Photo by Emanuel Wallace
Local venue owners on the last year and what's coming next
When governor Mike DeWine invoked executive orders to ban mass gatherings last year, local concert clubs, many of which were gearing up for what promised to be an exciting spring and summer, had to clear their schedules and shutter.
While several venues tried reopening at some point last year, many closed or operated at reduced capacity as they awaited financial aid from the county and federal government.
With the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, concert venues both big and small have begun rebooking concerts for 2021 (and even into 2022) with the hopes of salvaging this summer and ramping up for the kind of fall that looks more like what Northeast Ohio has to come expect from what has historically been one of the country’s best regions for rock ’n’ roll.
Here’s a look at what some of Cleveland’s venues have been through, how they managed to survive and what they have on the horizon.
Last year got off to a great start for The Agora. “Things were going really, really well, and we had a big year ahead of us,” says talent buyer Chris Zitterbart one afternoon from a basement office inside the Midtown venue owned by mega live music and entertainment presenter AEG Presents.
For the past month, he and marketing manager Mike Tata have been busy rebooking the venue for late summer and into 2022. “The Bert Kreischer special filmed here came out on Netflix, and the venue looked beautiful. And then, everything went to hell on March 12.” At around that time, heavy metal act Killswitch Engage played a sold-out show with Light the Torch opening. “It was a great vibe,” says Zitterbart when asked about the concert. “The next night, [DJ] Steve Aoki performed, and turnout was light because I think people were concerned about the situation. He still put on a great show.”
As a result, Zitterbart and his staff, including marketing manager Mike Tata, gathered in a conference room and watched governor Mike DeWine give a press conference. “That was the endnote,” says Tata. “Live events were paused.” Much of the staff were furloughed. Recently, however, much of the staff has returned back to work.
An Aug. 5 performance by indie rock act Japanese Breakfast will restart The Agora’s season. “I feel really strongly about what we have booked,” says Zitterbart. Upcoming highlights include singer Bryce Vine (Aug. 11), pop-punk band All Time Low (Sept. 1), heavy metal act Sevendust (Sept. 7), and gypsy punks Gogol Bordello (Sept. 17).
“Mike [Tata] and the rest of the staff are getting crushed by on-sales. The floodgates are open. We’re always wondering at what point it’ll be too much and at what point fans will have bought tickets to too many shows, but we should have a strong 2021. We’re booked into next year too.” In addition to hosting live music, the venue has also booked comedians like Nate Bargatze (Dec. 4-5), Whitney Cummings (Dec. 10), and Patton Oswalt (Dec. 11), and events such as Cleveland Taco Fest (Aug. 27-29) and All Fizzed Up (Sept. 11).
Beachland Ballroom & Tavern
Beachland Ballroom co-owner Cindy Barber says times were tough at her Collinwood club even before COVID hit.
“The trend in the music industry is for touring bands to try to get as much money as they possibly can from live touring these days,” she says last month from the club’s tavern as staff prepped for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its reopening. “That means higher guarantees and special meet-and-greets that venues need to accommodate. They charge $100 a person for early meet-and-greets but that money often just goes through the venue’s books. You may only get a couple of extra dollars to pay for extra staffing, but then you pay taxes. The small venues were already in a pickle.”
Last year, the venue celebrated its 20thanniversary right before businesses had to close to stop the spread of COVID, but Barber says that “in order for the Beachland to survive, there needed to be some sort of a change in the business model.” Barber says one thing that club owners have all learned during this difficult time is how much this city embraces and values its live music clubs. When it had to temporarily close, the Beachland started selling merch online to make ends meet.
“We basically turned our office into a shipping facility,” says Barber. And while closed, the club re-did its hardwood floors and remodeled its kitchen. Barber says limited capacity shows have gone well and the club is transitioning in July and August, slowly increasing capacity. The club’s late summer and fall schedule is packed with national touring acts such as CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band (Aug. 1), Sarah Shook & the Disarmers (Aug. 12), Brent Cobb and Nikki Lane (Aug. 25) and Albert Cummings (Sept. 8) and then moving into full-capacity shows such as the sold-out rescheduled OSEES (Sept 19).
“People are so grateful to be able to see live music again,” she says. “Every day, someone says it’s the first time they’ve been out and how grateful they are that we’re still here.”
Blossom Music Center/Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica
Behemoth concert promoter Live Nation books most of the rock, pop and country concerts that take place at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica and Blossom Music Center. The shows slated to take place at those venues in 2020 promised to be big ones. Jackson Browne and James Taylor were bringing their tour to town, Primus’s tribute to Rush was slated to come here as were the Black Crowes, who were reuniting to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal album, Shake Your Money Maker. The pandemic wiped out those 2020 dates, but those shows (and more) have been rescheduled for 2021. Jackson Browne and James Taylor will now perform at Blossom on July 31, the Black Crowes’ reunion tour lands at Blossom on Aug. 4 and Primus brings its Rush tribute to Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica on Sept. 17.
