Bras thrown: And faves played, as beloved Jefferson Theater returns to glory on opening night
"It's happening," Starr Hill Presents promoter Danny Shea said Tuesday, November 17, nearly a week and a half before the doors to the Jefferson Theater were set to open to the public for the first time in three years. And happen it did–- despite the dust and renovation on Tuesday, a flash forward to Friday, November 27's sold-out crowd lining up for wrist bands would quiet any naysayer scoffing at the possibility of the Charlottesville venue's completion.
Originally opened in 1912, the theater has remained true to the look and feel of the early building and reopened as one glorious space for the first time in decades. Much of the plasterwork remains untouched, while the main level has been revamped with bars and a sound system to rival any music venue in town. Opening night featured headliners Jason Isbell (of southern rock-fueled Drive By Truckers fame) and country rock quintet cum hometown favorites Sons of Bill.
With local music buffs and regular ole concert lovers anticipating the Jeff's opening for years now, the place was sure to be packed. The majority of the crowd performed a ritual: coolly walking into the center of the revamped venue and casually glancing up at the looming balconies before swiveling around to face the stage, as if to say, "Alright, the wait was worth it."
It took three years of walking by the closed doors, peering into the darkened windows and gazing wistfully at the concert posters for other venues posted in front of the box office–- but the whooping and hollering of the sold-out crowd (with a capacity of 750) for the beloved Sons of Bill put those days to rest and signaled anticipation for the shows to come.
Although the doors opened at 7pm, the crowd was relatively light around 8:05; the gawkers and spectators were mostly late-20s to mid-30s, with few college-aged students in attendance (we'll blame that on the Thanksgiving weekend, and, unfortunately, the Virginia-Virginia Tech matchup for Saturday was not enough to entice UVA students back to town). Unlike the opening night of The Southern, where skinny jeans predominated in the audience for guitar-and-cello duo The Books, the feel here was more cowboy boots (apparently mandatory for females) and button-ups and/or cameo baseball hats. With the onset of frosty weather, bulky coats and sweaters were draped over arms, or, more frequently, abandoned into available corners.
The floor grew steadily more crowded until Jason Isbell took the stage at 8:38pm, when most people either migrated forward to thrash and head-bob or settled back to drink and chat. When hometown heroes Sons of Bill crept on stage (where the lights were still dimmed and the background music hadn't been shut off), however, the crowd erupted before they even strummed one note.
The bars: The renovation includes two bars– one draped in red and set in the right corner of the listening room, accessible as you pass through the front foyer (complete with new bathrooms). And although the area was frequently crowded, there was always an available pathway leading from the front of house to the twin stairways leading to the floor. But the true hidden treasure was the bar tucked away down a flight of stairs next to the sound booth. The basement bar didn't seem as frequently utilized as the one above, but by mid-show, it too had developed a loyal congregation.
Additionally, the main bar is accompanied by a few crucial tables (which might eventually be VIP-only seating, according to Shea), which were immediately snatched up by savvy (or lazy) concert-goers and claimed the entire night. The seating provided fabulous and comfortable sightlines.
The management: The Jeff is now owned by local music mogul Coran Capshaw (who bought the theater from Hook editor Hawes Spencer in 2006), with Starr Hill Presents running its booking. The new owner promises to continue revamping the space, as a basement lounge area, new lighting in the front foyer, updated top balcony, and a small restaurant area (featuring Chipotle-esque munchies) are works-in-progress, according to Shea.
The appeal of the balconies: The top balcony was closed off due to ongoing construction, but the mezzanine had many of its seats filled, and spectators lined the back wall in order to snag a glimpse of the amazing sightlines that gave even the back row seats a birds-eye view of the entire stage, including the drumset.
The enthusiasm for Sons of Bill: While the crowd was excited for Jason Isbell, only the front 1/3 of the floor was enthralled to the point of dancing and cheering– the scene was reminiscent to the Drive By Truckers show at the Charlottesville Pavilion in September 2008, especially with the four DBT songs Isbell performed. Yet when SOB stepped into the spotlight, the vibe shifted. Two women threw their bras onstage, conversations stopped, and hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed a gaze.
"They're so rooted in the local scene, to have them as the first band on stage feels right," said Shea.