The University District was in a subdued mood last 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 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.
Laura Musselman Mark Lanegan, breaking in the new stage at the Neptune
Last year, the Neptune's owners, the Thompson family, who built the theater 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 non-profit 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 the theater 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 live music venue the 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," says, Jospehes, 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, an 885 person capacity room equipped with modern sound and lighting systems, a full bar, and able to host both 21+ and all-ages shows. That last point is important, because despite being home to 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+ 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 having met at a tattoo convention some years ago, while Metro busses 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, 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 in 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, flanked by guitarist Jeff Fielder, with pinwheels of purple and blue projected on a screen behind him, and performed songs spanning his career with acts like the Screaming Trees, 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 sizeable crowd gathered to stand and drink and chat. At one point, an irritated bar patron shouted, "shut the fuck up" against the general, if not unreasonably loud chatter. The concert ended at 11:15 promptly.
Still, even with the students gone for the summer, with construction barricades blocking the building's street corner, with the audience either seated quietly or shouting about the chatter in the bar, and with Lanegan retiring well before midnight, the venue's "soft opening" felt like an auspicious event. (And by all accounts, things were much livelier for the all-ages, open-floor Titus Andronicus and 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."