Under normal circumstances running an independent music venue is not for the faint of heart. The math is unforgiving and unrelenting. A liquor license often eases the equation, but week by week, rain or shine, you’ve got to cover your “nut” — rent, insurance, staff salaries and guaranteed fees for bands — and there are only so many tickets to sell.
Lani Torres and Summer Gerbing knew from the get-go that 2020 was going to be a challenge at the Ivy Room, the intimate Albany club they turned into one of the East Bay’s most exciting and eclectic stages after taking over the venue in 2015. Gerbing entered the year by delivering identical twins, while Torres was wrangling a 5 year old and 2 year old. Since the pandemic shuttered the club some 14 months ago, they’ve fought on numerous fronts to keep the Ivy Room alive.
“What a ride we’ve been on,” Gerbing said. “It has been an absolute rollercoaster. There’ve been some really high, high peaks and some really low ones. One of the good things is that we had a moment to think about our club and what we’ve done for the music scene in the East Bay.”
Even though the Ivy Room remains closed to patrons, the venue is once again presenting live music, partnering with the Fireside Lounge in Alameda to produce the Tiny Towns outdoor concert series. The season opens May 21 with a sold-out show by John Doe and special guest Jason White (intermittent lead guitarist for Green Day and another East Bay punk band featuring Billie Joe Armstrong, Pinhead Gunpowder).
Tiny Towns is the latest bold effort by Fireside proprietor Sandy Russell to save her venue. She persuaded two neighboring businesses to lease their parking lots so she could create a 4800-square-foot space with a stage, a sound system, lighting and socially distanced seating for 230 at one-third capacity (as regulations ease, they’ll add more tables). Other confirmed dates include a double bill with East Bay alt-country combo Crying Time (an Ivy Room mainstay) and second act TBA on May 29, John Brothers Piano Company on June 5, Fireside Lounge’s 10-year anniversary on June 12 with singer/songwriter Deke Dickerson, and a multi-act birthday bash for Waylon Jennings on June 20.
The two venues had never collaborated before the pandemic but Gerbing felt a kinship with Russell, “as we’re both lesbians who own small music venues in the same community,” she said. “Sandy worked her butt off to save Fireside. She was one of the first to put a parklet out. She felt that the Ivy Room has a little bit more of a name with some bands and that we’d be the best at booking the series, so she reached out to me. We said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it.’”
“We called it Tiny Towns because we’re these two little towns flanked by bigger cities,” Torres added. “There are lots of young families and 99 percent of these shows are all-ages, so people can take the kids.”
Torres and Gerbing are also presenting music virtually from the Ivy Room with their We Ain’t Going Nowhere Concert Series, which continues Saturday with a performance by Jackie Greene that he taped at the venue earlier last week. The free broadcasts (donations accepted) continue on May 8 with Vetivier and May 15 with Year of the Fist.
“These shows are to keep us visible, to show that we’re still here and the musicians are here,” Torres said. “We’re still hiring bands. We’re not making any money off of these shows, though people can contribute if they want. We want to give people hope.”
Given the rent for a prime location steps from the intersection of San Pablo and Solano avenues and other ongoing costs, like a contract for a payment processing service the women signed just before the pandemic, the fact that the Ivy Room is poised to survive is a rare bright spot for the East Bay music scene. Some of area’s most interesting venues folded months ago, including the venerable Stork Club, the Uptown Club and the Starline Social Club.
Support from the community has been vital. An ongoing GoFundMe campaign they launched last September has raised $40,000. They’d tapped out those funds by the end of the year and were staring into the financial abyss when they got word they’d received a grant from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (as did other Berkeley venues such as Ashkenaz, The Starry Plough, The Back Room and La Peña).
The Hardly Strictly funds allowed them to redesign the club and invest in better lighting and audiovisual systems, which allowed them to start presenting virtual shows. Like venues around the country, they’ve been waiting to apply for money budgeted by Congress in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which provides more than $16.2 billion in economic relief. A series of snafus with the web portal delayed the application process several times, but if finally seemed to start working on Monday.
“We’ve all been waiting on pins and needles,” Gerbing said. “We’ve been working on this very intense application, a very stressful process, we feel prepared, and the entire site crashed. They had to pull down the SVOG portal. There are clubs going down in the meantime. It’s been unreal.”
If there’s any silver lining it’s that the venues and presenters that survive have built bonds that may change the music landscape. In addition to all the informal ties, the Ivy Room is part of East Bay Venue Coalition and the California branch of the National Independent Venue Association, a connection the women credit to the UC Theater’s David Mayeri.
“Prior to this you’re fighting for different shows,” Gerbing said. “Now we see each other’s faces, help each other up, and answer questions. It’s a really cool thing to see, and will change relationships in the future.”