In the late ’90s, Ventura’s bar scene was an absolutely thriving place for local and out-of-town musicians. With several area clubs hosting no-cover-charge live music nights, local musicians found themselves attending more than just their own shows. The scene that blossomed from the fertile soil of plentiful pay gigs and good crowds even had out-of-town bands getting in on the act. For a time, Ventura was even a sought-after tour stop.

Then 9/11 happened. That’s not to say terrorists were directly responsible for the mass exodus of music from area bars, but like many things, including the music industry as a whole, the climate turned arid.

Bands began drawing smaller audiences, and clubs were forced to turn to other avenues of entertainment — namely DJs and karaoke — to attract customers. In a short time, bands working the over-21 crowd were forced to go underground to bars like Billy Os, the Red Cove and Sans Souci, who, to their credit, continued booking acts despite dwindling interest. The damage had been done, though. Many acts broke up altogether, and without designated nights to hang and be heard, the community of musicians that had actively supported the scene dispersed.   

But just when it seems things can’t get any worse, one of the most popular music venues of the late ’90s, the Bombay Bar and Grill, has launched two steadily growing live music nights and, fittingly, the man with the master plan to reinvigorate the over-21 scene is a veteran of its heyday.

“Diego [Bombay’s bartender and manager] approached me about doing live bands on a Sunday night,” explains Robin Ryder, current drummer of indie faves Le Meu Le Purr and former skin pounder for the likes of Psycho Café, Colyzion, the Ska Daddyz, Pong and several other late ’90s bar favorites. “Knowing how Sundays can be around here,” he says, “I suggested we start with a vinyl spin night. Something casual where anybody who had vinyl records could come and DJ their own set, a night that was more about friends hanging out listening to music, nice and easy to start things off.”

Dubbed “Licorice Pizza,” the night slowly gathered steam and led to another, “Live at Bombay,” a legitimate old-school, no-cover, weekly live band  showcase geared toward, but not limited to, local artists.

“Over the years, a lot of bands have come to look at the club as more of a DJ hip-hop type of club and weren’t aware of its history as a great live band venue,” says Ryder. As soon as I started bringing in bands, and members of other bands started hanging out, they got to see what the night was all about. Now it’s really starting to take on the feel of that late ’90s camaraderie that existed at shows [before]. Every Thursday you knew you could come to a free local rock night, have a drink, and there’d be a like-minded supportive and eclectic crowd no matter what type of band was playing.”

Eclectic, indeed. Since starting the night, Bombay’s has seen a diverse lineup of artists. From local groove heroes and Battle of the Bands winners Rey Fresco and hardcore staples The Fucking Wrath, to popular side projects like The Calamity, the local rock night is not playing favorites to any genre or city of origin. One night even featured a guest DJ set from Bauhaus’ co-founder Daniel Ash.

Growing in tandem with the diversity of the bills is the size of the crowds. The recent debut of Jeff Hershey and the Heartbeats was easily the biggest crowd for a local weeknight show in recent memory.  It’s this type of positive success that can be contagious; and bands, fans, even venues are being infected with the buzz.

Another big player in the ’90s over-21 music boom, Nicholby’s, has opened up its Wednesday nights to host a free live music showcase. Run by Aaron Johnson, Ryder’s band mate in Le Meu Le Purr, Nicholby’s locked down the highly anticipated debut performance of Cheetahsaurus last week, an act formed by several longtime area musicians.  Johnson also plans to book several indie touring bands in the next few months.

With Ryder and Johnson being in the same band booking at competitive clubs, the obvious question is, are they flirting with a conflict of interest? Johnson, who also DJs between bands at Bombay’s, says, not at all. What he’s doing at Nicholby’s is mostly centered around out-of-town artists and touring bands that are interested in playing over-21 in Ventura. “I’ll occasionally [book] local bands but I think that’s more of what Robin focuses on,” he explains. “We can also work together. If there is a touring act coming through, we’ve got two nights of the week to offer them, which increases the chances of getting the show.”

So, while the all-ages scene struggles with limited venues in the city of Ventura (the Lab and Rock City Studios are covering it outside Ventura) — especially with Mai’s Cafe closing its big room — and younger audiences continue to favor “Rock Band” the video game over the real thing, the over-21 scene, to everyone’s surprise, may be the necessary catalyst to get the scene back on the map, one drink special at a time.