In Jeff's shadow: Watkins, music thrive at the Southern
It's a tough time to open an independent music venue. Within a one-block radius stand two charitably-endowed non-profit halls (The Paramount and the Live Arts building) not to mention the soon-to-open project from music mogul Coran Capshaw, the Jefferson Theater. If nothing else, the Southern is a bold move in an unforgiving environment, one that even buried a similar business in the exact same space just a few months prior.
But on Thursday, November 19, the draw of headliners singer-songwriter Sara Watkins (of the Grammy Award-winning trio Nickel Creek fame) and bluegrass group The Infamous Stringdusters was just as strong as that of venue openers The Books way back when The Southern opened its doors on September 25. Watkins charmed the room with her fresh-faced, sunny vocals and each plink of her ukulele was as distinct as a pin dropped in an empty pan. The room was packed–- so much so that the accumulated heat from the mesh of bodies was almost overwhelming. But without the clutter of art and books that had previously defined Gravity Lounge, the rechristened The Southern allows audiences to focus on the reason the show was sold-out: the performances.
Despite the potential facelessness of the dark, crowded room, Watkins urged audience participation throughout her set–- encouraging "all whistlers" to come to the front and provide harmonies for one song and politely asking everyone to sing along for the finale. The community feel rendered the intimacy of the evening markedly distinct from more formal concerts at larger venues. Watkins and her brother, former Nickel Creek guitarist Sean, mingled with the crowd between seats, while various members of the six-piece Stringdusters roamed the cafe area before heading on-stage. The diverse audience–- a range of ages and wardrobes from cowboy hats and ripped t-shirts to starched button-ups and skinny jeans–- barely took note of the entertainers prowling in their midst.
"This is the first stand-up crowd we've played in a long time," whispered a hoarse Watkins. "There was lots of energy, a great turnout."
Two months in, the greenhorn venue has transformed from an unfinished, dusty room with a mini-fridge of canned sodas to a slick yet cozy music hall, complete with a new, oft-crowded bar with a concise beer list, late-night munchies, and plenty of open space for fans to pack. Best of all, the PA system offers a crisp, clear sound, allowing the music to wash over audience members unhindered–- the biggest draw for any live music fan.
"We probably spent more than we should have on it," says co-manager Andy Gems. "Gravity Lounge used to win 'best listening room.' I want that back."