With a new corporate owner and expensive upgrades, The Ritz is now the Triangle's biggest rock club. But how does it fit in? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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With a new corporate owner and expensive upgrades, The Ritz is now the Triangle's biggest rock club. But how does it fit in? 

Raising one for the living Dead: Fans cheer for the Dark Star Orchestra at The Ritz, recently purchased and upgraded by concert giant Live Nation.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Raising one for the living Dead: Fans cheer for the Dark Star Orchestra at The Ritz, recently purchased and upgraded by concert giant Live Nation.

His teeth chattered, and his body shivered.

But the parking lot attendant bound in the thick black stocking cap and heavy gloves understood my confusion: "You can walk 10 more feet," he said flatly, as if for the hundredth time that night, "and you won't have to pay."

On Friday night, I had pulled into the pothole-plagued parking lot of The Ritz, the looming, earth-tone Raleigh venue that has been the region's biggest and worst rock club for a quarter-century. I was there not so much to watch On the Border, an Eagles cover band headlining, but instead to note what the rich new tenants had done with the once-drab digs.

In October, Live Nation, the world's biggest concert promoter, announced that they'd purchased the room and the rights to its name, making it one of the only Triangle rooms run by a massive corporation with global reach. They planned to spend more than $1 million renovating the space, making it a worthy stop along its string of clubs across the Southeast. They hoped to open the room in November, but after a series of comical construction hiccups, Live Nation launched The Ritz at last for two shows on Valentine's weekend.

I decided to wait, though, to let them tweak the bugs and, a week later, catch consecutive shows by the faux Eagles and a pretend Grateful Dead. If anyone could make a room with a reputation for badly bouncing sound and a curmudgeonly staff feel good, wouldn't it be two bands devoted to nostalgic vibes and slavish technicality?

But after going to shows at The Ritz for nearly two decades, I hadn't brought cash for parking. The lot had always been free; but now, a spot on the side cost $5, with door-side valet service running $10. I surmised that the half-dozen attendants had heard this complaint more times than they cared to count during the venue's first two weeks of new life.

"Thank you," I said, wheeling behind the building to a free spot.

The revitalized Ritz holds 1,974 people, and Live Nation plans to book at least 70 shows there this year alone, with that number rising over time. Those figures fill a conspicuous gap in the Triangle's rock club landscape. This area has a glut of rooms that hold less than 1,000 people. The Cat's Cradle, Lincoln Theatre and Haw River Ballroom all accommodate 700-plus; mid-sized venues like The Pour House, Motorco and Local 506 fit 250 or more. Arenas, amphitheaters and seated theaters that can host a few hundred or several thousand abound.

But a sizable, stable rock club has long eluded the area. Even during its heyday, The Ritz's sporadic name changes, alternate identity as a Latino music hub and very occasional bookings could cause you to forget that it existed at all.

"Concertgoers are accustomed to venues that have lots of shows. The Ritz rarely promoted rock shows on their own," explains Frank Heath. He has owned the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro since 1986, and he has promoted shows at The Ritz since 1996. "Since it had concerts fairly irregularly, they never really got that level of familiarity with people."

That should no longer be an issue. Grant Lyman, a seasoned Live Nation talent buyer who books four amphitheaters or clubs in Charlotte and Raleigh, is in charge of the space's lineup. He has booked the first few months aggressively. Indie rock bands such as Modest Mouse and Interpol share the slate with tribute acts, rapper Tyler The Creator, locals Delta Rae and the line of Latino acts that allowed The Ritz to survive for the last decade.

And after the upgrades, the room sounds less like a rattling tin can and more like a bona fide rock club, with stacks of powerful speakers hanging above and resting beside the stage. The light design is impressive, too, and the upstairs balcony no longer suggests the hazards of an aging suspension bridge.

Jim Romeo, the Carrboro-based co-founder of the international booking agency Ground Control Touring, never liked The Ritz. But when one of his agency's acts, the reunited Sleater-Kinney, needed a large local room but didn't have time for a two-night stand at the Cat's Cradle, they took a chance on the revitalized space.

"To me, it's a room that has always been there ... but it was never a place I wanted to send a band," Romeo says. "Live Nation should bring some more attention to it."

But does Live Nation's vision for The Ritz fit the Triangle, a region whose venues have historically been owned by local entrepreneurs and musicians? And at a time when the centers of Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham are all thriving with new money, residents and visitors, does a benighted zone where the principal attraction is a Costco's loading dock serve as a fitting home for the area's biggest club?

"Too bad it isn't near much in the way of restaurants or retail," one area planner told me the day after the "Dead" show. "That said, it is in a great location if you are going to a concert and happen to be in the market for a car."

click to enlarge Like the upcharges, security at the reopened Ritz is bountiful. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Like the upcharges, security at the reopened Ritz is bountiful.

