What are your favorite memories from the Southgate House?
On Monday night/Tuesday morning this week, as news that the popular Newport music venue would cease to exist (in its current state, at least) leaked out, I watched a steady stream of comments on Facebook respond to the news with a mix of stunned disbelief and sad nostalgia, as fans of the club shared some of their best stories and memories.
Many people were quite emotional, and I wondered why I wasn't having similar feelings. Since the late ’80s, I had been a frequent visitor to the club, and, over the entire span of my 20 years writing about music in Greater Cincinnati, I have consistently covered events at the venue. I was not totally unmoved by the sudden announcement, but I certainly wasn't as shaken as others appeared to be.
It was, I thought, just another example of the hardened bitterness that comes with age. Although music remains one of the most important things in my life, after years of witnessing things I've loved and cherished disappear, I had apparently become so cynical and fatalistic that the loss of a beloved music institution like the Southgate — which caused others to react as if they'd lost a family member — barely fazed me. Maybe because rumors that the club would be sold off and/or demolished had become regular occurrences over the years, I was just mentally prepared. Or maybe I've just seen the way the "circle of life" plays out enough, in terms of bars and clubs closing and opening, that my mind was assured that everything would be OK and new and existing venues would pick up the slack.
After the usual scramble to get this week's CityBeat off to the printers, I got home from work that night and told my girlfriend about all of the strange "insider" maneuverings a source had told me was behind the end of the Southgate House era. Then I mentioned my surprisingly dispassionate reaction.
"Well," my girlfriend said after a reflective pause, "there have been a lot of great shows there …"
My brain immediately went to my "Top All-Time Concert Experiences" list and, in seconds, I realized how many of those musical events took place in the historic old mansion on the hill. Possibly as a defense mechanism (so I could plow through my barrage of work-related tasks without distraction), I seemed to have initially stopped myself from really thinking about the many performances I had been lucky enough to see at the venue. I sometimes have issues with avoiding reality like that.
While I am still optimistic about the future and certain that Greater Cincinnati will remain a thriving music hub, I finally had to admit that, upon further reflection, the Southgate news is painful. Like Sudsy Malone's, The Jockey Club, Wizard Records, 97X/WOXY, Nightwaves, Everybody's News, The Warehouse and other local music entities that helped shape my perspective and tastes over the years, the Southgate House has become one of those things I'll annoy grandkids with stories about in my golden years.
Here are just a few Southgate-related memories from the past several years that rank high on my list all-time favorite live music memories. And these are just off the top of my head (I could write a book if I were to really sit down and ruminate for a few days).
• My very first show at the Southgate was sometime in the late ’80s. Among the many new "weird" bands my friends and I were becoming enamored with was this noisy, psychedelic group of freaks from Oklahoma called The Flaming Lips. I believe it was the group's first real tour outside of their home region. While even then the band was cultivating a reputation for its highly memorable live act, the Lips of this era were a more abrasive, less accessible beast than the one currently playing catchy, orchestral Indie Pop in arenas, theater and amphitheaters around the world accompanied by a surrealistic, theatrical circus of visuals and props. But back at the Southgate House over 20 years ago, the band's brand of "avant garde" was less cutesy than it was downright scary. Specifics are, fittingly, a little foggy, but I'll never forget how the Lips cranked up the smoke machine and filled the Ballroom with a disorienting mix of thicks smoke and sputtering lights, made all the more bewildering by the Lips' ear-drum-destroying volume. It was one of those musical experiences that seemed to have a physical effect on your body due to the extreme barrage of sensory overload.
• The Southgate has presented shows put together by a variety of promoters over the past 30 or so years. During the time of the Flaming Lips' show, I also got to see great concerts by a young Screaming Trees and Steve Albini's Big Black, thanks to the same booking people who were bringing shows to the area at venues like The Top Hat, Shorty's and The Jockey Club. In CityBeat's earliest days, I decided it would be cool to put together a concert in conjunction with a series of articles about brand new, interesting bands in town. Though I had zero experience in this field, I was able to meet with Ross Raleigh (the recently-deposed Southgate owner), lay out my "vision" for the show and book a date right on the spot. Ross' reputation for being open and welcoming to new ideas and different types of music is no myth. I distinctly remember his kindness and encouragement, which surprised me because most of my experiences with club owners at the time (through my writing work as well as with bands I had played with) were brash, apathetic encounters.
