In the middle of the Tripwires' performance at the Sunset Tavern last October, guitarist Jim Sangster noticed his cocktail had gone missing. "I had a Makers Mark and a beer on a road case beside the stage; I turned around and they were gone." Sangster's drink had been confiscated by a representative of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Sangster was in technical violation of a provisional rule, WAC 314-11-015, that forbids drinking by "any person performing services on a licensed premises for the benefit of the licensee."
Sangster, a respected veteran of the scene who has been performing on Seattle stages for two decades, was stunned. "I had just returned from Spain two nights before, where we had a veritable bar onstage every night. It is a ridiculous law, and I can't really understand any logic behind it."
The enforcing WSLCB officer had taken his drink, put it in a test tube to confirm it was alcoholic, and took it away. The club received a warning, not a fine, but the incident was both unsettling and disheartening. It might seem like a trivial quibble on the surface, but for both local musicians and touring bands, being denied the privileges of your audience is simply insulting.
"It should be a relatively small issue and it should be relatively fixable," says Jeff Steichen, general manager for both the SoDo and Market locations of the Showbox. "There are a lot of draconian things about the liquor laws, still. Fast-forward to an enlightened, 24/7 town that's known for music, not only for its local musicians, but is now one of the primary markets for tour stops. The fact that these musicians have one or two thousand people in front of them, all drinking, and the artist that has put them all there isn't allowed to have a drink, isn't rational at all. No musician that comes from outside Washington state understands that law. It's embarrassing, and it's the one law that we have to explain over and over and over again."
Though it is a state law, and would have to be overturned or amended by the WSLCB, many local music-community leaders, performers, and fans are hoping that music-friendly mayor Mike McGinn will help lead the charge for change. But when the administration unveiled their eight-point Seattle Nightlife Initiative last month—which included aspirations for flexible service hours, streamlined and fair enforcement of the noise ordinance, increased late-night transportation alternatives, and targeting of public nuisances—the drinking issue was not addressed. From talking to both political powers and club owners, it doesn't seem very high on the agenda, though nearly any working musician will tell you it's a creature comfort they are tired of being denied.
When asked his office's position on the issue, McGinn said he didn't think his administration had a position, but that he'd bring it up with City Attorney Pete Holmes. "It's not something that's been raised to us as something people think needs to be addressed. It wasn't something that was presented to us as an issue by the advocacy organizations as an important issue, but if they think it's something important to work on, we're happy to look at it."
For his part, Holmes is open-minded. "I thoroughly sympathize with both the performers and the nightclub owners," he says. "I understand their position and respect it. I think we'll work towards finding an accommodation that respects the Liquor Board's authority."
Speaking via phone from his Olympia office, WSLCB enforcement captain Justin Nordhorn is also somewhat sympathetic, acknowledging that the Board is aware of the desire to revisit the regulation, but admitting it has essentially handed responsibility back to the industry to push through reform.
"Over the past year, we've met with industry members on a variety of issues related to nightclubs and the law," he says, referring to meetings with the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, an advocacy group of bar owners formed in response to the decidedly less venue-friendly tone of former mayor Greg Nickels' administration. "There has been some interest by the industry to change the drinking-on-duty laws. We asked them to brainstorm some ideas and help us figure out some language to create a rule where there would be a balance between public safety and their interest. We haven't had any concrete response from them...they haven't presented any language ideas to us that we could take into consideration."
Nordhorn also remains adamant that the motivation behind the law is patron and officer safety, though his argument that artists are responsible for their audiences' behavior seems slightly far-fetched.
"The problem is there are so many different types of venues out there," he continues. "Is the guy at the piano bar a threat to public safety? Probably not, but when you have larger venues and have band members or DJs that are consuming and controlling the crowd. We've had situations where band members have tried to turn the crowd against us or law-enforcement officers. They really have the pulse of that crowd, so they are maintaining that control. Do we want someone controlling 300 patrons in a position to be under the influence of alcohol?"
Ironically enough, it seems that it's the larger shows—those, therefore, with many more potential crowd-control issues—where the ban is regularly ignored. Every person at the first of Pearl Jam's pair of KeyArena shows last November saw Eddie Vedder uncork a bottle of wine during Mike McCready's guitar solo in "Even Flow."
Neumos co-owner Steven Severin shares the perspective of many of his fellow club owners, but remains focused on what he perceives to be more urgent issues, citing the objectives of the Seattle Nightlife Initiative. "This is beyond a stupid law, and we have talked about it with both Mike and Pete," says Severin, referring to McGinn and Holmes. "There are a lot of things that go on in our conversations, and it hasn't been as big a focus as some of the other ideas we have been working on.It's a fight that we need to pick back up again, but we all have businesses to still run, and time to work on all these things is fewer and further between. The city has finally embraced how important our music nightlife scene is, and we want to keep pushing the envelope," he asserts."We are happy with how things are heading, we just need to keep pushing the process along.And yes, hopefully soon you can have a beer onstage while playing our stages."