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?"
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.
"If there's a band at the Belly Up you know it's going to be good," said Steve Goldberg, who purchased the club from Hodges in 2003.
The next 35 starts now
Goldberg is looking forward to expanding that trusted brand worldwide via the Internet. With so many popular artists getting their start on the Belly Up stage, there are opportunities for video and music recordings and downloads.
"You can't duplicate a great live show," Goldberg said. "But how many great shows would you love to see again?"
Helping him grow the Belly Up is Goldsmith, a six-time Grammy-winning producer, fresh blood plugged into the new music scene and veteran staff that has worked there for 20 years.
But the success of the next 35 years also hinges on preserving the club's character that, despite two expansions, still feels the same as the day it opened.
It's a celebratory vibe created by a room full of people passionate about great live music, a massive shark hanging from the ceiling, walls covered in black and white photos of yesterday's masters and Pabst Blue Ribbon served in brown paper bags.
"We understand the intrinsic value and the indefinable cool factor of the Belly Up," Goldberg said. "We are devoted to maintaining that."
Over the years
- 1974 - Belly Up opens
- 1976 - First live music
- 1981 - Etta James performs
- 1987 - Mick Fleetwood performs
- 1990 - Curtis Mayfield performs
- 1992 - No Doubt performs
- 1997 - Wild Note Cafe opens
- 2001 - Jack Johnson performs
- 2003 - Dave Hodges sells Belly Up to Steve Goldberg
- 2008 - Relentless performs
- 2009 - Belly Up celebrates 35 years
Belly Up 35th Anniversary Shows
- March 9
- $97 - Sold Out
- April 21
More shows to be announced soon. For tickets, call (858) 481-8140 or visit