estimated, Cantrell says, the company immediately demanded an additional $3,000 for the previous year's insurance.

"If I could go back in time to the beginning with exactly the same funds that I started with," muses Cantrell, "with what I know now, it would have been a completely different thing."

Of course, hindsight is at least sometimes 20/20. "It was business school," he says. "For one thing, if you want to open a club, you definitely need to lowball on the rent."

In the case of the Rocket Room, the space had been vacant for close to a year. Given the circumstances, Cantrell speculates, the couple might have been able to negotiate the monthly rent down from $2,800 to $2,000.

In any event, he figures that someone who wanted to open a club the size of the Rocket Room now, could expect substantial start-up costs: "If the room's ready to go and you get a good rent, I would say at least $60,000."

Rocket doom

While Colorado Springs has gained some new venues in recent years — most notably Stargazers Theatre & Event Center and the Motif jazz bar — they've generally embraced an older demographic. The likelihood of a new club catering to the Rocket Room crowd appears highly unlikely.

"They brought in some great music, so I hate that they're gone for that reason," says Front Range Barbeque owner Brian Fortinberry, who brings in a number of touring bluegrass and roots-oriented acts himself. "They were good folks in my book, and I hope future endeavors go well for them."

So what existing venues, if any, will step into the breach? The answer, most likely, is just up the street.

"I think the Triple Nickel is a good bet for picking up the slack," predicts Hohman. "It's a smaller space, but there's definitely a lot of crossover as far as clientele and performers. And they've been putting together really great shows, particularly in the past year, but even before that."

Black Sheep general manager Chris Huffine agrees. "I think the Nickel started doing a lot more shows and that kind of took a lot of the Rocket Room's regulars away. They did mostly punk and garage-type stuff, and that's sort of the same thing that the Nickel is doing."

The two clubs' proximity also continued to be a factor, although Huffine doesn't see the southern end of Wahsatch as an ideal place for a music club, anyway.

"The Rocket Room didn't have the best location. It wasn't a place, like, right downtown. We kind of have the same problem occasionally here," he says of the all-ages East Platte Avenue club, which regularly books nationally known acts.

"Anything that's not right downtown, you almost have to drag people to it."

When it comes to music clubs, downtown mostly means Tejon Street and its strip of nightclubs that, with the exception of the one or two mainstream country acts who come to Cowboys each month, is almost exclusively a stomping ground for local cover bands.

But Triple Nickel booker Damian Burford thinks the Rocket Room's address was actually a plus. "As far as location, they actually had it pretty good," he says. "They were a little bit further away from the Tejon Street crowd, and so people who didn't want to get involved with the popped collars and all that could feel at home."

"We had pretty much the same core audience and bands," adds Burford. Bettie Page haircuts included? "Not as much," he admits, "but they're here. The Rocket Room tended to get a little bit more of the rockabilly crowd than we do. Somebody jokingly called us the 'alt-country club,' where you have to have a beard or flannel to get in. Which is funny, because I have a beard and flannel.

"But I would say that we stand to gain the most from their demise, unfortunately."

Exit strategy

The Rocket Room's decommissioning was actually a mixture of bad and good luck. The club was still surviving, if not thriving, when Shalonda was offered a position booking and promoting shows for a club back in Tulsa called the Crystal Pistol Saloon, whose owner she'd worked with before moving west.

"It's just a couple doors down from Cain's Ballroom, which was the home of Bob Wills, where everybody's played," says Cantrell, who drove his wife and son, now 3 years old, to Tulsa the weekend before last. In addition to the new endeavor, the Cantrells figured it would be good for their son to be around relatives. Dave, meanwhile, is looking forward to getting together with his old Tulsa bandmates once he's finished tying up loose ends here.

The Cantrells have hit the ground running, with four of the shows Shalonda booked taking place before she'd made it there. And, for them at least, there will be a degree of continuity.

"She's already booked Lucky Tubb and the Peculiar Pretzelmen, who were the last two bands to play our stage here," says Cantrell, noting that there's a possibility of booking a second, Black Sheep-sized club in Tulsa as well.

"It was very cool to go there and see how downtown Tulsa has been completely revitalized. All the people from our generation now own the hip shops and the cool clubs and restaurants. When I was growing up, none of that stuff was there except for Cain's."

In a lot of ways, the timing of it all appears fortuitous.

"I never meant to do it forever," says Cantrell. "It was really just something I wanted to do while it felt right, you know what I mean? If we were bangin', I'm sure we would have ridden it out. But if it had just been mediocre or just getting by, the lease we had this time only went until next August, anyway."

So while the Cantrells may have mixed feelings about leaving the Rocket Room, the prospect of being able to just promote shows and make sure the bands show up — while someone else takes care of the rest — definitely sounds inviting.

"At least now, with what Shalonda is doing down in Tulsa, we don't have to worry about whether or not the bartender mopped up the puke in the bathroom."

bill@csindy.com

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