When The Downstairs opened beneath Club Millennium, it was one of only a handful of all-ages venues in Anchorage. That number has shrunk even more in the five years since, with places that used to host concerts like Bitoz Pizzeria and Cafe and Paddleboat Café closing shop, and earlier this year Club Millennium ended its 13-year run.
The Downstairs will join that group, but not without one last hurrah.
"One of my favorite moments we had was when we actually held the first Inzombia show back in 2007," said venue manager Hellen Fleming. "We had an exclusive local band lineup, and we were able to pull over 350 attendees that night."
"That next week I quit my job, took a leap of faith and was hired on to work on The Downstairs full time," she recounted.
So it's fitting that this year's Inzombia -- the venue's annual zombie-themed party -- will bookend The Downstairs' five years on the local scene. This installment is headlined by the California-based hard-core punk group Trash Talk, who played The Downstairs in 2008.
"We were surprised there was a punk scene in Alaska," said Trash Talk vocalist Lee Spielman, whose speaking voice is a lot less menacing than the one he uses on stage. "Everyone was super helpful and appreciative."
Spielman started the band in Sacramento, Calif., when he was 18 years old and remembers not being allowed to play certain venues because he wasn't old enough to drink. Now 24, Spielman said his band makes it a priority to play all-ages venues whenever possible.
Spielman and his bandmates, all in their early to mid-20s, played a party last week in Mexico City for the skateboarding magazine Thrasher. After their Anchorage show, the band is off to Canada before jet-setting to Europe to tour with hard-core punk supergroup Off! (featuring former Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris).
Meantime, they've spent the past year living together in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Spielman said the band tries to "seek out cool stuff." Their upcoming Vancouver, British Columbia, show is in the Waldorf Hotel parking lot, which will also have a skateboard ramp. When the group was asked to play Mexico City, they set out to make it an all-ages event, specifically to "make it rad for everyone."
Fleming sees that kind of support waning. In its heyday, The Downstairs separated itself by promoting events or parties rather than concerts. Along with Inzombia, there were Cinco de Mustache and shows dedicated to the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. The venue was also the first to book an Alaska homecoming in 2007 for Portugal. The Man, who eventually graduated to stages at Lollapalooza and Coachella.
The declining ticket sales for local shows factored into shuttering The Downstairs. "We couldn't support ourselves to do this every single week," said Fleming.
They flirted with the idea of converting the venue into a nonprofit business but felt the process was too lengthy. Instead, Fleming plans to move east and finish a degree in marketing.
Though Club Millennium is still available for the next few months as rental space for events, The Downstairs' departure leaves Anchorage without a venue dedicated exclusively to all-ages concerts.
Fleming said she thinks changing tastes have also been a factor. While The Downstairs attracted predominantly punk, hard-core and metal bands, she's noticed the uptick in electronic music shows in recent years.
"The electronic and dance music scene has taken over our airwaves and is blasted on all sorts of social media," she said. "When working with youth, you rely a lot on trends; music changes, lifestyle changes and changes in how we communicate have all led to many venues across the country closing their doors."
So Trash Talk will be the last band to grace The Downstairs' stage, and Spielman sees the venue's closure as a big loss for young music lovers.
"It's definitely important not to exclude anyone, and it's best not to discriminate against anyone," the vocalist said. "Punk and hard-core music is for anybody."
By Matt Sullivan
Anchorage Daily News