By Charlie Swanson
Fenix, simultaneously existing as an intimate music venue and a worldwide Internet live streaming production house, is a restaurant and club like no other in Marin County. First opened in 2013, Fenix, located in downtown San Rafael, celebrates its three-year anniversary on January 23 with a “Diamonds & Pearls” party that will feature Prince tribute band The Purple Ones and a three-course prix fixe dinner.
Marin native Laura van Galen originally envisioned Fenix as a unique venue experience. While still in the planning stages, she brought in executive director and music booker Merl Saunders, Jr. to help realize that concept.
“It was a collaboration of her vision and tenacity and my knowledge of production and music,” Saunders says. “It’s been a steady uphill climb over three years, and I think it’s become a gem for Marin County.”
Saunders, Jr. grew up in the extended Grateful Dead family, the son of keyboardist Merl Saunders. At 57 years old, he estimates that he’s spent 45 years in the music industry, first as a musician and then in executive roles, and he brings that wealth of wisdom to Fenix.
“The Fenix has its own experience; music is a component, food is a component, the space is a component; and during shows the environment has an intangible quality,” Saunders says. “It’s a dialogue between musicians and audiences.”
John Storyk, who Saunders calls one of the foremost American acoustic designers, lent his skills to Fenix, and the room sounds great for musicians as much as for listeners. This growing recognition of Fenix as a musician-friendly venue has meant more national and regional acts of all stripes are contacting Saunders to perform there, and he loves the club’s musical diversity.
“Marin is a vast palette of tastes to put it mildly,” says Saunders. A typical week at Fenix will feature flamenco one night, folk music the next, blues jams, rock, world music, funk and even classical quartets.
Saunders also likes offering up talented tribute acts like The Purple Ones.
“It’s almost like comfort food,” he says. “They’re eating comfort food (courtesy of chef Glenn “Gator” Thompson) and they’re getting comfort music.”
Saunders says that people travel to Fenix from as far as Sacramento and San Jose, though a larger discussion he and van Galen had in founding Fenix was about where music was going in the digital culture. “We’re getting to where people want everything on demand, and the older demographic is catching up with the younger demographic on this,” he says.
For the on-demand crowd, Fenix streams every concert live online; and every past show, numbering almost one thousand, is available to watch on their website archives.
The Purple Ones play Fenix’s three-year anniversary on Saturday, Jan 23; 919 Fourth St., San Rafael; 7pm; $30 (general), $75 (includes prix fixe dinner); 415/813-5600; Fenixlive.com.