Sitting in the small, graffiti-covered space that passes as the Grog Shop's green room, Kathy Blackman, the club's owner, leafs through various flyers for the many indie-rock acts that have played there over the years. The club turns 20 this month, so Blackman has booked two weeks of special shows to mark the occasion.
"This was one of my favorite," she says as she holds up a poster for the short-lived L.A. punk-folk band Low and Sweet Orchestra. "I think they were only a band for a minute, but they were one of my favorites that played here." Flipping through the rest of the stack, she fondly recalls other concerts. "I remember this New Bomb Turks show," she says as she spots a flyer for the defunct Columbus band. "And Tree was a Boston hardcore band that we used to book. I really liked them."
The venue opened in 1992 when Blackman and two other business partners took over a Cleveland Heights bar on the corner of Coventry and Mayfield roads. "We all lived around here, and we thought that it would be the perfect place to open a club," she recalls. "There were only three people sitting [at the bar] at any given time. It was really, really bad. Nobody was ever there. We lived in the neighborhood and wondered why there wasn't anything better there. We put in $5,000 each."
The first show featured local garage-rockers Quasi Modo, and the place was packed. "In the beginning, we were such a novelty that we did really well, no matter what we did," she says. "The Euclid Tavern had shows too, but those were just on Monday nights, when [local graphic artist] Derek Hess booked all that stuff. It was sort of that era for it."
When the club first opened, it had a full kitchen. Wednesday's 10-cent wing night was particularly popular at the Grog. "It used to be me and 10 regulars from WRUW," says Blackman. "We could watch 90210 and eat wings and drink beers. We were just a local hangout place for so long."
Within a year, Blackman booked her first national band, the Portland, Oregon-based pop-punks Crackerbash. In 1994, a then-unknown British group called Oasis played the Grog Shop. "Tickets for that show were only $6," recalls Blackman. "It was a Tuesday night, and I was working the door. Nobody knew who they were. They were totally normal young guys. They sat at the door and bullshitted with me, and I couldn't even understand what they were saying because of their heavy accents. There was no pretense at all."
The performance-art troupe Crash Worship put on one of the wildest early shows. "It was horrific for me," says Blackman. "They're this insane gypsy band, and they built these platforms they were carrying around the club. They were naked except for body paint, and they were breathing fire. They wouldn't stop playing. I had to lock the door because they played until 3 a.m. To everyone there, it was the best show they ever saw. To me, it was traumatic, and I was behind the bar crying. I thought I was going to be arrested."
Occasionally, bands like the Deftones and the Brian Jonestown Massacre insisted on playing secret shows at the Grog when they were in town to play bigger concerts at other venues. But not everyone loved the place. "The guys in the Flaming Lips thought it was a dump," says Blackman. "I got a lot of complaints about the lack of a toilet seat in the men's room. Mazzy Star's singer was wearing a turtleneck or something and refused to play any more after 20 minutes because of the heat. She was a bitch."
When the club lost its lease in 2003, Blackman considered moving to Ohio City. But she found a place just up the street and has resided at that spot, on Euclid Heights Boulevard, ever since. At first, the craziness carried over to the new location. Michigan punks the Meatmen played the club around the same time a popular local tattoo artist died, recalls Blackman. "The show was the same day as his wake or funeral, and everyone came to the show afterward. By the end of the night, every machine in the room was broken, and the whole floor was scattered with broken bottles. No one was fighting, but there was so much aggression. It looked like a tornado had gone through."
When England's Badly Drawn Boy played the club in 2003, he become so frustrated with the audience that he left the stage. "I came back and told him I was excited about his show and loved his records, which was all true," says Blackman. "But there were also 450 people who paid a lot of money, and I told him he better get out there and fucking play. He was cool in the end."
Starting this week, the club will host a handful of special shows to mark its 20th anniversary. Bands like Guided by Voices (on Friday) and Alkaline Trio (on Monday) can fill bigger venues these days, but they're coming back to play the Grog and help celebrate. Blackman says she's most looking forward to seeing reunited local bands Disengage, Chargers Street Gang, Roue, the Cowslingers, and Sheilbound, who are playing on September 21, and reunited reggae groups Oroboros and I-Tal, who are playing on September 22.
Blackman says that she sat down with booking assistant John Neely and made a wish list of bands they wanted for their anniversary. And it turns out, there were more Cleveland groups than national ones on the list. "To me, that's our history," she says. "I reached out to a bunch of people, and I was amazed at how many people were interested. They're coming in from all over. It'll be nice to see some older faces."
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