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Cream of the Club Scene : Even the Hippest Nightspots Come and Go, but Five Have Managed to Thrive

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A sad clubland truth: Hollywood’s breed of club-goer takes its nightspots for granted. Scenesters sniff at the notion of waiting in line. And they sniff even more if there isn’t a line. And though a space such as Club Lingerie was once the heart of the underground music scene, it can close its neon-lighted doors without a tear shed by those who called it home.

In this trend-eat-trend world, it’s a wonder there are any survivors.

Yet five clubs have not only survived, but have also thrived: The venerable Whisky, the Troubadour and the Palace make the cut, along with newcomers the Viper Room and the House of Blues.

While other clubs come along to make a mark, these five stand apart because of such fine points as excellent sound, a variety of live music styles and, perhaps most critical, an inherently unique personality. The “vibe” at each space is linked to efforts to maintain the club’s integrity, to not parcel it out each night to promoters who transform it into some other entity.

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“It’s tremendously difficult to find enough quality acts to represent what you want to do,” says Lance Hubp, the manager of the Troubadour, which is planning its 40th anniversary celebration for next year. “Some nights you do compromise, and that’s just a painful reality.”

The bottom line is each of these venues tries just a little bit harder than the competition to avoid being predictable.

“It’s a business and it has to function as a business,” says Sal Jenco, the co-owner of the Viper Room. “But within that, we try to make it function like a business in your friend’s living room.”

So find a seat on the couch. As anyone old enough to remember the Starwood will tell you, appreciate ‘em while you can.

The Viper Room

Plenty of folks still hold a grudge against this natty West Hollywood nightclub. Either because they liked the Central--its previous embodiment, best described as a dive’s dive--or because they never got over the fact that actor Johnny Depp took over the helm. Well, it’s time to get over it.

“Someone should thank Johnny Depp for his contribution to the L.A. club scene,” says Brent Bolthouse, a local club promoter and owner of the Opium Den. “More bands have been signed out of the Viper than anyone can count. They take a lot of chances.”

The Viper got off to a rocky start when it became linked with actor River Phoenix’s drug overdose death, but the two-level establishment has slithered out from under this shadow to emerge as the most consistently hip club in town. The 2 1/2-year-old venue breaks new acts and trends with such alarming speed that Depp and Jenco don’t just have their fingers on the music scene’s pulse--they’ve become the pulse.

The Viper has offered artists ranging from Johnny Cash to the Mary Jane Girls a platform, and it’s not unusual to see Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz tending bar downstairs or joining his band on stage for one of its numerous impromptu performances.

“I’m not really into trends or any kind of bull,” Jenco says. “What I connect with is genuine inspiration because that touches everybody.”

* The Viper Room, 8852 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 21 and older. (310) 358-1880.

The Whisky

Maybe it’s all those ghosts that make the Whisky so cool. The Doors. New York Dolls. Led Zeppelin. The Kinks. The “hair” bands. If rock ‘n’ roll had a definable odor, it would smell like the Whisky. Since 1964, the now-blackened Whisky has been the club from which dreams are made. Almost any night, you can still see bands out front hyping their gigs. Each Monday, underground hopefuls get a shot to play on the famous stage at “Bianca’s Hole,” a free showcase.

“The very first time I played there, I was so overwhelmed,” says Jenni Mac, a guitarist-singer for the L.A. band Red 5. “I loved it! I mean, it was the Whisky. You’re on the same stage Jim Morrison was on. It was just awesome.”

Unlike the neighboring Roxy, which despite its celebrated past is essentially a place with a stage and a bar, the Whisky’s still making stars.

“A lot of bands have gotten deals after performing repeatedly at ‘Bianca’s Hole,’ ” says Kim Adams, the Whisky’s in-house booker. Such artists include Red 5 and Shufflepuck, both of which have albums coming out on Interscope this year. Sub Pop snatched up Plexi, another frequent Monday night alternative act.

“So much action has gone on at that place,” Mac says. “Even my dad used to go there.”

* The Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. All ages. (310) 535-0579.

The Troubadour

Like the Whisky, Doug Weston’s Troubadour’s been around for so long--since 1957 to be exact--that it’s become part of pop music lore.

“When I came in six years ago, I found no one [working here] who gave a damn about the music,” Hubp says. “So I started hiring people who do give a damn.”

After years of being synonymous with the metal bands (posters depicting the Motley Crues of the world still hang prominently), Hubp says the Santa Monica Boulevard venue has seen its best December and January to date--usually slow months in clubland.

“It’s unreal,” he says. “It’s been almost 40 years, and we’re doing better than ever.”

Any hints at what’s to come on the 40th anniversary?

“Whatever it is,” he says, “we just want it to be a reflection of the amazing lineage of this place.”

Calling Elton John.

* Doug Weston’s Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. All ages. (310) 276-6168.

House of Blues

“Help Ever. Hurt Never.”

Anyone who’s been to the Sunset Strip club is familiar with this motto. It’s painted throughout the club, it appears on the multiple video kiosks and it’s woven on jackets and shirts sold at the 2-year-old venue’s gift shop.

Frequent guests are also aware that sometimes the employees are helpful and kind, and sometimes--usually on crowded evenings--you’re hustled around like cattle off to the slaughterhouse. The point being, club-running is not a perfect science and this is an imperfect space. The House of Blues will probably always be a hit-or-miss proposition, but we’re not grading on an average.

This live music venue’s place in clubland is a key one: Not only does it book adventurously--it’s the only club of its stature to invite top-notch rap acts to perform regularly--but its colorful stage, food and interior make it one of Hollywood’s highlights. From the “outsider” art hung throughout the club to a 75-foot bar adorned with skeletons and bottle-caps, the details are a delight.

It was founded by Memphis-born entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett, who took such care in designing the space that he had the exterior covered with weather-beaten corrugated metal shipped from a cotton gin mill at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss., where, legend has it, Robert Johnson gave his soul to the devil in order to play the blues.

Although blues music remains the club’s foundation, its musical diversity borders on bravery. In coming weeks, artists scheduled to perform include Motorhead, the Who’s John Entwistle and LL Cool J--one of the many rappers to have performed recently at the club.

“Rappers complain all night [everywhere else] about the lousy sound,” says Lisa Jefferson, Elektra Entertainment’s director of press and artist development. “So far, the House of Blues is the only place I haven’t heard them complain.”

Just one warning: If it’s a busy night, don’t valet park in the main lot.

* House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Age limit varies (generally, 21 and older, with occasional all-ages shows). (213) 650-1451.

The Palace

The Palace turns a whopping 70 this year, and boy, does it look good. Over the past two years, the spacious Art Deco club has had a few face lifts and gotten a brand-new sound system. And remember the Whisky’s aforementioned ghosts? Well, the Palace’s ghost is documented.

“There’s a chapter in a book on ghosts dedicated to the Palace ghost,” notes Sonjia McFarland, a Palace booking agent. “Our night manager’s even seen it.”

The Palace may be haunted by its pop music past, which includes artists ranging from Annette Funicello to Nine Inch Nails, but its current bookings are very much in sync with the times.

Featuring a huge stage and dance floor and one of the loveliest balcony views in town, the Palace is all about the music--from Latin-themed dance nights to major touring acts (recent standouts include last weekend’s three-night stay by the Smashing Pumpkins).

McFarland likens Palace employees to a “functional family.”

“Everyone pitches in overtime to make this place work,” she says.

Even, no doubt, the ghost.

* Palace, 1735 N. Vine St., Hollywood. 18 and older (concerts all ages). (213) 462-3000.


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