• In the early ’00s, trippy U.K. Pop/Rock band Super Furry Animals were touring the States in support of its major-label debut, Rings Around the World, and their stop at the Southgate remains one of my Top 10 favorite concerts ever. Like the Lips, it was a multi-sensory experience, not quite as assaulting but even more engulfing. The band played a great set and had some interesting, choreographed visuals projected behind them on stage. But what made the show "Top 10-worthy" was the sound. With two large speaker set-ups positioned at the back of the Ballroom, the audio mix was literally in "surround sound," with the music noticeably traveling around the room. It was an amazing experience.
• In the late ’90s/early ’00s, I worked with a bandmate of mine to put on an annual "music festival" called Popopolis at the Southgate, which ended up being very successful and well-attended, thanks to a mix of quality melodic Rock & Roll from local, regional and national acts. In the five years or so presenting the event, we never once had issues of any sort with the venue. The staff was always impossibly supportive and friendly (again, something my experience taught me is hardly always the case with other clubs). While I remember the many great sets — particularly Power Pop heroes Superdrag dusting off its lone radio hit, "Sucked Out," to the surprise and delight of its cult fanbase in attendance — my biggest memory is a rather embarrassing one.
A year or two before its breakthrough album Let Go, Pop/Rock trio Nada Surf came in to headline Popopolis. After hanging out a bit with the members of the band (who were incredibly cool and nice) and watching them play a great set, the end of the show was upon us and I was in a highly intoxicated state (not unusual for me at the time). Red Bull had just started their aggressive marketing in clubs and were a sponsor of the festival that year. At some point during clean-up, I decided that we shouldn't let the huge, garbage can-sized container full of Red Bull go to waste, so I loaded up a dufflebag with what had to have been 75 lbs.-worth of the stuff. My last memory of that night was of Nada Surf singer/guitarist Matthew Caws shaking his head and staring at me in bemused disbelief as I staggered and stumbled out the back door with my haul. I still turn red when I think about it. But, overall, the years working with the club on Popopolis are some of my fondest as a performing musician. I'll never forget being flooded by ecstatic emotions the year the event really took off, as I walked throughout the entire packed venue, marveling at how big our tiny, drunken idea for a festival had become.
• Southgate's three-tiered nature has made it the perfect venue to host multi-performer "festival" events (like Popopolis), which almost always makes for a rewarding musical experience because it encourages exploration and, if you get bored, you can just switch floors. That sort of versatility is one of the more undeniably irreplaceable aspects of the Southgate. I can't possibly list every great festival-type show I've seen at the club, but I know that there was something about each and every one of them that I thoroughly enjoyed, from CincyPunk Fest and Rivertown Breakdown to One More Girl on a Stage and numerous themed tribute shows and benefits, like the popular ’80s tributes/AIDS charity benefits that featured dozens of local bands doing their favorite songs of the era.
• Well before the documentary Dig provided visual proof of just how highly dysfunctional the Californian PsychPop band Brian Jonestown Massacre could be, rumors flew freely about how the group could barely get through a performance without erupting into some sort of violent altercation (between each other or with audience members). I'd seen them before, but it must have been an off night (they basically stood almost motionless and looked bored out of their skulls the whole show). When they played the Southgate, it became clear that their reputation preceded them — seemingly every person in attendance was just waiting for the members to explode. Some took matters into their own hands and started baiting the band members between songs. Ultimately, they took the bait — chairs, tables and instruments flew in a blurry frenzy that resembled a cartoon dust-up. The show abruptly ended, but, even though everyone seemed unsure of exactly what they had just seen, no one appeared one bit disappointed.
• Though mostly providing music memories, the venue also hosted art shows in its top-floor gallery, at one time had a vintage clothing store on the second floor, and played host to the Lite Brite Indie music and film festival, which provided a showcase for local filmmakers as well as several music-related wide-release films. My favorite Lite Brite was the year legendary cult filmmaker John Waters brought his "one-man show" to the event. It was essentially Waters just talking, delivering an extended comedic monologue. But that was all it needed to be to be thoroughly entertaining.