“Scheduling shows is always a jigsaw puzzle but we always find a way,” says Live Nation’s Barry Gabel in an email exchange about how he and his locally based staff navigated the pandemic. “Through schedule tweaks and availabilities shifting, we made it happen and are really excited about the calendar for this season. Our incredible staff has been hard at work getting ready for an amazing 2021 season. What we’ve seen is everyone is just excited to be back — from the crew to staff, artists and fans — we are ready for live music.”
Gabel notes that the Cleveland Orchestra safely returned to Blossom over the Fourth of July weekend, showing that the venue was ready for fans and bands.
“The Cleveland Orchestra also just hosted their annual 4th of July fireworks concerts on back-to-back nights and the shows were both well-attended and provided a safe experience for artists, staff and consumers,” says Gabel, who adds that Live Nation has made some changes to make the concert experience safe. “We are always looking to improve our venues and enhance the fan experience. This year we’ve added QR code ordering options on-site, have gone cashless and moved over to mobile ticketing in addition to other details fans can find on the venue’s website. We definitely encourage fans to purchase their tickets from Ticketmaster directly and not third party sellers in order to avoid any issues getting into their events.”
Blossom and Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica both feature full slates of shows for August and September, and some dates for 2022 have already been announced. Backstreet Boys will bring their DNA World Tour to Blossom on July 6, 2022, and Rod Stewart and Cheap Trick will perform there on July 19, 2022. Barenaked Ladies (July 2), David Gray (July 16), Goo Goo Dolls (Aug. 10) and Alicia Keys (Aug. 19) have all locked down 2022 dates at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. “[This season will be] starting later and ending later,” says Gabel, “and yes, 2022 is going to be an amazing concert schedule as well.”
Bop Stop manager Gabe Pollack says 2020 was going to be “absolutely the best year” that the near West side jazz club has ever had.
“My favorite shows were coming up in the spring of 2020,” he says one afternoon from the club. “I had [clarinetist and saxophonist] Anat Cohen, [guitarist] Lionel Loueke, [singer-trumpeter] Bria Skonberg, [pianist] Andy Milne and [guitarist] Miles Okazaki. We had a Networking Is Dead event. We had a lot of fundraisers for other non-profits. Some were cancelled, and some went virtual.”
During the closure, Pollack was able to make some upgrades to the club. He was about to install a project and screen prior to the pandemic but pivoted and purchased cameras that he could use for live streaming instead. Pollack learned how to operate the cameras and audio equipment himself and says he did more than 180 live streams.
“We’ve always been known for our sound, and we had great mics, so we just bought a switcher, a controller and two cameras,” he says. “That saved our butt. We did things with bands, and we did livestreams for Moen and other big companies who wanted to do virtual holiday parties. We did a series with Piano Cleveland. We did a series with the Musicians Union. I’ve heard people say you can’t make money doing livestreams. That’s not true. We had close to 1400 people donate to our livestreams. We were able to pay bands about $40,000 in total. These weren’t grants. The bands earned it.”
As soon as it was safe to do so, the Bop Stop started hosting outdoor concerts on its back patio. “Last September and October, we did outdoor shows, and they were great. I didn’t lose money during those months. I didn’t really have staff either.” Currently, the club is operating at reduced capacity, but it’ll be back to full capacity starting on Aug. 7. And the schedule is full.
“I don’t have dates before November, not even weeknights,” says Pollack. “After we had to shut down, I just kept booking and thought they’d be virtual events. Even though we’re at limited capacity, every show has sold out. At one of the outdoor shows, a 93-year-old woman came. Her last time out was at our Valentine’s Day show of 2020. Her first time out since then was for an outdoor show here, and she brought her umbrella and sat outside for the show. It was great to see this 93-year-old woman who had been isolating and waiting to get back out. That makes it all worthwhile.”
At the beginning of 2020, Foundry owner Lisa Covelli was booking shows at both the Foundry, the Lakewood concert club she owns, and at the Phantasy complex located across the street.
“I had four clubs running at once,” says Lisa one afternoon from the Foundry while casually drinking a Bud Light. “The Foundry was pretty much on autopilot. It was something we had going for eight years, and it was going beyond well. We had so many great shows and events created by creative people. Then, we started flooding stuff over to the Phantasy. We were all running like crazy. My whole staff was so supportive of the whole thing. We gave everyone the ability to have shifts, and they were making a bunch of money.”
