Walla Walla music scene on upswing

Downtown has come alive with the sound of music.

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Couples dance in downtown Walla Walla to the sounds of Seattle's Locust Street Taxi during the End of Summer Dance in August 2009. the entertainment scene continues to grow as more bars, wine tasting rooms, restaurants and community events open their arms to local musicians as well as out-of-town bands on the road who've discovered the area as a venue between gigs in larger cities.

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A crowd at Rick and Debbie Johnson's Walla Faces Wine Tasting Room & Art Gallery on Main Street takes in the Latin jazz of Eddie Manzanares and Cafe Blanco.

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Pianist Carolyn Mildenberger takes requests as she entertains the early Friday evening gathering at Sapolil Cellars.

A few years ago a person could take a walk in Walla Walla in search of nightlife and maybe hear only murmurs of conversation and the clinking of bar glasses from a few establishments.

Nowadays, a person on a downtown stroll can hear live piano music coming from one side of the street, rock and roll from the other and maybe a little jazz in the distance.

Walla Walla is now bursting with live music at a number of locations, a very different scenario from the recent past when local musicians struggled to find a venue and out-of-town bands were rare.

"It's really opened up," said Jim McGuinn, owner of Hot Poop music and electronics on Main Street. "We used to have trouble getting local bars to even put up a poster (for a band) because they were afraid it would take away their business. We used to try to book bands at bars but they didn't want a cover charge. There's been a 180-degree turn here."

The growth in music venues coincides with a greater number of restaurants, bars and winery tasting rooms in downtown in recent years - and owners willing to mix music genres a bit.

"At first we were booking bands and we only made money about three times," McGuinn laughed. "The owners of the bars now are bringing the bands in themselves. They're probably at full capacity Thursday and Friday nights."

The town, with a national reputation as a wine and arts community, has also become a logical stop for bands on the road.

"Walla Walla is a connecting city, if they're leaving Seattle or Portland they need to stop here before they go on to Boise," McGuinn said. "The bands playing here now are both home grown locals and bands from the Seattle and Portland area. It reminds me of New Orleans, three to four bars that have a band per block, none I've heard of and they're all excellent."

Abigail Schwerin co-owner of Sapolil Cellars said that when the establishment opened in 2007, they used to hire musicians to play in front of the business. The operation expanded, with a larger room and piano bar, then gradually added more music more frequently during the week. The music adds to the ambiance and the experience of patrons.

"You're getting an experience - a memory; you're getting something you can take home with you," Schwerin said. "A memory and hopefully some of the product."

The Sapolil stage is level with the audience, so the band and patrons can interact. "Local musicians usually have plenty of friends in the audience," Schwerin said, and all of those factors draw in people.

There's jazz, blues or rock at night on the weekends, and piano music during dinner by Carolyn Mildenberger, who plays all kinds of music, taking requests from the audience.

"She has a huge following," Schwerin said.

At 9 p.m. the atmosphere transitions into the nightclub mode. "It's loud and people are dancing. It's really vibrant."

Mike Hammond, a musician and founder of wallawallamusic.com, said that right now in Walla Walla musicians are doing pretty well.

"In the last three to four years we've gained quite a few new venues," Hammond said. These include many wineries, the Sidewalk Concert Series downtown and long standing events such as the Walla Walla Valley Farmers' Market, the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days, the Balloon Stampede and the Sweet Onion Festival. With three colleges in the area, there's plenty of music offered on campus.

"Walla Walla is pretty good to the musicians," Hammond said.

Local favorites play regularly but there's plenty of room for new talent.

Portland singer/songwriter Kory Quinn with the band Low Down Whiskey Rebels will play at Marcy's Bar & Lounge at the corner of Alder and Colville streets on Dec. 14.

An Americana folk artist, Quinn said that he hasn't played Walla Walla before.

"It just kind of worked out that way," he said. "We were booking a two and half week tour and Walla Walla originally was not in the plans. We had a date open and were going to be passing through so we poked around and found out there is a fertile field for music and culture there."

Mildenberger, who owns a salon in Pendleton and drives to Walla Walla to perform each week, plays requests every Friday evening at Sapolil.

"It's just fun, absolutely fun," she said. "I enjoy every minute of it. It's a hoot. It's really a nice little place. Great people. I just walked in and they hired me."

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