Be Here Now. Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues. Gatsby’s. The Grey Eagle. Hannah Flanagan’s. We’ve come to rely on these old mainstays (and newer up-and-comers) to satisfy our live-music needs. And why not? They haven’t failed us yet.
But true to Asheville’s changing, fast-growing nature, new venues keep springing up (and older ones keep sprucing up). Here, then, is the scoop on five music clubs that have opened — or been totally reinvented — in the last year or so. [Look for an upcoming feature on another newish club, Jack of the Wood, and its burgeoning bluegrass scene.]
31 Patton Ave., Asheville; 236-2424
Peggie McGrath and Joe Haugh moved to Asheville in 1995 with a dream: The newly married couple passionately wanted to open their own downtown club.
Haugh (a former Orlando club owner) and McGrath (a former D.C. aerobics instructor) traversed America, looking for just the right spot to live out their fantasy. Stopping to visit a friend in Asheville, they thought maybe they’d found the place. They visited a few more times and were sure of it.
Downtown spaces galore were available when McGrath and Haugh moved to town — including the spots where Hannah Flanagan’s, the Bar Code, Tressa’s and the Blue Rooster eventually set up shop. Trouble was, the couple didn’t quite have their financing together.
“We decided to put everything we had into making this happen, so it took a while,” McGrath recalls. By the time the two were finally ready to search for a club site in earnest, however, there was nothing left. “Before, we weren’t ready and there was tons of space; and suddenly, we were ready to go and there were no spaces,” he says with a laugh. The couple was on the verge of moving to another city.
Then 31 Patton closed, McGrath and Haugh bought the space, and everything came together — well, almost.
“It was such a mess,” says Haugh. “We gutted the whole place, down to the walls. We ended up taking two-and-a-half tons of stuff out of here to the dump. Then, we started building, from scratch — and we built everything in here ourselves.” “Everything” includes the lovely, dark wood booths, tables and cabinets above the bar; the bar stools (“the most comfortable in town,” brags Haugh); and, perhaps most importantly, the redesign of the less-than-desirable bathrooms: The original 31 Patton restrooms had left users somewhat overexposed: When the doors opened, you were visible — in all your glory — to anyone walking by.
McGrath and Haugh also installed a brand-new, top-of-the-line sound system, with help from Dan Rosenthal of Asheville’s Alley Sound. The club opened Nov. 21, 1997. Exactly 10 days later, a fire broke out in Mission Possible, which adjoins the club. While nothing actually burned in Stella Blue, the place was covered with soot and ash. Worse yet, “the electrical and plumbing and heating and air ran under the floor in here, and it was all destroyed, so it had to all be ripped out and replaced,” says Haugh. The cleanup project they initially estimated would take two weeks (“We thought we’d just wipe off the soot,” says McGrath, chuckling at their naivete) took five months.
In April 1998, however, Stella Blue rose from the ashes and reopened, replete with wildly colorful art-covered walls, courtesy of Keith “Scramble” Campbell — who manages to bring music and painting together in his psychedelic, 3-D renderings of music icons like Carlos Santana and Neil Young, caught mid-performance (many of them signed by the musicians themselves).
When McGrath and Haugh talk about the club, they repeat the word “comfortable” like a mantra. “It’s not just the music we’re interested in,” says McGrath. “It’s like, take the atmosphere, combined with the sound quality, combined with the quality of the band and the quality of the service we want to offer people. We want it to be really comfortable for everyone, just a really nice experience.” And the club is comfortable, a cool escape from sweltering summer nights, with its soft, twinkling lights and flickering candles — and a couple of pool tables tucked away in back.
Haugh says they’ve noticed that women feel comfortable spending an evening alone at the bar. “That makes me feel really good,” says McGrath.
But what about the music? Stella Blue is a club, after all. Both owners say it’s really important to them not only to have high-quality bands, but also impeccable sound. “We haven’t finished with the sound system yet,” Haugh explains; “We want it to be top notch.” To their way of thinking, that means the music’s not so loud that you can’t have a conversation while a band’s playing. “You go to a bar to hear good music and socialize,” reasons McGrath.
