Alexi Murdoch, a long-haired, bearded singer-songwriter, stands on the Troubadour stage, picking a moody scale on his guitar and singing an expressive, introspective lyric. The crowd, which includes press, record label reps and movie soundtrack supervisors, quiets down and tunes in to his dusky voice. It's the classic Troubadour tableau, as inscribed in the early '70s, when it was arguably the most famous nightclub in the world.
A few weeks later and some decibels higher at the Roxy up on the Sunset Strip, the young English band Supergrass is working up a froth as it delivers the winsome, aggressive rock that's drawn a growing audience here.
The band could have played a bigger venue on this tour, but sometimes groups like the feel of a packed room, the air of urgency that comes when people cluster outside trying to get in.
That's what they get at the sold-out Roxy, where the fans are crammed in from the dance floor back to the new section of booths to the new bar area on the room's other wing. People are bouncing, throwing their arms in the air, reaching out to urchin-like singer Gaz Coombes, who visibly revels in this close encounter with his audience.
Two blocks east at the Whisky, the atmosphere is more subdued as a casually dressed, acoustic-leaning band called Overwater plays earnest, complex pop-rock songs to an audience of about 100. Like most nights at the Whisky these days, it's a pay-to-play or pre-sell engagement, meaning the band bought tickets from the club and sold or gave them to friends and fans.
From the current level of action at the Roxy, which opened in 1973, and the 46-year-old Troubadour -- and to a lesser extent at their senior citizen peer, the 1964-vintage Whisky -- you'd never imagine that they were given up for dead not long ago.
The resurrection of these three dowagers was not supposed to happen, given the uncertainty of the music business, changing music tastes, incursions of deep-pocket entertainment chains such as the House of Blues and the shift of the epicenter of hipness from the Strip and West Hollywood eastward to Silver Lake.
But here they are, spruced up and dusted off after crawling out of the ditch. The Roxy and the Troubadour are right up there with the Knitting Factory and Spaceland among the city's 500-or-so-capacity clubs -- that ideal vehicle for acts just emerging and starting to take off. The Whisky is a lesser player, but just the fact that it's a busy live music venue is an accomplishment, considering that it closed in the mid-'80s and then reopened as a dance club.
And if their current profiles don't match the legends carried by their names, well, what could?
In their heydays, the Troubadour, the Roxy and the Whisky weren't just rooms in which to see shows. They were places where things happened, where a performance would spin from the stage into lasting lore.
"It was a meeting place, watering hole, information center," Tom Waits says of the Troubadour. "It was kind of a switchboard for folks you lost track of."
The Troubadour, which owner Doug Weston moved to its Santa Monica Boulevard location in 1957, was a triple threat: a showroom for name acts that made it synonymous with the soft-rock and singer-songwriter genres, a barroom hangout famous for birthing the likes of the Byrds and the Eagles and, with its Monday night hoot, a launching pad for unknowns.
"You go up and do three songs and you hope there's somebody in the crowd," says Waits. "Everyone tells you that there will be.... A lot of what I was told would happen there did kind of come true for me."
"If there was somebody everybody was waiting to see, the bar would empty out into the room for that person's set," remembers Jackson Browne, another regular at the weekly showcase. "If you could empty the bar into the house for part of your set, that was doing pretty well."
The Troubadour's regular shows also yielded classic moments. Elton John's 1970 engagement made him an instant star. Carly Simon opened for Cat Stevens, then met James Taylor in her dressing room. Sitting in the audience, John Lennon melted down and got tossed after heckling the Smothers Brothers.
Weston, a long-haired, 6-foot, 6-inch eccentric who died in 1996, was famous for something besides presenting the cream of pop music: the "options" in his contracts that required acts to return, even if they had become big stars capable of packing arenas.
In response to that policy and other dissatisfactions with the Troubadour, an alliance of powerful music industry figures -- including label owners Lou Adler and David Geffen and managers Peter Asher and Elliott Roberts -- converted an old-school Sunset Strip burlesque house called the Largo into a posh music room and named it the Roxy.
Unlike the Troubadour, the Roxy never became identified with a particular style of music, but it logged its share of classic shows, starting with the opening in September 1973, when Neil Young previewed his unreleased album "Tonight's the Night."
Adler's "Rocky Horror Show" got off the ground there. Bob Marley & the Wailers dropped reggae into America's lap with their transcendent 1975 appearance, and Bruce Springsteen came down from the mountain to rock the small room for four nights the same year. Over its first decade-plus, the versatile club featured everyone from a teaming of Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs to the New York Dolls to Genesis.
