Belly Up celebrates 35 years

Venerable music venue celebrates 35 years

When the Belly Up Tavern opened in a Cedros Avenue warehouse in 1974, it wasn't meant to be a live music venue.

The bar had chess, checkers, backgammon and pool. There was even a lending library and big easy chairs, worn in by college professors and students who visited often after class.

"We started doing live music out of necessity for survival," said founder Dave Hodges.

To compete with other North County bars offering live music, Hodges hired the Jerry McCann Band in 1976, the house band for a decade. He also connected with a Los Angeles-based agent representing unemployed blues artists and soon historic icons such as Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and Etta James graced the stage seven nights a week.

Since then, the Belly Up has grown to become a legendary music club, offering high quality performances in an intimate setting, with the laidback charm of a bar that has been around for 35 years.

"A place like the Belly Up can't be replicated in this day and age," said Chris Goldsmith, the club's music guidance counselor. "It's something not to take for granted."

Lucky find The birth of the well-loved tavern is an oft-told tale.

Hodges graduated from the University of San Diego in 1974 with a degree in accounting and an eye to become a certified public accountant. That was, until an old high school friend suggested they open a bar together.

They drove from Oceanside to San Diego looking for a cavernous room with high ceilings in an industrial area. Passing the empty quanza hut in Solana Beach "was a little bit of luck, we just happened to find it," Hodges said.

When Hodges told his family and friends of his career-change, they warned him the bar would flop. So Hodges borrowed the accounting term for failure, named his venture the Belly Up Tavern and has been rocking ever since.

"It's a tremendous cultural asset for the entire community," said Solana Beach resident Gary Martin, who has attended Belly Up concerts since the late 1970s. "Where else can you get swing, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll and Hawaiian masters with everything else in between?"

Sweet spot

Over the years, the Belly Up has hosted thousands of musicians who may not sell out the 600-person venue the first time, but fill arenas the next time they're in town.

"They're the grand daddy," said Steve Poltz, a La Jolla-based musician and Belly Up regular. "Everyone has played there on their way up and way down."

Some of today's biggest names in music have come through the Belly Up: Blink-182, Black Eyed Peas, Ben Harper, Dilated Peoples, Green Day, Maroon 5, No Doubt, Ziggy Marley, Macy Gray, Fiest, Jack Johnson, Aimee Mann and Poncho Sanchez.

Artists love playing the Belly Up because it's an easy load in, the staff is professional and courteous and the sound system is top of the line, Goldsmith said. Audiences equally appreciate reasonable ticket and bar prices, and the opportunity to get up close and personal with their favorite bands or discover new ones.

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