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On Their High Horse

New Digs Give Irvine Spectrum Venue High-Tech Sound System, Increased Capacity and an Upscale Atmosphere


The Crazy Horse Steak House certainly looks a lot less crazy in its posh new Irvine Spectrum digs than it did in its faux-western home alongside the Costa Mesa Freeway in Santa Ana.

The move in December--prompted by owners' concerns about staying competitive in an increasingly busy Orange County concert market--to a room that holds twice what the cozy old place did for 20 years sacrifices some of the fabled intimacy that contributed to many of the most memorable concerts in this county's history.

And it just doesn't seem right entering any place calling itself the Crazy Horse without striding through those swinging saloon doors, which apparently didn't fit into the new design.

But the good news is that the gorgeous new saloon/concert hall sounds magnificent and still has most of the up-close-and-personal feeling that made the Crazy Horse legendary in country-music circles.

Most important, the sound is well-balanced throughout both levels thanks to a crystalline line-array house audio system. The biggest structural difference between the new and old facilities is the upper deck of seating, where only spotlight operators and animatronic Native Americans sat in Santa Ana.

Not only does the new balcony increase the club's capacity, but the extra ceiling height makes the new place feel more like a small theater, where the old one had the ambience of a large living room.

The stage, too, offers performers a lot more leg and headroom. It makes a band as big as Merle Haggard's nine-piece Strangers, which played two nights last week, more comfortable. But, at least from the floor seats, it also leaves the players looking a bit smaller than life under the spacious proscenium.

Performers are framed better on stage when looking down from above. But watching a show from that second floor gets tricky if you don't get one of the 95 seats that line the railing and directly overlook the stage.

If you don't mind watching the show on either of two large video screens flanking the stage instead of via direct view, the upper deck can be a cheap way to experience some big-name country shows. Tickets were going for as little as $15 when the best seats were selling for $65.

For some shows, club officials remove all the tables from the balcony and make it a standing-room only area.

From the rear of the lower level, it's easy to believe the stage-to-back wall distance has increased only 8 feet. At the old Crazy Horse, the seats that lined the bar opposite the stage felt like the 10th row at a large theater or arena; now they feel like the 15th. That means patrons at the new Crazy Horse will feel just about as close to the action as before. And that single bar of old has been replaced by dual bars that bookend the wide rectangular saloon.

The only visual obstructions down below are from two 16-inch-by-16-inch beams that support the balcony. Those obstructed-view seats were not occupied at Haggard's first show. A club spokeswoman said they are usually held back, but the seats are made available for sold-out performances at an obstructed-view discount, and potential buyers are warned about them.

Adding to the new dinner-theater feel on the floor are long tables that seat 12, right behind three rows of round tables for four like those that dominated the floor of the old building.

There are other opportunities that never existed in the previous site, such as heading off after a concert has ended at 9:30 or 10 p.m. and grabbing a drink or a bite at one of the adjacent Spectrum businesses.

The biggest difference, then, between the Crazy Horse then and now is one of overall atmosphere. Back at the old location, clomping over the faux-weathered porch planks and sauntering through those nouveau barroom doors of oak, it was at least possible to pretend you were in a honky-tonk, even if it was a spotless, Disney-fied sort of honky-tonk.

There's no longer any vestige of honky-tonk atmosphere in the tony Irvine Spectrum's newest occupant--you'll have to head south on the San Diego Freeway and hop off at the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano if real blood, beer stains and sawdust are what you're after.

But the Crazy Horse's considerable musical legacy continues, and club operators should be able to add to it if they can keep country greats like Haggard coming through.

* The Crazy Horse Steak House, 71 Fortune Drive, Irvine Spectrum. (949) 585-9000.

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