In early July, The Southern Café and Music Hall announced that it had entered into a partnership with Starr Hill Presents, the concert promotion arm of Red Light Management, which also operates The Jefferson Theater and the Pavilion. The Southern closed for several weeks for minor renovations and re-decorating, and will re-open on August 22.
“We’re working on a new identity that enhances the old identity, without trampling over it in any way,” said Collean Laney, the Southern’s new general manager. “In terms of the theme for the space, we’re going for ‘rock ‘n’ roll basement’—comfortable, you know everybody, you’re just gonna hang out and hear some good music—how it was before, just a little bit bigger and better.”
In past years, Starr Hill has presented concerts at the Southern, but it will now be operating the venue full-time. Andy Gems, who opened the Southern in 2009 in the First Street location once occupied by Gravity Lounge will still be heavily involved. “The absolute legal logistics, I’m not going to get into,” Laney said of the arrangement with Gems. “But in terms of it becoming more of a partnership, Andy’s not going anywhere. I manage the Jefferson and the Southern, and I hate using titles, but Andy is the assistant general manager, so he’ll be handling the go-to, the day-to-day. It’s a little bit tricky, and I think we’ll get our sea legs about us in the next couple of months. But he’s been here the whole time, helping us figure out what works best. Because it wasn’t broken.”
“We were lucky, in that everything here already runs really well,” Laney said. “It’s just a matter of improving it a bit, and giving it a little TLC. The people who run the Delicious George fry cart, Melissa Ketola and Will Flagge, are gonna be heading up the kitchen, and they’re doing a southern barbecue menu. The faces will still be the same,” Laney said of the staff. “The idea was that anybody who wanted to stay on was welcome to.”
Danny Shea, who books shows for Starr Hill Presents, will now be working on the music calendar for the Southern. “I’m going to be the primary booking contact, with Andy supporting,” Shea explained. “Most of the shows on the calendar now are shows that I’ve booked, and there is some overlap with the shows that Andy already had in the can. The Meat Puppets [October 6] was a show that Andy had been working on, but I’m totally stoked about that. Suuns [September 7] is gonna be great, Pissed Jeans [September 6] is gonna be great. We have some great local shows coming up. I’m not just personally excited, I know that these are shows that other people are going to be excited about.“
“Between Andy and Danny, it’s just this encyclopedia of music history in this town,” Laney said. “It’s great to be able to say, ‘We tried this band at the Southern, can we try them at the Jefferson?’ or ‘This band was at Tea Bazaar, maybe it’s a Southern band now. Is that a good opening for a Fridays After Five band, can we promote them that way?’”
Shea was adamant that the Southern does not intend to aggressively compete with similarly-sized local venues. “I support what’s going on at the Tea Bazaar, I love that place,” he said. “I don’t want to be associated with any kind of negativity or competition. That’s never been what I’m about, or why I do this. We’ll never be the only game in town, and I don’t want us to be. But we’re probably the most substantial one, and probably the best experience for the bands—being onstage with a hearty PA, and being more of a club environment.”
“We’re in a great position to cultivate bands in the market, and let them grow, and also to be able to cultivate the market in town, and cultivate the scene,” Shea said. “We’ll be in a good place to review what’s best for the artists, and what’s best for the patrons. If there’s a band that wants to play the Southern, maybe we can get them an opening slot at the Jefferson. There will be shows you’ll see at the Southern that will get moved over to the Jefferson. We’ve built a trigger into many of the offers, that allows us to move the show—the deal is already in there. So that’s another upside.”
“We’re a company with a lot of resources,” Shea said. “We can do shows with 100 cap or 1,000 cap. We’ll have shows at The Box or Mono Loco as well, and all the way up to the Pavilion, and even something like Sigur Rós that ends up being too big for the Pavilion, can get moved to the John Paul Jones Arena. We can go all the way from 40 people to 15,000. Coordinating all these stages takes a lot more energy, and the expectations are a lot higher, but we’re able to make smarter decisions at the end of the day, and to make bigger picture decisions.”
“Charlottesville should feel lucky to have the resources that we have here,” Shea said. “For a town of 40,000 people, it’s crazy that we’re still kind of relevant, compared to places like Richmond, Norfolk, Louisville, Virginia Beach. It’s because of the cultivation here that’s been happening in the market for decades. It’s just that now we actually have nice rooms for the bands to play in too.”
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