Down the street, the Whisky was rocking into its second decade. The owner, former Chicago policeman Elmer Valentine, had modeled his place after the Whisky a Go Go in Paris, and in 1964 he started packing them in when he made a young singer from Baton Rouge, La., Johnny Rivers, his regular attraction.
When the Beatles changed the face of pop, the Whisky evolved from frug central to the Ellis Island of rock, opening its doors to such British Invaders as the Kinks and Them. Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne's Black Sabbath and Roxy Music followed, mingling later with such U.S. hit makers as the Young Racals and local talent including the Mothers of Invention, the Turtles, Captain Beefheart, Buffalo Springfield, Alice Cooper.
"The Whisky was mecca," says Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors. "It was the place in Los Angeles. It was probably the place in the entire country. The top bands played there. It was a place that we wanted very badly to play."
That finally happened when the Doors became the house band for the summer of 1966. The Doors never returned to the Whisky, but Manzarek came back a decade later with a new generation, sitting in with L.A.'s leading punk-rock band, X, whose albums he produced. All three clubs jumped into the punk, new wave fray, slam-dancing into the wilderness of the '80s.
In that decade, the Whisky fostered Guns N' Roses, but the metal scene proved to be not only uncommercial in the long run but also fatally uncool for all the clubs. When the so-called hair bands died, they left an odor.
"There were a lot of shows that we were losing all the time because of that stigma," says Christine Karayan, the Troubadour's manager. "[Agents] would be, 'Well, the band prefers the Roxy or the Whisky.' ... But we just kept going. Once in a while we'd get a show, so we'd try to do the best we could and hopefully the band or the agent or the management or the record label will turn around and go, 'That was kind of cool.' "
The road back started modestly at the Troubadour, with showcases for members of the National Academy of Songwriters. The club became an outlet for the newly minted "Americana" genre, presenting the likes of Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, Elvis Costello.
That market faded, but an alliance with the alt-rock-leaning concert promotion firm Goldenvoice added such bands as the Mekons and Mudhoney to the mix, preceding the indie-rock that now dominates the Troubadour calendar.
"It's all about perception," says Karayan, the daughter of owner Edward Karayan, who was Weston's partner. "So getting these cool acts in your room, all of a sudden you become a cool room."
It was a similar story at the Roxy, which in the '90s claimed a succession of local hard-rock success stories, from Incubus and System of a Down to Papa Roach and Alien Ant Farm. But it had lost its presence as an autonomous booker of national acts, serving mainly as a room for rent to other promoters.
Five years ago the club hired talent buyer Nikki Sweet, who had helped book the Ventura Theatre and Orange County's Coach House and Galaxy for 12 years.
"Resuscitating a club with an incredible legacy and name, you need to be aggressive and know what's going on and have relationships, and you need owners that will support you," says Sweet, who has developed a mixed menu of local and national acts.
Veteran artists are a staple (Toad the Wet Sprocket played New Year's Eve, and Brian Wilson recorded a live album there), and reggae is a regular element in the room where the late Marley broke through; the Wailers returned earlier this month to play on his birthday. But new bands are in the cards too. Sweden's red-hot Hives packed the club last summer, Supergrass just came through, and Ben Kweller and Sahara Hotnights are on the horizon. Significantly, in the increasingly mall-like entertainment landscape, all three clubs are family-owned operations.
"That means there is at least some stability and some long-range thinking," says Lance Hubp, who managed the Troubadour when it started turning things around. "Instead of the short-term thinking that most nightclub owners are more prone to."
At the Roxy, Nic Adler, a son of co-founder Lou Adler, runs the room and owns it with his father. On a recent afternoon he sits with Sweet in the large room eating take-out Thai lunch, pointing out the recent upgrades: the new bar, booths in the raised seating area, photos of past shows lining the walls.
"We have the big bands now, so the little bands want to play here again," he says. "And those little bands are gonna be big. If you have 100 little bands play here, one of those little bands is gonna break through and be big, and that's gonna be another name that we can chalk up on the board."
Whisky owner Mikeal Maglieri, who started as a busboy and waiter there, is the son of Mario Maglieri, the longtime manager of the Whisky and the Roxy and one of L.A. rock's beloved characters.
"I was there in the days when it was a showroom," Mikeal says of the Whisky's current holding pattern. "The times have changed. The record companies because of the economy are not as involved as they used to be.... I like the big groups to be there. In time it'll go back to that again."