The Crocodile — the legendary club long considered the birthplace of Seattle's rock scene — reopened its doors Thursday night after suddenly closing 15 months ago because of money problems. The revamped and renovated Crocodile is no longer the gritty dive bar it once was, but local bands are still welcome on its storied stage.
For a minute, Kerri Harrop — publicist for the Crocodile and a longtime member of Seattle’s rock community — thought she was having a flashback to 1993.
Standing outside the legendary club on the corner of Second Avenue and Blanchard Street on Thursday evening, Harrop looked one way and saw Kim Thayil, lead guitarist for Seattle grunge band Soundgarden, approach.
From the other direction, guitar cases in hand, came a quartet of other big names in Seattle music, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.
“I was like, ‘Am I in a time warp?’ ” said Harrop. “I’ve been lucky enough to have some really great rock ‘n’ roll moments, and that one is right up there.”
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The sudden, unannounced closure of the Crocodile Cafe 15 months ago devastated the city’s music community. On Thursday, the iconic venue that’s considered the birthplace of the Seattle rock scene reopened its doors for the first night of a two-night soft opening.
Billed as a “sound check,” the free shows were a way for the new owners to work out the bugs in the high-tech sound-and-light system, while giving local bands their first opportunity to play a stage that’s four times as big as the original.
Tonight, Hot Buttered Rum will headline the Croc’s first ticketed show since the club was transformed from shabby to swanky during a months-long renovation.
The club first opened in 1991 and went on to host hundreds of local bands and national acts.
Back then, Seattle was an isolated outpost that couldn’t lure bands up the coast from L.A. or San Francisco. The Crocodile was where the city’s musicians fostered a do-it-yourself community, helping to nurture the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
But plagued by financial problems, the Crocodile unexpectedly closed its doors in December 2007.
This past July, a group of investors, many with deep roots in Seattle music, got together to revive it.
Now, the tiki-hut sound booth is gone, along with the scuffed floors and dusty, papier-mâché hornet nests that used to hang from the ceiling. Walls were knocked down and the ceiling was ripped out, revealing wooden beams and a skylight no one knew was there.
The bathrooms — once among the nastiest in the city — have been redone in marble and tile.
Soon after a Seattle fire inspector gave the new owners the OK to open on Thursday afternoon, text messages were sent out to local musicians and friends of the music community. A private party was quickly organized.
Seattle rocker Bill Rieflin was up the street rehearsing with R.E.M.’s Buck, Scott McCaughey, and English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock when he received the invite.
The four, who are about to go on tour as the latest incarnation of Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, gathered up their guitars, headed to the Croc and jumped on stage.
Their impromptu performance surprised even the most veteran members of the Seattle scene, who didn’t expect such legendary musicians to be the first to perform.
“I’m still actually kind of shaky,” said Susan Silver, one of the owners and a band manager for numerous acts, including Soundgarden back in the day.
“We’ve all been friends for 25-plus years. So to have them show up, jump on stage and play really represented what this community is.”
In a phone interview Friday, Rieflin said the night was all the more special because he and McCaughey “are the only two people in the world” to have played the venue in all of its incarnations — first when it was a Greek joint called the Athens Cafe, then during its gritty, dive-bar heyday and now that the club has been completely revamped.
“The Crocodile has always been a place open to play — the doors have always been open and a lot of people have gone through that door. The fact it’s back is great,” Rieflin said. “I was really happy to be there last night with everyone and christen the place.”
As the private party wound down inside, the line of people waiting for the doors to officially open at 8:30 p.m. stretched for half a block.
While many were delighted by the Croc’s transformation, others weren’t so sure, saying the place was too pretty, too shiny, too Belltown-esque to be like a rock club of old, where memories were lost to bottles of booze and everyone knew someone who’d had sex in the bathroom.
“It’s a great venue but it’s very stark,” said Samos Alixopulos, 43, wearing a flannel shirt over a faded T-shirt from the old Crocodile. “I’m looking forward to having more art on the walls and band stickers stuck to the floor. But that will come.”
For the capacity crowd, the party peaked early: After the Quiet Ones opened the night, the beer ran out at 10 p.m., before the second band — the Kindness Kind — could play its first chord. By the time the headliners, Hypatia Lake, took the stage, the audience had shrunk to fewer than 100 people.
Marcus Charles, a Crocodile owner who is managing the venue, said he was lucky to get beer at all. Charles didn’t get the bar’s liquor license until 4:45 p.m. Thursday and scrambled to buy what he could before his beer distributors quit for the day.
Charles said he and the other owners took over the Crocodile to preserve an important piece of the city’s history.
“It’s more about music and supporting a community than just merely owning a night club in Belltown,” Charles said.
“This was always the music scene’s living room and we really want to bring that feeling back.”
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org