The exterior of the Woodward Theatre, a 650-seat venue renovation project that will resotre the 100-year- old Vudeville Theater back to a performance space — it's currently an antique store.

Cincinnati’s long had a rap as a town that many tours skip over in favor of playing nearby Indianapolis or Columbus. But over the past year, the city has experienced a renaissance in live music spaces that could help change its reputation.

Kicked off in 2008 by the opening of the 4,100-seat PNC Pavilion on the Riverbend Music Center amphitheater lot, the upsurge in new options has come courtesy of venues carving out new rooms within existing spaces, as well as refashioning everything from churches to long-dormant early 20th century theaters-turned-hardware stores into vibrant performance houses. 

Secrets of the ‘Drill Room’ 

One of the most exciting finds was, literally, right under the feet of the staff at the city’s legendary Taft Theatre. In late May 2011, the venue underwent a major overhaul that included wiring for air conditioning for the first time in its history. That’s when Music and Event Management Inc.’s General Manager Ed Morrell said workers found 8,000 square feet of space on the lower level that were listed as the “Drill Room” in the original plans. The Taft Ballroom is on track to house 50-65 shows in 2013. 

Untouched for decades, the space was wired for air conditioning, painted and carpeted and fitted with a permanent stage, lighting and sound at a cost of $100,000. “We thought there was a hole in the market for a 500-capacity GA space to complement the 2,300 reserved seating capacity configuration upstairs,” said Morrell. “Lots of acts are bypassing the market because those two configurations don’t exist. At present the average attendance has been between 300-500 for a mix of comedy and musical performances. 

Since its opening in April 2012, the new space has attracted a variety of national, local and regional acts including Blitzen Trapper, Dawes and Justin Townes Earle. “The hope is that there are artists who come through who play the ballroom and then upstairs the next time,” said Morrell. And, if all goes according to plan, they eventually graduate to MEMI group’s PNC Pavilion or Riverbend. 

Dan McCabe has been one of the city’s premiere bookers for more than 20 years. He’s also been a huge booster of Cincinnati’s decades-in-the-making rehab of downtown’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. He’s combining those two passions once again with the Woodward Theatre project.

Located across the street from the 150-capacity MOTR pub, a bar he opened two years ago that has free live music nightly, the 100-year-old vaudeville-style theater has been everything from a grocery and hardware store to a storage space for an antique dealer over the past 80 years. 

“Since opening MOTR we’ve been looking for a 650-capacity venue,” he said of himself and his partners, who settled for a neighborhood bar while they kept looking. “The idea behind the name Music In Over-the-Rhine [MOTR] was to have multiple ventures going and grow the presence of live music in a neighborhood that is playing to the arts.” 

Along with his partners, McCabe purchased the Woodward in February after securing a $375,000 loan from the Cincinnati Development Fund. In March they began taking bids from contractors to get the building up to code and planned to tap into their friends and fellow art and music lovers to donate some sweat equity with the promise of beer and pizza as payment. The current plan is to open by late summer. 

“It’s the perfect niche-filler and the fact that it’s across from MOTR means you can see bands graduate from MOTR to the Woodward,” said McCabe, who is excited to watch that kind of artist development take shape. As an example, he noted that the Alabama Shakes played MOTR in early 2012 before their Grammy nominations, but were a bit too big to make a return engagement later that year. 

Tickets for the new venue will be sold at the MOTR bar and online and run through Cincy Ticket, with most shows in the $10-$15 range, with higher prices for special-occasion shows by bigger acts. All booking will be through McCabe firm, Thigmatrope. 

Keeping It In House 

Some venues are experimenting with the venue-within-a-venue configuration not for profit, but for buzz. Such is the case at one of the city’s most beloved rock clubs, the nearly 40-year-old Bogart’s. The Live Nation-managed, 1,500-capacity venue just blocks from the University of Cincinnati campus began experimenting with a curtained-off lounge setup in late 2011 and has found success luring new audiences to what it has dubbed the Front Room. 

“We can do smaller, more intimate shows in the Lounge and it’s as close to an artist as you can be,” said General Manager Karen Foley of the 300-cap minivenue that doesn’t have a proper stage. To date, it’s mostly been used for comedians and smaller, regional and national acts, with acoustic setups seeming to work the best. 

The staff brings in some couches to fill in the room, which has hosted nearly two dozen shows since opening from the likes of the Bodeans and punk band Face to Face, most of which Foley sees as a chance to see Bogart’s in a new light and give some bands a chance to play a legendary club rather than a money-making enterprise. 

Most of the gigs have been on dark nights and a few have included the chance for handpicked fans and contest winners to hang out with the acts afterwards in the club’s balcony. 

If You [Re]Build It, They Will Come 

Some of the new spaces are by choice, others by force. When beloved booker Morrella Raleigh and her dad, Ross, were forced out of ownership of the iconic Southgate House in Newport, Ky., during a family dispute in 2012, the pair scoured the area for a place to rebuild. What they found instead was the empty Grace Methodist Episcopal Church less than a mile away from the old venue, a very short drive across state lines from Cincinnati. 

“Looking for a new space, we really wanted to preserve what we had at the old space with three venues in one, which was a real challenge for us,” said Morrella Raleigh of the Southgate House’s unique setup. 

The building, on the endangered historical properties register, was built in 1866, but had been empty for nearly 15 years. Though she’d driven by it many times over the years, Raleigh said she had no idea how big it was, and once she stepped in, she was instantly sold. The pair got the building for a “a little over a couple hundred thousands dollars” and renovations — which include all new electric, HVAC and plumbing, new flooring, walls, bars and stage in the sanctuary and “hundreds” of smaller items to bring it up to code — are ongoing and have so far cost nearly triple what they paid. 

The majority was done by contractors, but customers and fans have helped out. The Raleighs paid out of their own pockets and by taking out a substantial loan, as they were not able to tap into the grant money or tax incentives enjoyed by their friends just across the Ohio. 

The dramatic main room, which recently hosted the kick-off of the Breeders’ 20th anniversary reunion tour, fits 500 for standing room shows, with 200 capacity for the smaller upstairs space and 70 in the downstairs acoustic lounge. Most of the booking is done in house and, in a unique twist, the Raleighs let local bands promote their own shows, which gives the acts a chance to make a bit more than they normally would.

Raleigh is optimistic about being in the black within a year and a half, and hopes that renting out the SGHR for weddings and receptions and a weekly craft fair on Saturdays will help her and her dad get there faster.

Interviewed for this story: Dan McCabe, (513) 381-6687; Ed Morrell, (513) 381-3018; Karen Foley, (513) 872-8800; Morrella Raleigh, (859) 431-2201