When the pandemic hit, the Foundry shuttered and Covelli’s plan to purchase the Phantasy fell through. During that time, Covelli pivoted to turn the Foundry into a “takeout and delivery joint.” She says she used her day job to make sure her employees could continue to collect paychecks. She also rebuilt the stage during that time and rewired the sound system. She redid the bathrooms. Business improved when the club was allowed to have seated dining. Covelli credits other club owners with helping her find grants and providing emotional support as well.
“The banding together of the club owners, especially [Happy Dog owner] Sean Watterson, who helped every single person through this, has been great,” she says. “I get an email every day from him helping me through this.”
Now, the Foundry is booked through February. “We have a full schedule,” Covelli says. “It’s been crazy. Without shows and going from 300 to 50 capacity, we were able to really build our Taco Tuesday and Wing Wednesday and showcase our great food, not to mention being able to participate in Scene food weeks for the first time. We were also able to really build our drag nights and festivals. The love we have for these things will only be built upon over time.”
She adds that she has put together “a great database of all these wonderful local people.” “[During the pandemic] we figured it out together,” she says “We had democratic pow-wows. We all work well together and respect one another, and since I refused to lose hope and kept pushing through hard times, they never lost hope either. That’s how we were able to live through this. I cried when we printed our first flyer order, and we took the COVID signs down. I was having a moment. It looks back to normal now, and everyone is so happy.”
Grog Shop/B-Side Lounge
Spring of 2020 was shaping up to be nothing short of spectacular for the Grog Shop, the Cleveland Heights music venue that books an eclectic mix of indie rock and hip-hop.
“That March that we shut down I had four or five sold out shows,” says owner Kathy Blackman one afternoon from the venue where she still has the dry erase board filled with all the spring 2020 dates that had to be cancelled or rescheduled. “I thought it was the greatest week of music I ever had, and May looked amazing too. For the first time ever, that Memorial Day Weekend all the shows were sold out. I had a lot of good content that spring. I had two Pussy Riot shows and a Murder by Death concert. The first show we had to cancel was [the local Pogues tribute] Boys From the County Hell on March 14. That spring looked very solid to me, and summer was shaping up to be whatever it was going to be.”
Bands cancelled and rescheduled for fall of 2020 and spring of 2021. Those shows would be rescheduled too and some have been pushed into Spring of 2022. Blackman, however, persevered and reopened the Grog Shop in May for seated shows. She also reconfigured the B-Side Lounge, which is located beneath the Grog Shop, for seated shows.
“We’re slowly trying to get back to normal,” she says. “I think through the summer, I’ll leave Mondays and Tuesdays blank unless I have a special show. There are three or four national shows in August, and then it’s on. September will be a mix of local and national, but October is almost all national, and November looks solid.”
Blackman says “there’s a mix of hesitation and excitement” about the return of live music, and the Grog’s upcoming schedule has plenty to offer. It’ll feature acts such as veteran punks Anti-Flag (Sept. 15), indie rockers Soccer Mommy (Sept. 28) and the blues garage rock band Shannon and the Clams (Oct. 24). She’ll also resume booking bigger concerts off-site and will bring singer-songwriter Amigo the Devil to the Beachland on Sept. 20 and indie rockers Dinosaur Jr. to the Agora on Oct. 1. She’s also booked an Oct. 15 double bill at the Cleveland Museum Art featuring quirky singer-songwriters Bonnie Prince Billy and Jonathan Richman, and she also scheduled Iron and Wine for CMA on Nov. 16. She’ll bring Best Coast’s the Finally Tomorrow tour to the Beachland in early 2022 too.
Last year, as Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson went through the restaurant and bar’s numbers in order to submit documentation for grants, he realized the club was “on a good path.”
“It’s hard to remember the upswing because we hit the [COVID] cliff, but it was looking good,” says Watterson as he sat at the club with GM and co-owner Tony Cross one recent afternoon. “Being closed was not a decision at first because everything had to close. When we were faced with the decision about coming back, we realized that if we can’t be who we are, we had to shut it down and get the bleeding of the cash down to a drip. We had to go into coma mode. Hot dogs don’t do great on DoorDash. Tater tots don’t stay hot. We’re just asking for Yelp complaints.”
As Watterson and Cross discussed ways of re-openly safely, they knew they had to be able to have more than just a handful of customers at the time.
“We both realized the heart and soul of the Happy Dog is the events and the people and the shows and the interactivity,” says Cross. “Not having that just didn’t make sense.”
