By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
With California set to lift most pandemic restrictions June 15, artists across the music community are posting photos online of their vaccination Band-Aids and anticipating a return to local stages that went dark in March 2020.
But reopening won’t be easy, especially for small, independent venues such as Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena.
Rent for the 49-seat listening room has remained a monthly expense throughout the shuttered months, and Stane estimates that, even though he persuaded his landlord to halve his rent until reopening, he will be $10,000 in the hole on the day he once again settles into his chair by the soundboard and greets audience members walking in.
“That’s still a cash drain but much better,” Stane said, his mood cautiously optimistic. “I look forward to reopening in late August, early September. We have to be in an absolute situation of total safety because we’re shoulder to shoulder. … Bars will reopen before I do. Hair salons will completely reopen before I do. But we can’t do anything until we get the OK to have 100% capacity in absolutely everything.”
Stane applied for some grants but so far has received “no support whatsoever” from federal programs. “It looks like we’re going to go all the way to opening” before they take action, he said.
“I don’t know whether it’s tied up in government bureaucracy or what the situation is, but I know they tell us to wait,” he said. “So we just wait and drain our money. But I think I can hold out.”
GoFundMe and PayPal campaigns have been launched to help the Coffee Gallery Backstage hang on, and two familiar performers at the venue, Manda Mosher and Crist Moshos, have organized an online benefit concert to help raise funds to prepare the space for reopening. The Roots Renaissance concert will stream May 1 at facebook.com/coffeegallerybackstage, with performance videos from Richie Furay, John McEuen, Herb Pedersen, John York, Carla Olson, Jim “Kimo” West, Stephen Kalinich, John Beland, Rick Shea, Chad Watson, Pam Loe, Amilia K Spicer, Ted Russell Kamp, Mosher and Moshos, plus messages from Jim Messina, Terry Paul Roland and Stane.
Some of the veteran artists first worked with Stane during the 18 years he co-owned (with Willard Chilcott) the Ice House in the 1960s and ’70s. Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco), McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Messina (Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Loggins & Messina), Olson (Textones, Mick Taylor), Pedersen (Desert Rose Band, sideman for the likes of Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt) and York (the Byrds) all performed in seminal folk- and country-rock bands that influenced other artists on Saturday’s bill.
That mix reflects the Coffee Gallery Backstage’s support of American roots music and local artists. Mosher, who has been editing the videos together, said it “feels like a virtual version” of the cozy venue, which has fostered a steadfast community around its acoustic shows since Stane opened in 1998.
“I really think the Coffee Gallery Backstage presents music in its purest form,” she added. “Listening room environments are very few and far between now. And to me, the Coffee Gallery carries more of the torch for traditional roots music than any other spot beyond McCabe’s (in Santa Monica). Our only other options are house concerts. To lose something like that would be losing a big part of our roots music history.”
Noting that it does not sell alcohol, Moshos said “it’s a whole different vibe” to perform for a multigenerational audience “that is sober and there to really listen to the music, as opposed to be there to party or dance. Most working musicians don’t have that kind of attention very often.”
Moreover, Moshos continued, Stane is a mentor, “helping to perpetuate professionalism and traditions in the business that are really important, especially for the younger artists. … That’s the other aspect of Bob’s legacy that can’t be overlooked. It’s not just the venue.”
It’s a rare club owner who inspires songs (see the Storytellers’ “The Ballad of Bob Stane”: youtube.com/watch?v=INW4gfJqulE at the 39:20 mark), let alone loyalty. Consider it payment in kind. “At the Coffee Gallery, if you put on a good show and fill the place up, you can walk away with a decent amount of money. You can pay your band,” Mosher observed. “Bob’s very fair and makes sure that you’re paid right after you walk offstage. So you go in knowing that if you put in the effort to really promote your show, that you’ll be taken care of financially as well. In the LA club scene, honest business with clubs is also very few and far between. Bob really has a gold standard.”
Stane, whose emails to artists are often laugh-out-loud funny, refers to his audience and “acts” as “family,” and said he is “tremendously honored and grateful” for the concert. “The phone rang, Crist and Manda said, ‘Hey, we want to do this,’ and I said, ‘Fine, I’m for it.’ I think this will be a night of good entertainment.” He expects shows to do well once the Coffee Gallery Backstage reopens, but he is not rushing the process.
“I think our people are 90% vaccinated. I’m going to ask them, with every email that I send out, please don’t come unless you’re vaccinated,” he said. “And when you come, for a while, we’re all going to wear our masks, because it’s a moral thing with me — I don’t like to kill people. I managed to stay out of that situation when I was in the Army, and I’m not going to do it now. I’m not going to kill people. It’s just something I don’t believe in.”
When Stane starts telling a story, settle in. He has a substantial trove of witty tales, and he knows how to tee them up, pace them and emphasize dramatic moments — stagecraft skills he has routinely passed on to artists (including Mosher, when she was a shy 15-year-old singer-songwriter booking herself into Pasadena clubs). He jokes about his show biz tenure (“Sixty years — I have no other skills”), but he takes the business of entertaining people with “quality music” seriously.
The onetime journalism student has been committing many of his stories to the page; the pandemic created time to finally write the book customers have long requested — a punchy “how-to” guide colored with some of his more attention-grabbing publicity campaigns. (Exhibit A: the 18-foot fork in the road at Pasadena and St. John Avenues.) Before the Coffee Gallery and the Ice House, there was a brief stint at Playboy in Chicago (“I learned an enormous amount”) and an early baptism at the Upper Cellar coffeehouse, which he started in San Diego in 1958; before that, he flirted with danger working in desert mines and surveying for the Santa Fe Railroad. By 1998, when this writer interviewed Stane and Ash Grove impresario Ed Pearl for a Pasadena Weekly feature, the two LA legends had witnessed drastic changes in the nightclub business since the days when the Ash Grove, the Ice House and Doug Weston’s Troubadour dominated LA’s music community. (Weston was unable to participate in that conversation, and died not long after.) Stane has since navigated an increasingly tricky live music business in part by sticking to his mantras. Now, he’s ready to return.
“I want to come back. I feel I’ve got two years left. That’s just a ballpark estimate. I think I can hang out another two years. I can’t live forever, although some people think I will. … Once we’re over this (pandemic), I think live music will explode again.”
Roots Renaissance, A Virtual Benefit Concert for the
Coffee Gallery Backstage
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, May 1
WHERE: Streams on facebook.com/coffeegallerybackstage
COST: Free, but donations to help the Coffee Gallery Backstage reopen can be made via GoFundMe (https://bit.ly/2QzsRPV), PayPal (https://bit.ly/
32M6BVI) or physical checks (mailed to Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Avenue, Altadena, CA 91001)