Bryan Elijah Smith & The Wild Hearts doing an alt-Americana version of Fulsom Prison Blues at the Southern.
Australian-born singer/songwriter Krista Polvere, now a Virginia resident, with her swag at the Southern.
Photo by Dave McNair
For four years now, the Southern Cafe & Music Hall has survived in the shadow of Coran Capshaw's Jefferson Theater on the Downtown Mall, competing every week for a share of the music show-going crowd. While founder Andy Gems admits he hasn't gotten rich doing it, he says he hasn't lost money either, and more importantly— he's kept the small-venue music scene alive.
"I've invested a lot of time and money in the local music scene," says Gems," more than anybody else I know."
That persistence appears to have paid off. A recent grand re-opening event at the Southern on Thursday, August 22, launched the new partnership between Gems and Capshaw's Red Light Management, which has now, as Gems characterizes, become the "captain of the ship."
"I wanted this," says Gems. "This is a good move, big picture good, for music in this town."
While Gems says he'll be doing "pretty much everything" he did before, the Jefferson's Danny Shea will become the booking manager, Red Light's Collean Laney will be the general manger, and Jefferson bar manager Carrie Throckmorton will be doing double-duty.
"I'm real excited about it," says Shea. "We're right next to each other, and we can take the big picture view together, which will really benefit the music scene in town."
It's also a chance, says Shea, to feature more local acts.
"This can be a palace for local bands," says Shea, "a chance for them to play in a real professional environment."
"We're not redesigning the wheel here," says Red Light's Lindsay Dorrier. "We're just smoothing things out."
For instance, Dorrier points out that the Southern never had beer on tap, and that its status as a food venue was inconsistent. That has changed.
"We want to change the vibe of the space to make it more welcoming and hip, a little more lively," says Dorrier, and that it's all really part of a larger plan to improve the local music scene as a whole.
Dorrier says they also plan to have more local nights at the Southern, featuring local DJs, movies, and other events.
"We couldn't do that at the Jefferson," says Dorrier, "because there's too much overhead to just open the doors. But we can do it at the Southern."
For Gems, it's clearly a chance to watch and help what he started without all the headaches of being an owner.
"I learned how to do this by going to Red Light shows, by working at Red Light shows," says Gems. "You know, really, we all owe Coran [Capshaw] a big thank you card, because he's brought such great music to this town."
As Gems points out, Charlottesville is still "growing into its music scene," and he thinks a partnership like this will just make playing here, and going to shows here, a more pleasurable experience.
"It takes a lot of institutional knowledge to run a show right," says Gems,everything from choosing the right lighting and house music to how the staff treats the band when they arrive, how comfortable they feel. You want to create a good vibe from the very beginning, so you get an ultimate feedback loop between the artists and the audience. That's what makes an awesome show."
Under the Southern's new management, Gems and company did not disappoint. In addition to Starr Hill beer on tap, potato skins (they've made a comeback!), and BBQ platters with awesome classic sides like cole slaw and collard greens, Dayton, Virginia-based alt-Americana band Bryan Elijah Smith & The Wild Hearts opened to a small but appreciative crowd. They were followed by a special appearance from Australian-born singer/songwriter Krista Polvere, who took the stage before making way for the main act, Roadkill Ghost Choir, a folk-rock band out of Florida that manages to channel Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana at the same time, with an emphasis on hair. Lots of hair.
Besides the Southern, Dorrier mentions that they'll have a hand in helping out with the new Lockn' Festival in September, offering assistance and holding a special festival pre-party at the Jefferson. It seems clear that Red Light has a vision for our little town.
"The Southern, this new festival, they're good for the music scene as a whole," says Dorrier, "to help Charlottesville become a music mecca."