While the club was shuttered, Watterson, who’s co-chair of the organization’s implementation task force, signed on with the National Independent Venue Association to ensure the Save Our Stages bill passed. He also worked locally with the county to gets arts foundation funding to Cleveland clubs and local artists. That money helped many club owners stay solvent as they waited for their SVOG money. Watterson wasn’t just busy helping save other people’s stages. His own club saw a few improvements during the downtime. Also, Cross installed new custom-made booths and generally cleaned the place. The club now has two new pinball machines, including a spanking new Mandolorian machine. The draft system has been tuned, and some sound proofing was installed.
“This space is what people love,” says Watterson. “The idea was never to change it so dramatically that it’s not the Happy Dog they remember.” The club sold out tickets to last month’s reopening. The club now features live music on weekends, but Cross says the various lecture series and trivia night will eventually return. “The calendar has started to fill up,” he says. “It’s exciting to see that come back. People really like having these anchors in their neighborhoods.”
Jilly’s Music Room
Jilly’s Music Room owner Jill Bacon Madden says that things are generally pretty slow in January and February. But in 2020, the Akron venue had just come off its best February ever, and was in line to have its best year yet.
“We were going into March, and I had a great calendar lined up for almost the rest of the year, and I was excited,” she says one afternoon in late June as she was prepping to reopen and restocking her coolers.
Madden refers to Jilly’s as a “grown-up bar,” and she noticed that her regulars had started to get nervous about going out as the pandemic took hold. She had the Mickeys, a Celtic band, slated to play for St. Patrick’s Day. Since two members of the band were battling cancer, they decided to cancel their gig. At that point, Madden made the difficult decision to furlough her employees and close the club. Like many other club owners, Madden thought things would get better by summer of 2020. When that didn’t happen, she turned off the electricity to avoid paying a $1500 a month electric bill.
The club reopened at the beginning of July with a soft opening featuring locals Mo Mojo, and almost all of the staff returned to work. Madden also booked touring acts such as Mr. Chair, Emily Adams, Betsy Ade & the Well-Known Strangers, and the Nighthawks for the fall, and she says weekend brunch will return after the first of the year. Madden says she’d like to bring comedians back into the club and has plans to bring back a burlesque drawing event on the second Thursday of every month and a monthly jam night on the third Wednesday of every month. The jazz orchestra Danjo Jazz Orchestra will hold down a monthly residency too.
“That’s pretty cool,” she says. “It’s fun to have a 17-piece band in here. They test out a lot of their own original material as well as doing some standards. They do some interesting stuff.” Madden says Akron’s music scene is thriving thanks to its collection of eclectic venues such as the Akron Civic Theatre, KC’s Nashville Nights, Annabelle’s and the Goodyear Theatre.
The Kent Stage
The Kent Stage shut down in late December of 2019 and January of 2020 to install new seats, and things started improving when it reopened in late January of 2020.
“We were kicking ass and taking names, or so it felt like it,” says owner Tom Simpson last month while sitting outside the club, which was undergoing major renovation. “Just before we shut down, we had shows by Eric Johnson and Howard Jones. [Jones] was the last show we did on March 10. We had a sold out Kingfish show and a Robert Cray show that had to be cancelled. Who knew? The governor said we had two weeks off. I thought he was a man of his word. No one ever thought this would happen.”
With the club shuttered because of the pandemic, Simpson consulted with an architect about making even more improvements. The restrooms have been upgraded and are now touch-free. There’s a new ticket office and a bar that’ll be open seven days a week whether or not there’s a concert. There’s new HVAC with what Simpson describes as “virus killing filters,” and the dressing rooms have been redone too. In addition, bands will now be able to make their way onto the stage without having to sneak around to the side door.
“One of the things that was always a pain in the ass here was getting the artist into the building,” says Simpson. “For some reason, the artists just want to magically appear. It’s show business. I get it. But it’s not David Copperfield.”
The club will reopen on July 30 with a Steve Earle concert, and the late summer/fall schedule includes acts as wide-ranging as singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco (Aug. 27), Paul Thorn (Sept. 12) and Bob Mould (Oct. 19). “I’m very excited about the upcoming schedule,” says Simpson, who also occasionally books shows at the Lorain Palace Civic Center, the Akron Civic Theatre and the Robins Theatre in Warren.
“Initially, everything was supposed to be done [at the Kent Stage] by June 8, but it’s been hard to get drywall and so many other supplies. We’re definitely back on track now.”
Mahall’s 20 Lanes
Since Joe Pavlick, Kelly Flamos and Colin McEwen acquired Mahall’s 20 Lanes in 2012, the Lakewood bowling alley/bar/concert venue has gradually grown into a hip place to hang out and catch up-and-coming indie rock bands. About that same time that Pavlick, Flamos and McEwen transformed the place, BravoArtist, a promoter that also books shows in Columbus and Cincinnati, began booking gigs at Mahall’s Eventually, the folks at BravoArtist realized it made sense to purchase a controlling stake in the club.
