It's not easy being grungy in this midsized city just an afternoon's drive from the home of such rock heavyweights as Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains.
Spokane bands have the same quirky names and every bit as much angst and ambition as their Seattle counterparts, but sometimes it takes a 1,000-mile round trip through sagebrush and range land to find an appreciative crowd.There's Black Happy, The Fumes, Makers, Motherload, Young Brians, Waterman's Hollow, Nice World, One Ton Gus, Plugugly and The Lemmings; Dirt Clod Fight, Eye Cycle, Spring Grove Experiment, The Suck Monkeys, Big Comb, Wiser Sin, Beggar's Opera, Shadowen, Buddha Leadbelly and Hungry Young Poets; and Ball of Destruction, The Mekons, Wreck, Truckermouth, Cringe and The Bedheads.
"When it comes to originals, we do OK here, but we do a whole lot better in Salt Lake City and Montana," said Dan Stamness, lead guitarist for the hard-rock group Wiser Sin, as he relaxed in Mother's Pub before a recent Saturday night headlining gig.
"It's hard to get people to come out," said Mike Calvert, guitarist for Beggar's Opera, the opening act. "We thought about relocating to Phoenix. Not Seattle, because it's kind of a loaded scene."
Spokane long has served as a sort of proving ground for rising Seattle bands, offering a few clubs and modest concert halls with crowds eager to see acts on the cusp of the big time.
"We've always done real well in Spokane," said Peter Cornell, vocalist and bass player for Inflatable Soule, a folk-grungy group managed by the same company as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
"When we were a young band it was one of the places we'd always go play. Everybody kind of tried to develop something in Spokane."
Sweetwater manager Christine Shaklee of Susan Silver Management in Seattle said members of that group, now recording their second major label release for Atlantic, still like to play Spokane "to expand their playing arena and play shows in front of a different crowd."
The group likely will swing through Spokane sometime this fall, she said.
Spokane also has been producing some hard-working acts of its own. Bands such as the funk-rock Black Happy and other more conventional rock acts are starting to get noticed.
A persistent problem, though, is finding a local place to play, said Bob Gallagher, owner of independent Spokane label 4,000 Holes.
"The venues have been dropping like flies," he said.
Gallagher said he's done some show staging and promotion in Spokane and is often contacted by bands eager to play. But two of the local original-rock venues closed in recent months and one-time show permits don't come easy.
"The people out there want to see the shows. There's just no place to do them," Gallagher said. "I probably pass on three or four bands a week that I get a call from because I don't have a venue for them."
But he added, "creatively, we've got a very good scene. We have young kids writing and playing their own music. From that point, I think it's really, really healthy."
Gallagher predicted Black Happy would get significant recognition outside Spokane.
Steve Spickard, president and janitor of Intelligent Rock & Roll Etc. Inc., doing business as the Big Dipper tavern, predicted the Makers might break out of the Spokane pack.
"They've got some fans internationally and a good stage presentation. . . . They dress and they kind of slam around a bit. They stand out because they're different," he said.
Spickard said he books numerous out-of-town acts, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia.
"And we have a lot of Seattle bands," he said. "There's definitely that whole Nirvana-slash-Soundgarden influence over here."
True to its regional roots, the Big Dipper advertises itself as "your personal urban grange hall." That's grange, as in farm, not grunge.
Spickard said the dearth of local clubs - The Big Dipper and Mother's Pub are the only ones left that regularly feature original rock - makes for a large pool of local acts eager for bookings.
But musicians said that's frustrating.
"There just need to be more places for people to play original stuff," Beggar's Opera drummer Tony Duncan said, adding that an all-ages club would be a real boost.
Stamness said Wiser Sin had hired on to play cover songs at local Top-40 club Thudpucker's in order to pay recording costs on a new compact disc of original songs.
He said the band would continue to make road trips to Utah and Montana, "but you aren't going to get a record deal in Montana."