Arts December 19, 2017

The Sapphire Room

Boise's hidden gem

Remember the old hit, “Don’t Play Anything Mellow at the Whiskey” by Loggins and Messina? It was the penultimate musicians’ lament at playing in a venue (LA’s Whiskey a Go-Go in that case) where the performers were ignored and drowned out by the noisy crowd until the decibel levels got cranked up. Call me crotchety, but audio levels so high that the music is distorted and I can’t hear the person next to me yelling in my ear are no longer worth the price of admission. But we can happily leave that scene to our progeny because nirvana now lies just off the I-84 connector in Boise at Chinden Boulevard.

Discreetly tucked away in a corner off the lobby in the Riverside Hotel, the Sapphire Room is The. Best. Music. Venue.—hands down—in the entire city. Maybe the entire state. It’s a dream come true for anyone who cares about the music. It’s intimate, the acoustics are first-rate, and it was conceived as a love offering to local musicians.

“I’m constantly amazed by the quality of the music we have right here in Boise,” said Lynda Johnson of Johnson Brothers Hospitality, the owner of the Riverside Hotel. “We wanted to create a ‘listening room’ where people are encouraged to listen to the music and where there’s a feeling of respect for the musicians.” Johnson and her husband spent 11 years in a band together and their experience shaped the kind of space they wanted to create.

When they bought the hotel, what would become the Sapphire Room was the moldering remains of an old disco room, “… complete with disco ball and a DJ booth!” laughed Johnson. Creating superior acoustics was key to the kind of venue they envisioned. “I always say that the sound person is my most important person in the room,” she said. “Rob Baker, a local sound engineer, designed the stage and picked out the sound system. He spent six weeks getting the sound just right.”

Stepping into the Sapphire Room is like walking into an intimate club in New York or San Francisco. There’s not a bad seat in the house. It holds 172 people comfortably seated at tables and banquettes with the stage as focal point. The stage was designed to be big enough to hold a jazz ensemble or middle school choir but cozy enough for a musician or singer to connect with everyone in the room.

“Moving the Idaho Songwriter Forums to the Sapphire Room was the best move we ever made,” said co-founder and beloved local musician Steve Eaton. “I’ve played that room as a single and with several trios and duos. I like everything about that room. And in the 50 some odd years I’ve been playing, I’ve never been treated so kindly, so fairly and so respectfully.”

Johnson originally hired local jazz stylist Kevin Kirk to book the room, whom she credits as being influential in the venue’s early success. When Johnson herself began booking, she branched out into many styles of music. Currently, her daughter, Stephanie Leavell, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, is the booker. High profile names such as Michael Martin Murphy, Karla Bonoff and Suzy Bogguss have headlined, but Johnson’s focus is to provide a space for local musicians and groups such as the Boise Blues Society, the Idaho Jazz Society, Idaho Songwriter’s Association, Boise State University, Eagle Middle School, and Opera Idaho.

“When we moved to the Sapphire Room in 2015 for our Operatinis, our attendance doubled … and has since doubled again,” said Mark Junkert, Opera Idaho’s executive director. “The original impetus to move was the wonderful piano in the space, but it turned out that in all other ways it’s been the perfect venue for us. Operatinis are for people who are willing to give our art form a try in a casual atmosphere that’s less intimidating. Our singers love the venue because of the intimacy—they get to really connect with the audience. ”

Added Eaton, “The Sapphire Room has become the sweet spot in Boise for entertainment. I would venture to say that just about every musician in this town who wants to work gets a chance to play there. I hope people realize that Johnson Brothers really went out of their way to give this community something special, and I, for one, can never thank them enough!”

This article appears in the Winter 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.