This Must Be the Place

New owners, new venues and old digs: A report on St. Louis' ever-evolving club scene

Complaining about the amount of major tours that skip over St. Louis for Kansas City/Lawrence (or Columbia, or Springfield, or Indianapolis) is a St. Louis tradition, as ingrained as Ted Drewes and toasted raviolis. But the summer shows announced so far reveal a dry spell that seems worse than normal — does anyone really have a burning desire to see Better Than Ezra or Dressy Bessy again?

Contemporary Productions' Jeff Jarrett, who books acts at Finale in Clayton, explains that part of the problem is that St. Louis is "a difficult routing town. It's not necessarily on the way from one place or the other." But he says that this problem can be remedied somewhat if venues are aggressive in reaching out to acts — such as singer-songwriters Matthew Ryan and David Mead, whom Jarrett brought to Finale in March.

"They personally called me after the show and thanked me, because they had never had anyone reach out to them and play in St. Louis," he says. "They said, ‘This is a really big thing for us. We live in Nashville, and if we can continuously come up here and play gigs, where we're paid and taken care of and can create a following in this city, it makes touring in other cities in general easier for us.'"

At the same time, acts can only play here if there are venues that exist to book them; in fact, Jarrett says (and A to Z has always agreed) that St. Louis needs "a small rock venue, a rock venue that's between 200 and 500 [capacity]" to fill the void between intimate places like Finale and the larger Mississippi Nights and the Pageant.

A to Z is hopeful that two venues — one new, one under new ownership — will help draw some of these mid-level acts to town. New Off Broadway co-owner Steve Pohlman, who grew up in St. Louis, embraces the cozy, intimate atmosphere of the venue, which is undeniably its strongest asset. But he also wants the club to have more of a presence in the concert scene.

"We want to keep having local artists and original music and mid-level and national touring acts," he says. "If we do anything differently, [we'll have] more shows than in the past. I'd like to get to the point where we're open at least five nights every week, six nights some weeks."

This is music to A to Z's ears, since she feels that the homey atmosphere of the club has long been under-utilized, or plagued by lukewarm shows that just don't have the ability to draw an audience.

The newest (and perhaps most unique) venue in town, the Lucas School House, is scheduled to open June 3. Contractors were still hard at work sanding, drilling and painting the 250-capacity space (which is just on the edge of Soulard, at 1220 Allen Avenue) when A to Z visited the site last week.

As its name implies, the building is a converted schoolhouse, with winding staircases and nooks and crannies (such as a balcony that can hold a string quartet) that give it incomparable charm. (A church next door, which School House co-owner Dan Jameson also hopes to turn into a venue, is at least a year away from completion but is just as awe-inspiring a concert space.)

The multi-purpose, no-smoking venue will function as a banquet hall or a venue that for now will book 21-plus shows only — in genres including everything from jazz to jam bands to rock. But as she peered around at what would be the stage, A to Z had visions of seeing singer-songwriters there that might have played the late Frederick's Music Lounge, or package tours such as the Undertow Orchestra (which featured American Music Club's Mark Eitzel and folk singer Vic Chesnutt, among others) that skipped St. Louis.

Both the Creepy Crawl and Pop's have the lock on rowdy punk, metal and emo bands that roll through town. But St. Louis sorely needs a venue for indie-rock acts and songwriters that appeal to twenty- and thirtysomethings who might not want to deal with teenagers or crawl home reeking of smoke — and who outgrew raucous showgoing years ago. A to Z would love the Lucas School House to fill this niche. Speaking of the Creepy, the club's request for a liquor license at its new location (3524 Washington Avenue) is still pending. Excise commissioner Bob Kraiberg declared an official protest against the club's petition two weeks ago, based on opponents' assertions that Grand Center's nonprofits should have been included when the Creepy asked area businesses within 350 feet of the new venue to approve their request (which is standard procedure when applying for a liquor license).

Requiring the approval of nonprofits is an unusual step for the city (usually only licensed businesses need to give consent), but Kraiberg cites the "unique situation" as the reason for taking this step.

"The area has a very heavy amount of not-for-profit entities," Kraiberg says. "In order to give fairness for everybody — because they are there, but they're not the typical occupant — I gave some leeway to the fact that they should be counted.

"In my tenure here, I'd never seen the concentration...there must be twelve or fifteen [nonprofits] right in that small area. It's a unique situation, and we have to adapt to it."

Creepy Crawl owner Jeff Parks hopes that a liquor-license hearing for his new venue will happen "around the 21st of June." In the meantime, the club remains open at its location on Tucker Boulevard. Parks is "unclear" on when he absolutely has to be out of his current building, but says that the "current owners have been accommodating. [We're] keeping them abreast of where we are, [they're being] understanding of our situation. We just want to get open as soon as we can there." (A message left for Pyramid Construction, which owns the building, was not returned.)

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