Former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts, clad in a straw cowboy hat with a sweat-drenched red bandanna around his neck, commands center stage at the Recher Theatre, frenetically soloing as his band rolls though his timeless "Jessica."
Tie-dyed teenagers and older fans in polo shirts sway as a unit to the dips and peaks of Betts' effervescent guitar work, which fills the converted movie theater's expansive concert hall.
Betts, who with his band Great Southern played the Recher last weekend - followed a night later by Nils Lofgren of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band - is among a roster of music legends and rising stars who have performed there in recent years. Bo Diddley and Iggy Pop, the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips are among the names who have brought rock 'n' roll and a dose of nightlife energy to the heart of suburban Baltimore County - and made the unlikely spot an emerging star on the region's music scene.
"Let's keep in mind that this is Towson - a little city that most people can't pronounce," says Paul Manna, who books bands for the theater. "To bring quality national acts to Towson is a big thrill."
David Spero, Betts' Cleveland-based manager, says the word has spread through the music industry about the Recher Theatre.
"It's getting a reputation as a cool place to play," he says.
Area music fans can thank the three Recher brothers, Brian, Scott and Steve, for resurrecting a fallow, family-owned movie theater that had been closed from 1992 to 1996, and converting it first into a pool hall and then to a concert venue.
The York Road building opened in 1929 as the Towson Theatre, playing host to vaudeville acts. The Recher brothers' grandparents, who owned more than a dozen single-screen Baltimore theaters, bought it in 1959.
The movie theater closed in 1992 after the Towson Commons cineplex moved in across the street. Four years later it was refurbished and reopened as Rec-Room Billiards by the brothers, who had worked at the Towson Theatre as ushers during their teenage summers. The 15-table pool hall also included video games, a restaurant and a bar.
In 1997, Manna persuaded the Recher brothers, who had previously allowed a friend's band to play in the pool hall, to let him book an act for a Saturday night. Several Species, a Pink Floyd tribute band, set up in a corner of the room only 10 feet from a pool table, and played for 300 people, Manna says.
"We covered the pool tables and partied around them," Manna says. "I was enamored by the beauty of the room."
Seeing the potential
The brothers began to view the site as a natural for live music. They continued to book acts, and slowly removed pool tables as the crowds grew, Brian Recher says.
In 1999, Brian and Steve Recher transformed the space into the Recher Theatre, a hall with a capacity of 700.
The stage at the back of the hall looks out onto a capacious dance floor devoid of seating. Burgundy drapes line the walls, and six hanging lanterns are adorned with cellophane, colored lights and a fan underneath that give them the appearance of burning torches.
The walls of the narrow corridor leading to the performance hall are covered with autographed pictures of the bands that have played there. A bar and a 10-foot aquarium greet fans at the front of the room.
The brothers also bought the property next door and opened The Rec Room, which includes a restaurant, eight pool tables and 27 TVs.
Variety of styles
Brian Recher says the concert venue seeks to bring an array of musical styles to its stage. On any given weekend it might present heavy metal, punk, indie rock, jam bands or classic rock acts. The theater reserves many Sunday nights for local acts.
"If you bring in one crowd, that is all you are gonna get," Recher says. "If you get all kinds of people, you build your customer base."
On many weekend nights, a snaking line of ticket-holders forms outside the theater.
"This is a great venue for hearing this kind of music," says 48-year-old John Beswick, who has been to the Towson music hall almost a dozen times. "It's one of my favorites. There's nothing similar."
The concert hall has provided a boost to downtown Towson, attracting customers who then patronize the restaurants and shops on the York Road corridor, says Suzan F. Doordan, the executive director of the Towson Business Association.
"I think the impact of this is enormous for Towson," she says. "It is a prime asset in the community."
Boon to community
Andrea Van Arsdale, director of Baltimore County's commercial revitalization program, says the venue attracts people from outside the area and complements the nearby movie theater, bookstores and Towson Town Center mall.
"It's beginning to make Towson an experience," she says.
It took awhile for the venue to establish its credibility within the music industry, Manna says as Betts' band takes the stage to thunderous applause from the crowd of 500 for a second set. Now managers are constantly calling him, he says.
In Betts' past swings through the region, he played at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va., and Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis. But his tour manager, Richard Cramer, was so pleased with the Recher that he said the band would play there again the next time through the Baltimore-Washington area.
For Brian Recher, it is a treat to see the acts he grew up with, like Betts, playing at his family's theater.
"It's like having a party at your house every night," he says.
Artists that have played the Recher Theatre include:
Bo Diddley, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Electric Light Orchestra, George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars, the Hives, Iggy Pop, Joe Jackson, Linkin Park, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, the White Stripes and Wilco.