As for the bands themselves, Stella Blue is most interested in showcasing up-and-coming groups like recent headliners Soul Miner’s Daughter and Albert Hill. Both bands are selling out big venues in cities like Atlanta and Athens, and they’re beginning to get lots of airplay and attention from national record labels. “We want to get bands that, down the road, you just know are going to be famous,” says McGrath, “and people can say, ‘Hey, I used to see them in this little club in Asheville.'”
Stella Blue hopes to continue to book bands — local, regional, and some national — that encompass a variety of genres, particularly groove rock, blues, jazz (a recent standout was New York City recording artist Andy Milne), and alternapop. “We’re not interested in doing the real hard-core stuff that 31 Patton used to do,” says Haugh.
“We want nothing to be lacking, as far as somebody’s comfort when they come in,” McGrath concludes. “You can have some food [they’ll begin serving light, healthy appetizers soon], a comfortable place to sit, the music’s not too loud, the band’s good, there’s a great selection of beer and wine or whatever you like to drink … and you can be covered up when you go to the bathroom.”
38 N. French Broad Ave., Asheville; 258-2027
Metro co-owners Loradana Hovard and Norma Huskins wanted to make sure we used the word “timeless” (or some variation thereof) when describing the newly revamped private club (formerly known as Club Metropolis). So here goes:
There’s a sense of, well, timelessness inside The Metro: The decor runs from ancient Roman ruins to postmodern metal. “We want it to be old but classic, always in style,” says Hovard. “We liked the idea of blending the old and the new.”
They’ve unquestionably done that, and done it well. Graceful, ornate Roman columns give way to state-of-the-art steel and metal furniture and railings in the club’s main dance room.
The Metro, in fact, ushers you through different worlds, without ever leaving the building. There’s the funky, retro ambiance of the upstairs Hairspray Cafe — replete with ’50s beauty-shop-style hairdryers — a great place to play pool, have a beer, and chat (Hairspray is temporarily closed for renovations); the dark, lush, timeless feel of the dance club itself; the casual, airy atmosphere of the patio, which always features drink specials. Each section of the club features a different style of music, too. (The individual rooms are available for private parties.)
The new Metro places a big emphasis on live shows. Hovard and Huskins enthusiastically list recent standouts: “Sox With Attitude,” a drag puppet show; “Lovesexy ’98,” a combination fashion/music/dance/variety show; the Charlie Brown Cabaret; and live bands like the ultrahip Luvsix.
The latest addition to The Metro’s live-show roster is a big-band/swing-dance night, complete with a dance instructor and the sounds of Lucianne Evans and Tom Coppola, every Wednesday night. “Big-band and swing stuff is really big in New York and L.A.,” says Hovard, “but it’s just starting here.”
Thursdays at The Metro offer digital underground music — heavy on the hip-hop and techno. And every Friday and Saturday night, it’s dance fever time, with disco and high-energy Top 40 — though some weekend nights feature a “theme,” and early live-band shows are slated for Friday nights, starting in the near future.
The only problem plaguing The Metro right now, according to Hovard and Huskins, is the failure of many clubgoers to include it in the roster of downtown Asheville night spots. “We would like to be more recognized as a downtown club,” says Huskins. “We’re only two blocks from the center of downtown, but people don’t seem to realize that.”
But the most important point that Hovard and Huskins want to get across to clubgoers is simply that The Metro is a pleasant place to be. “We’re friendly here,” says Hovard. “We want to integrate all groups and have a big, happy family kind of atmosphere.”
The Town Pump
135 Cherry St., Black Mountain; 669-9151
“The best music in Asheville is coming out of Black Mountain,” proclaims Town Pump owner John Doggett. He just might have a point.
Since Doggett bought and completely remodeled the historic little tavern — which once served as Black Mountain’s Greyhound bus station and has been The Town Pump for 18 years — there’s more room for bands (1,200 square feet, to be exact — about twice as much as before).