• Beside Waters, the Southgate also hosted performances by other very funny people, from the local comedy collective Underbelly to the national headliners tired of the standard-issue comedy club routine. David Cross is one my favorite comedians and his stand-up show there in the ’00s remains one of my favorite performances at the club. A few years ago, I went to Columbus to see Cross perform and, by sheer coincidence, ended up staying in the same hotel as the comedian. After the show, I was sitting in the hotel bar when I noticed Cross right next to me, sipping a glass of white wine while being photographed by a trio of drunk, giddy women who likely recognized him from Men in Black or The Chipmunks movie and were taking photos of him with their cell phone cameras from across the bar. I struck up a brief conversation about the Southgate show, which he remembered after I reminded him about the heckler in the audience who yelled something like, "You think you could do a better job!" while Cross was lambasting then President George Bush. Hey, at least he remembered!
• Elliott Smith was at the height of his game when he came to the Southgate House in the late ’90s, around the time of his breakthrough XO album. I was a fan and made a last-minute decision to go to the show. But when I arrived and saw the longest line I'd ever seen for an event at the club — snaking down the hill, onto the sidewalk and around the corner — I decided to just go get drunk at Bart's, the little drinking establishment just behind the Southgate. Even though I didn't actually see the show (luckily, I'd catch up with Smith later, in Columbus, before he died), I remember it being one of the first times I started to wonder, "Where the hell are all of these people I've never seen at a show before coming from?"
• A more recent fond memory was during one of CityBeat's BRINK new music showcases, which featured the next wave of original local acts on all three of the club's stages (it continues, most recently being held at a pair of Northside bars). The BRINK shows — like a lot of fest shows at the Southgate — were/are a great chance to see a great local artist for the first time. Right around the time Northern Kentucky Indie Folk singer/songwriter Daniel Martin Moore released his debut for SubPop, I remember watching him trying to perform in the club's tiny Juney's Lounge room. The show and room were packed and the audience was loud, so Moore and his duo partner's lilting, soft yet soulful Folk was difficult to hear over the din. But Moore gamefully made the best of it, hopping on the upright piano I was leaning on to knock out a few numbers at a more audible level. Or maybe it was just more audible because I was leaning on the piano he was playing? Regardless, it was one of those cool, "only at the Southgate" moments. Not too many other clubs have a piano in the corner, just in case.
• Besides the Popopolis events, I have many great memories of playing at the Southgate, which always felt the most like "home" to me. But I'll never forget the time my band held its "album release party" at the club, mostly because the album being celebrated (released on a small Boston label) had the ominous "street date" of Sept. 11, 2001. My bandmates gathered at a bar Sept. 12 and briefly considered canceling the release show that weekend, but decided if we did, the terrorists would win. The show was a great distraction for us and hopefully others who attended, and turned out great in the end. But my biggest memory came while we were preparing the Ballroom before the show. Scattered about the bar-top were several matchbooks emblazoned with American flags. We talked about how weird it was that, if it were two weeks earlier, people would probably mock the small but overt display of patriotism. But, being just four days removed from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, nobody made a cynical peep.
• That only scratches the surface of the good times I had at the House. Other highlights include: Neko Case's pin-drop-quiet, spine-tingling performance in the later ’00s; Folk Rock power couple Mark Olson and Victoria Williams turning the stage (and, in turn, the Ballroom) into a cozy living room with some rugs and lamps placed around the stage; watching freak rockers Man Man's avant/theatrical/wild performance at Lite Brite perched on one of the balconies directly overlooking the stage; turning a corner and nearly running headlong into former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli (someone I so admire, I'm terrified of ever actually meeting) right before he climbed on stage for a typically great SGH show by his Twilight Singers; and being hit by some spittle from a shower of vomit coming from the balcony overhead as (who else?) Guided By Voices put on one of their legendary marathon Rock shows (I've seen them elsewhere, but they were never as great as they were at the Southgate).
So, yes, it does depress me to remember these great moments of my life and know that the place they occurred will never be the same. I'm happy to know my shriveled, blackened can still feel.
But I'm more excited for the future than I am sad about the past. The talent in the local music scene is as strong as it's ever been and there are several longtime, reliable clubs, strong newer venues and promising future prospects.
There might be a hole in the heart of the original-music-supportive club scene right now, but the local music community is extremely healthy — that hole will heal up in no time.