Since the club reopened earlier this year, Cory Hajde along with BravoArtist’s Alex Tucker and Ben Leubitz have become its principal owners. “I just wanted more programming control over the space,” says Hajde, who opened the Tremont bar and restaurant Cloak and Dagger last year, one afternoon from the club that’s seen its main room undergo a facelift (it now features a few tables on risers and a new sound system) during the pandemic.
“We book mostly national acts and bring volume, but when it comes to the infrastructure and staffing and how to program the space with bar and food, [Mahall’s] wasn’t up to the highest standard. I think the food here has always been good, but they don’t promote it.”
As a result, Hajde has hired a new kitchen manager and says a new menu is in the works as well. He says booking will involve more dance parties and pop-up events in addition to national touring acts.
“I want to create more local awareness and get people in the neighborhood to see this as a hub that they can walk to and go to concerts that they can trust are consistently good,” says Hajde, who says BravoArtist will continue to book shows at the Beachland and Agora. “Starting in August, we’ll do about five shows a week at Mahall’s. Our calendar looks amazing right now. It’s exciting to see. We have almost 40 shows confirmed for 2022 too. It’s all coming together.”
Music Box Supper Club
Music Box Supper Club owner Mike Miller says that 2019 seemed to be the year that the music venue and restaurant took a giant leap forward.
“That was our fifth year,” says Miller one afternoon from the Music Box’s private dining area. “Everything really started clicking for us. Concerts were consistently full. We had a solid flow of corporate events and philanthropic events and weddings.”
Having to close upended the club’s momentum, but as soon as it was safe to do so, the Music Box began hosting shows at reduced capacity. At the time, Music Box was one of the only area clubs still hosting live bands.
“Those shows bordered on magical,” says Miller. “The audience was so effusively joyous. Live music is something you experience as a community. It’s a better experience with a crowd. It’s the energy and that human interaction of enjoying the talent on the stage. The first couple of weeks of shows, people were just so happy, and that spread to the staff.”
Though still operating at reduced capacity, the club has brought back staples such as Reggae Sunday, themed brunches, Cleveland Stories Dinner Parties and Drag Bingo. The late summer/fall lineup features national acts such as 5JBarrow (Aug. 19), Todd Snider (Aug. 23), Raul Malo (Sept. 15) and Los Lobos (Nov. 3).
“We’re really excited to get back to some national touring acts,” says Miller “We’re riding the local tributes heavily right now. That is who we are too. People ask what we’re about. I say that it’s Cleveland comfort food. That’s what our menu is about. It’s also what our music is about. Our target, which is older, wants to see a show sitting down with a drink and having a nice dinner. They want comfort. They don’t wanna see some new rock ’n’ roll band. They don’t wanna take that risk. Maybe once the band has a bunch of hits, they’ll take that risk.”
Winchester owner Shane Motolik says that February of 2020 was the Lakewood club and restaurant’s busiest month ever, so the pandemic really took some wind out of the club’s sails.
“It was our third year,” he says one afternoon from the Lakewood club’s concert hall that — thanks to the ability to have socially distanced shows — remained open for most of the pandemic. “We were getting more bands and got a reputation. Bands were getting treated well, and it snowballed. It was fantastic. We were doing really well. Our brunches were good, and we were getting recognized for our food. We were getting recognized for our cocktails too. Drag brunch and bingo and trivia and all these random things were going well, and the shows were getting bigger and better.”
The club closed for a month and a half, but as soon as it was safe to do so, it re-opened to limited capacity to give local bands a place to play.
“People wanted to do things safely,” he says. “We followed all the rules. Everything was distanced and masked. We made it as safe as possible, so people could still go out and enjoy their lives.”
With distancing, the club could fit about 60 people in the back room. Once we could get entertainment again, we had bingo pushed to the back. We made it work. We pivoted.” The club still has lots of local shows booked for summer and fall but has expanded its reach to include national acts such as indie rocker Charley Crockett (Aug. 29). Motoliksays to expect the same wide-ranging mix of entertainment.
“We’re doing drag bunch twice a month now, and that sells out,” says Motolik. “We are trying to get back to where we were before COVID. That’s the main thing. Modern Kicks comes in for comedy. [Comedian] Liz Miele will play here in July and [comedian] Todd Barry is coming back in December. We’re not pigeonholed into anything. We have hip-hop and metal and comedy and burlesque and EDM.”