A few blocks between Pike and Pine, just east of Broadway, house some of Seattle's most intriguing, aesthetically pleasing night spots. Off-Broadway, Seattle style, is becoming quite a hit.
On a recent Friday night at the graceful Century Ballroom, the once-sleepy space in the Oddfellows Building that has recently come back to life, the horns and percussion of the 12-piece salsa band Latin Expression fills the big room with infectious Cuban beats. The huge dance floor is filled with dancers, some breaking off sensationally athletic moves. At one end of the floor, a swarthy young man wearing a ponytail comes out of a spin into a split; at the other end, a Rita Moreno lookalike leans back and slides between her partner's legs.
A block east, on 11th Avenue, next-door neighbors Bad Juju Lounge and the Vogue are regularly packed. The Vogue, a Gothic-rock nightclub, moved here from Belltown last spring, and the Bad Juju, an artistically designed place where a DJ spins Modest Mouse and other indie rock, took the place of the tacky Safari Bar shortly after.
Two doors down from the Vogue, a heart with thorns around it hangs under a sign that reads "Barca." The name is pronounced with a soft "c," as it is short for Barcelona.
With its dramatic look - sangria-red walls, candle lighting, oversized booths, wrought-iron railing leading to a balcony - Barca looks like a Mediterranean restaurant where the entrees cost $23 and come on plates big enough to take a nap in.
Or is it a trendy new nightclub that slipped into the neighborhood?
Neither, says John Bigley.
"We call it a pub," he says, with a modest smile. His partners, Richard Hemsley and Gary Leavy, are from England and Dublin, respectively, and wanted to create the kind of neighborhood public house for which they pined.
The three contributed their collective contracting skills and did most of the remodeling on the former Pigpen T-shirt shop themselves. Their work is exceptional, as Barca is one of Seattle's most striking, classy nightspots. The clublike pub opened in early August, and since then, several artists have approached the owners about doing shows there.
If the name "John Bigley" rings a distant bell, perhaps you remember his pre-grunge band, the U-men. Bigley, the singer, guitarist Tom Price and drummer Charlie Ryan started the punk band in 1981, and they quickly gained a reputation as one of Seattle's best - and strangest - acts.
With a flair for the theatrical, the U-men might perform in giant masks. They played many all-ages shows, sometimes at art galleries, and were an influence on Mudhoney and other young Seattle bands.
In 1985, the U-men released "Stop Spinning," an album on Homestead Records, which then had on its roster Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Big Black. Bigley's band toured with Cave and Sonic Youth, but, by 1988, the U-men called it quits.
"The climate was changing," he says, placing his glass of red wine down on a serpentine bar designed by Cassandria Blackmore, an artist from the neighborhood. "We felt the time was right."
An old friend who was starting a record company tried hard to get the U-men back together, but Bigley wouldn't bite.
Does he have any regrets about not being a part of the Sub Pop-fueled scene that soon after exploded?
"Fleeting, fleeting, fleeting moments of regret," Bigley answers, in characteristically thoughtful manner.
As grunge exploded, Bigley was tending bar at the Lava Lounge. Bigley would later join forces with Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman when they opened the Capitol Club, the popular restaurant and bar a few blocks down the hill. And now comes Barca, Bigley's second addition to Capitol Hill.
Knowing Bigley's background, one might expect Barca to host rock bands. But the man with a shaved head and piercing gaze says he's over that phase of his life. Though there is ambient, down-tempo CD music playing, the only real "music night" here is on Sundays, when guest DJs spin Latin music, with live percussion and bass players.
The music starts at 6 p.m., with no cover. Barca's address is 1510 11th Ave.; Bigley says he and his partners hope to eventually have a kitchen, but currently there is no food offered, beer and wine only.
Back at the Century Ballroom, Victoria Williams will perform on Monday (8 p.m., $18.50 advance, $20 door). On her acclaimed new album, "Water to Drink," Williams occasionally sounds like Billie Holiday; in turn, you can hear Williams' influence on the likes of newcomers Neko Case and Macy Gray.
"Water to Drink" mixes originals with standards such as the title track, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and "Young at Heart." Van Dyke Parks - most famous for his Beach Boys work - did string arrangements on the latter two.
H2O also inspires the new album from Saint Etienne, "Sound of Water."
Saint Etienne is Sub Pop's best band, though this elegant Brit pop is hardly the kind of raucous (and boring) rock so typical of Sub Pop. Sarah Cracknell's moody voice makes Saint Etienne one of the most consistently pleasing pop bands from the other side of the Atlantic.
Saint Etienne visits I-Spy tonight (10 p.m., $15).
The Showbox and Graceland have dueling all-age shows on Saturday.
The indie rock band Jets to Brazil plays Graceland (6 p.m., $10 advance). Seattle's earnest Pedro the Lion opens.
The Showbox has a rowdier bill, with the punk bands from the Warped Tour. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones headline, but many will be there to see the Pogues-influenced Flogging Molly (6 p.m., $15 advance).
Graceland has another all-ages show this weekend, hosting veteran San Francisco punk band Samiam on Sunday night. Dr. Seuss' favorite band has been in recording limbo for years, but finally has a new release, "Astray." It was produced by Tim O'Heir, who has worked with Sebadoh and J Mascis.
-- The Electric Poets, a rock band that has been playing around Seattle for more than a decade, play from their first CD "1999" tonight at Jimmy Z's (1712 Hewitt Ave., Everett).
-- Fiver, an excellent young band from central California that fans of Death Cab for Cutie should like, return to the Crocodile on Tuesday (9:30 p.m., $6).
-- KRS-One was originally to play the Showbox in August, then rescheduled until Tuesday. Now, they have canceled.
Tom Scanlon can be reached at 206-464-3891 or firstname.lastname@example.org.