On a Friday night, a few hundred people crowd into Stillwater Spirits & Sounds—drinks in hand, chatting, ready to enjoy hit tunes they listened to while growing up.
A red curtain hides the performance stage.
Then, the curtain opens. Cover band Flashback Heart Attack is the featured entertainment, decked out in sunglasses, headbands, and retro clothes. As they play familiar songs from days gone by—including New Order’s “Blue Monday”—the audience starts dancing.
Times like these are so renowned that Dana Point Times readers voted for Stillwater Spirits & Sounds as the Best Venue for Live Music in our annual Best of Dana Point People’s Choice Lantern Awards.
“Stillwater began about 12 years ago. We did it because there weren’t other live music venues in town, other than The Coach House,” owner Damian Collins says. “I’ve done a bunch of nightclub and entertainment stuff before this. I wanted to bring some better entertainment, more nightlife, to town.”
Rounding out the live music venue category is runner-up The Point, a restaurant and bar that also features regional acts, including country music.
“We try to bring in a lot of different types of music. Right now, we’re doing everything from Danman’s Music School, which is all the kids and music next door here. They do their kids’ concerts,” Collins says. “Then we do country on Wednesdays, cover bands on Thursday and, basically, ’80s and ’90s (music) on the weekends.”
Music brings everyone together, he says.
“What’s neat about here is we have people that are 21 to 61, and they’re all just having fun,” Collins says. “Music is one of those things that unites everybody, no matter what. Age, color, race, political belief, whatever, you can go out on the floor and have fun.”
Letting kids play from local music schools such as Danman’s Music School is good, because it gives them confidence, he says.
“You get these kids that are super shy. You get them up on stage as an alter ego, as a rock star, and it gives them a whole different perspective,” Collins says. “Years later, we’re seeing them come here and play in bands.”
Collins also developed Sunsets in Capistrano Beach, which wasn’t big enough to accommodate live music.
“Now, we’re trying to focus a lot more on food,” Collins says of Stillwater’s culinary side, which offers table dining service outside the dance floor. “I brought in a really good chef. We’re trying to transition that way a little bit.”
He describes the food as “upscale gastro pub.” Despite the upscale menu, Stillwater doesn’t go for a snooty atmosphere.
“The vibe here is, pretty much, everyone fits in here. There’s no pretentiousness,” Collins says. “You got guys that are here in sandals, and you got guys that are here in suits. Anyone can walk in, feel comfortable, get a drink, dance on the dance floor, listen to music, and have fun.”
Stillwater also has television screens, so people can watch sports games.
The attendance at music shows has taken off since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
“I think people are really wound up, looking to be around people again,” Collins says. “Human nature is you like to be around people and interact and do things. COVID locked everyone up for two years, which really crushed us.”
“People now are more into events and going out to actual things than just going out for dinner and a drink,” he adds. “They want to have an experience.”
Though Stillwater “took their licks” from the pandemic, they were able to continue paying staff members using funding from the federal government’s Payment Protection Plan—though Collins admits money got tight.
“If COVID would have lasted another six months and we didn’t get PPP, I don’t know if we’d be here—going through all of our reserves trying to keep as many of our employees paid,” he says.
The crowd at Stillwater might look different on a given night, given who’s playing. Collins, for example, mentioned the country nights draw out the cowboy set.
People coming to enjoy live music at Stillwater might be on a date or celebrating a promotion at work, he says.
“If you go to a place, you have an amazing meal, you meet the girl of your dreams, you dance to an amazing band, you’re never going to forget that night,” Collins says.
He is confident in Stillwater Spirits & Sounds standing strong as a live music venue in the face of whatever challenges may come.
“Whether the economy goes down, things get crushed, people can still come out, have a beer have a cocktail, have a great night for four hours with music going on,” Collins says. “We’re lucky. Our crowd’s a little older. I don’t have the fights here.”
Collins forecasts a bright future in general for Del Prado Avenue.
“I think this street is really going to grow. I think you’re going to see a lot more happen on Del Prado,” he says. “The REDO Market has been a rad edition. It’s packed, man.”
Collins praised city leaders and governments for being pro-business and helping to facilitate live music and community entertainment.
“We’re happy here,” he says.
While Collins says the city does an “awesome job” of hosting concerts in the park, he would like to see more live music in the area.
“I wish there were three or more spots that had a stage,” he says. “You go down to Key West, and you walk Key West and every place you walk by has some person playing music. You go to Austin. You go to Nashville. All of them have it. They’re bigger cities, granted.”
“I’m hoping that the city continues to do things that promote music within the city,” Collins says. “We’re finally having an electronic music festival down at Doheny, so I’m super pumped on that. I’m hoping more of that stuff happens.”