Sonar finds rhythm with national acts

Venue collaborates with 9:30 Club owner

April 14, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Aficionados of live music may have noticed that Sonar has landed a string of impressive national acts in the past few months. And the truly observant would note that all of these acts also played at the venerable 9:30 Club in Washington.

Rapper Talib Kweli played both venues in November; hip-hop star Mos Def played both clubs in December. Ditto for punk trio Le Tigre in February. And most recently, Interpol sold out both the 9:30 Club, at 815 V St. N.W., and Sonar, at 407 E. Saratoga St.

The scheduling similarities reflect a fledgling business relationship between the owners of the two clubs that, coupled with the recent opening of Rams Head Live in the Power Plant Live complex, may mean Baltimoreans can expect to see more national rock bands than in recent history.

Last fall, Sonar expanded to include a 10,000-square-foot room large enough to accommodate 1,200 concertgoers. The space is dark and gritty - owner Lonnie Fisher spent roughly $500,000 refurbishing what was a deserted parking garage.

That, coupled with the December debut of the sleek 1,600- capacity Rams Head Live, which cost $10 million to open, means the music scene in Baltimore has expanded significantly in the past four months.

"For years and years and years, people said Baltimore could not support a venue that held over 1,000 people - now we have two," said George Concannon, a longtime Baltimore promoter and DJ. "The city is now really starting to see a bustling nightlife renaissance."

Hosting live music may seem an odd trajectory for Sonar, which opened in 2002 as a dance club and venue for electronic music (think DJs, goth and industrial tunes).

Fisher started as a DJ before becoming a club owner. He's got credibility in the music world, but live acts are not his specialty.

But simple economics forced him to look for a broader appeal.

"There weren't enough people in the Baltimore electronic music scene to fill the club night after night - so we had to diversify," he said. "We sat back and thought, `Did we want to do a gay night? Do we want to do a hip-hop night?' The thing that we thought we could do was get into live music."

In November, music scene titan and 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz helped Fisher promote Sonar's first national act: Talib Kweli. The two club owners have been collaborating ever since. (Independent promoter Paul Manna has also had a hand in attracting big acts to Sonar, Fisher said.)

"We've been sharing our knowledge and information and relationships with [Fisher]," said Hurwitz. "It means some cool stuff is going to play Baltimore that wouldn't have otherwise played there." Beyond that, neither Hurwitz nor Fisher would comment on the specifics of their new partnership. Typically, when a promoter - like Hurwitz - brings a band to a venue, he receives profits from the ticket sales. The venue owner makes money from beer and liquor sales.

The expanded Sonar will be trying to book many of the same acts as Rams Head Live, which opened late last year. But Rams Head owner Bill Muehlhauser remains unfazed. "We're not looking at Sonar as a direct competitor," he said. "It is a different setting."

Indeed, compared to the highly polished Rams Head Live, Sonar is raw. The club's low ceilings are painted black and the cement floors are sticky and stained. Scents of stale beer waft though the rooms. By the end of a night there, clothes, hair, skin and lungs are saturated with cigarette smoke. "We're in that 18-to-35 demographic," said Fisher. "I hate to use the word `hipsters,' but that is what they are."

Even with the new live-music capacity, Fisher doesn't plan to stray too far from the club's electronic music roots. "We have a club business, which I'm not interested in losing or hurting," said Fisher.

And the dance club side of the business means Fisher can pick and choose acts. He does not need a live act playing to be open every night.

"Our motto," he said, "is, `All cool all the time.'"

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