The Triple Door, one of Seattle's premier music venues, celebrates its fifth anniversary Oct. 2-3 with a concert by blues legend Robert Cray.
The Bay Area has Yoshi’s. In Portland, it’s Jimmy Mak’s. Seattle’s upscale, sit-down, dine-in concert venue is the Triple Door, and it’s not bragging to say it’s the best of the bunch, and this week marks its fifth anniversary.
Historically speaking, swanky supper clubs are a remnant of America’s Jazz Age in the 1920s. Today’s versions exist somewhere between beer-in-hand nightclub and suit-and-tie concert hall: Luxury and sound quality are paramount, but you can enjoy a cocktail and an hors d’oeuvre at your table while watching the show. They continue to thrive because music — not just jazz — benefits from a setting in which appreciating excellent music comes first and appreciating excellent food and drink is a close second. Humans are really very simple animals.
With gilded colonnades and sconces left over from its 1920s vaudevillian heyday, plush half-moon booth-seating illuminated by individual electric candles, and a stage backdrop lit by a field of stars, the Triple Door retains a sophisticated ambience. Add some of the best acoustics and sightlines in the city and you have a venue approaching world-class. Then there’s the menu, cribbed liberally from Wild Ginger, the 19-year-old Asian fusion restaurant next door owned by the same people. In fact, the well-known Wild Ginger enabled the Triple Door’s very existence, financially supporting the club until it finally turned a profit last year.
But even with all that what really sets the Triple Door apart is its adventurous programming.
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The past year, the place has hosted San Francisco digital magicians Matmos; U.K. dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson; a sweat-drenched dance party with the Congo’s Konono Nº1; and an emotional album-release party for local rockers Grand Archives. Wednesday, pop guru Todd Rundgren will play his second Triple Door gig in three months. In June, Seattle International Film Festival screened the 1927 silent film “Sunrise,” soundtracked by sonic landscapers the Album Leaf; last week, Decibel Festival brought its first-ever “ambient showcase” to the Triple Door.
Then there’s jazz: icons like the Headhunters, Marcus Miller and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; young lions like Skerik, Marco Benevento and Industrial Revelation. And for 10 days every fall, Seattle’s annual Earshot Jazz Festival makes the Triple Door its home base. (Earshot is coming up Oct. 18-Nov. 9.)
That panoply of events reflects not just a venue coming into its own but a venue boldly doing its own thing.
“What we’ve always tried to do is attract a wide audience,” said Rick Yoder, who, along with wife Ann, owns the Triple Door.
“I didn’t want to say we’re exclusively a jazz club or a blues club or a Latin club. We do great music. Trust us. Sort of like a menu — if you go to a restaurant you like and you try the chicken one time, next time you might try the fish. After a while if that restaurant continues to hold up, you may frequent it fairly often, because no matter what you eat it tastes pretty good.”
The Yoders own the 50,000-square foot Mann Building that houses Wild Ginger and the Triple Door. (Over its 85-year history, the space has been the Embassy silent-movie theater, a porn palace and, when it sat empty for a while, an ad-hoc parking garage.) According to Triple Door talent buyer Scott Giampino, the bottom line is split roughly 70-30, 70 percent from Wild Ginger and 30 from the Triple Door.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Yoder and Giampino sat at a high table inside the Musicquarium, the Triple Door’s 150-seat lounge. Each couldn’t have been more gracious — or more confident — when extolling the other’s track record. Within the main venue, L.A. rock band Shiny Toy Guns played an acoustic set for radio station 107.7 The End. About 40 people were in attendance — well below that room’s 272 capacity.
“When we first opened, we thought being small was an advantage because it didn’t take a huge number of people to make the economic cycle go,” Yoder said. “If we have 200 or 250 in the audience, we’re really happy.”
Size matters both ways, though. It’s taken a few years to convince artists and booking agents that the venue’s smallness translates to a unique intimacy, not an empty dive bar.
“At five years on we’re starting to get more and more well-known artists who have either heard about us or have been here before and wanna come back to do a one-, two-, three-night stay,” Giampino said.
For example, blues guitar god Robert Cray — who plays Thursday and Friday as part of the Triple Door’s anniversary celebration. Cray admires the Triple Door’s dedication to performer/audience interaction.
“My preference is having the audience being able to see you work, see you sweat, have a close relationship between the person on stage and the way they’re communicating to the audience,” he said from a tour stop at the Ho Chunk Casino in Baraboo, Wis. “That’s what it’s all about. You come down, you wanna sit in a civilized place, and you wanna enjoy music. That’s how I am, anyway.”
Also significant is the venue’s artist hospitality. Cray has family in Tacoma and friends in Seattle, all of whom receive the royal treatment when he plays the Triple Door.
“From what I remember, they kept everybody pretty plied,” he laughed.
“It’s respect all the way around, for the artists and for the audience, too,” Giampino said. “They’re not treated like cattle, they’re not gouged or anything. It’s art, essentially, a whole experience. But there’s a huge business component to it and that’s always the balance.”
“We’re trying to be a combination between art and science,” Yoder added. “With the kind of programming Scott is bringing in, some really interesting musical talent that’s fairly obscure — to me those are the kind of shows I think people should get off their couch and support, whether it be your neighborhood theater or your dance program or your local art school. These are important things for a community. They sort of define life as we know it.”
Freelancer Jonathan Zwickel covers nightclubs for The Seattle Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.