"Have you ever gone to a club where the owner said, 'You know what, I have really nice bathrooms!'?" Mike Miller asks with a sweep of his arm, as he throws open the door to the ladies' room of the new Wilbert's. Miller is an excitable man, the rare guy who can get pumped up about gleaming toilets. But after touring Miller's new blues venue, we're beginning to share his enthusiasm for the rebirth of one of Cleveland's most renowned clubs.
Located in the venerable Caxton Building across from Jacobs Field, the new Wilbert's is bigger and better than the cozy, cramped version that occupied a basement space at the corner of West Ninth and St. Clair during the mid- to-late '90s. In Wilbert's spacious new digs, the sound man will no longer set up in the kitchen, and the 200 people the club accommodates won't have to crane their necks to see the stage. Large black-and-white photos of legendary dead bluesmen who played at the old club hang behind the polished cast-iron bar, so you can have a Heineken with the ghost of Albert Collins. More photos of Wilbert's veterans line the oak walls of the club, all awash in deep shades of blue.
"We're very happy Wilbert's is back. There's been a real hole in the Cleveland music community since they closed," says Bob Frank, guitarist for Blue Lunch, which is scheduled to play the club on May 17. "Losing Wilbert's hurt the blues scene and hurt us very badly."
It also hurt Miller. Soon after Wilbert's closed, Miller made an ill-fated run at reviving the club in the Diamondback Brewery on Prospect. "That was just a mess," he recalls. "I wasn't getting paid. I just grabbed all my shit and left. I was broke."
Miller relocated to Florida, but returned in 2001 with plans to get Wilbert's running again. He scoured Cleveland for more than a year before settling on the Caxton spot, which he chose for its central location, access to parking (there's a garage directly beneath the club), and layout.
But Wilbert's new home, for all its good looks, could come with problems of its own. It's situated in the Gateway District, which has proved a challenging locale for clubs and restaurants, even when the Indians were selling out Jacobs Field each summer. Though Gateway's casualties (Purple Haze, Diamondback Brewery, Redfish, and Pete & Dewey's Planet, among others) far outnumber its successes, Miller prefers to take an optimistic path.
"When I did my prospectus to raise the money to go out and start the new business, I didn't sit down and go, 'Well, there's 80 home games, and if I get 1.2 percent of the people that go to a game . . .,'" he says. "That's not why I'm doing this. I'm doing it because of the location, the landlord, the deal. I create my own events. If the Indians do bad, that just opens up more parking."
But the new Wilbert's is up against more than the Gateway Curse. Fat Fish Blue, the blues powerhouse that also once called the Warehouse District home, has since resettled in an attractive space on Prospect, just two blocks away from Wilbert's new home. And in Wilbert's absence, the Beachland Ballroom arrived on the scene, quickly earning acclaim as one of the country's finest clubs, with a strong track record of booking Americana, alt-country, and blues -- all genres that Wilbert's once dominated.
"You're not the first one to say that to me," Miller sighs when the Beachland is mentioned. Though Miller hasn't booked many acts yet, he says he plans to stick to the club's previous formula of mixing national and local acts. "To me, we're different. It's all blues-based, but when I say blues, I can say country blues, I can say jazz, I can say Texas blues.
"It's a rock club, but it's not a rock club," he says, playing up Wilbert's new bistro-style menu and $5 lunches, as well as the regular beer-tastings. "We're in the hospitality business. I say to my servers, 'Get to know your customers, have fun with them.' That's what it's all about."
Not to mention those sparkling lavatories.