Conventional rock club wisdom holds that venues make their money at the bar. They hope to break even or maybe pocket a pittance from ticket sales, but alcohol really drives their margins. The refurbished Ritz is meant to maximize the maxim.

In its former life, The Ritz's ill-placed bars were cash-only but relatively cheap; a cold, tall can of Modelo might cost you a few bucks. But on all sides that aren't the stage, the Live Nation version surrounds the audience with sleek black bars—three upstairs and five downstairs, including one so long it runs half the club's width. If the bars didn't accept plastic, the prices might be so prohibitively expensive that they may never sell anything.

"Your best bet and our best value would be a Bud Light," said a beaming bartender when I asked what I should drink, screaming over a stainless rendition of "Take It to the Limit." "It's $8 for a 16-ounce pour, $12 for 24 ounces."

She was right to consider that a bargain, too, given the $9 PBR cans, $13 pours of local brews and a $10 mix of Jack Daniels, cranberry juice and peach schnapps dubbed the "Rolling Raleigh." (I have been told some of these prices might drop.) The long main bar would feed you, too—a hot dog slowly spinning in its own fat, perhaps, or a personal pepperoni pizza packaged in plastic.

What's more, buying one of those beverages would cost you $1 upfront; because The Ritz sells liquor, the club requires a $1 yearlong membership for all drinkers. There's a $5 coat check and the option, too, for VIP upgrades. You and your pals gather around balcony-side cocktail tables as waitresses in small black dresses lean in close to take your orders before sashaying away to fetch it. They tote clipboards that read, in bold and centered type, "VIP Night of Show Upsales."

Such cash-driven venues aren't an anomaly in the entertainment industry, of course, but here, it makes going to a rock concert feel like visiting the shopping mall when you'd meant only to run to the corner store. That feeling parallels the surge of high-rise condominiums and apartment complexes across the Triangle, projects funded by deep, out-of-town pockets rather than those otherwise invested in their communities.

The Ritz is now part of a chain of Live Nation-operated venues that crisscross the Carolinas: The Fillmore in Charlotte, The House of Blues in Myrtle Beach and the Cone Denim Entertainment Center in Greensboro. If you look at a map, it's as though they're waging an interstate war with AEG Live, which owns two rooms of similar size in lower Virginia. You get the sense that the battle for your backyard is being fought by people who don't even share it.

For years, for instance, rumors that both the Cat's Cradle and Lincoln Theatre are looking to expand have been rampant. Each venue, the chatter went, would eventually push past the 1,000-person threshold to compete with the area's seated theaters and larger venues across the Southeast. When I asked Heath if The Ritz's redevelopment might impact the Cradle's hopes to grow, he wouldn't answer.

"It will be a source of competition and an opportunity for cooperation," he said later in our exchange. "Everyone adjusts when something new comes along."

click to enlarge $9 for a PBR can? Welcome to The Ritz. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • $9 for a PBR can? Welcome to The Ritz.

The construction delays that kept The Ritz quiet for more than a quarter of a year left many shows without a home—the blustering party rapper G-Eazy, bro-country star Chase Rice, svelte English rockers The 1975 and so on. Live Nation planned to put their Raleigh stops in The Ritz, but invariably the promoter announced venue changes at the last minute, as though the expected team of remodeling sprites and imps had not arrived overnight to make the necessary fixes and produce the requisite permits.

"We managed the delays to the best of our abilities," Lyman prevaricated.

Live Nation canceled some of those shows altogether. They salvaged what they could, though, by shifting sets to Memorial Auditorium and Meymandi Concert Hall, the largest two rooms of the city-owned downtown performing arts complex. Knowing that many of those shows had sold well and that the predicted young crowds would be eager drinkers, Jim Lavery, the general manager for those spaces, cut Live Nation a deep deal on nightly rent. Like most rock clubs, he reckoned, he'd make his profit from his bar sales.

Lavery now raves about those shows, speaking about the way the energetic fans crowded around the stage in a pit that's unexpected for someone in command of such highbrow spaces. In fact, he wishes he had more of them, but he knows that Live Nation may have little to send to the seated Memorial or Meymandi with The Ritz finally open.

"I'm hoping that Live Nation saw how well we do with concerts, and they can find something that won't fit in The Ritz that they can put in here," Lavery says, suddenly wistful. "We'd love to do more of it."

Even without The Ritz luring shows that might have fit into his theaters, Lavery can't do much more of it. His theaters often set dates with resident companies like the North Carolina Symphony and the Carolina Ballet years in advance, which generally leaves only weeknights available for a rock 'n' roll promoter working with much smaller lead times. When Live Nation brought in lights and sound gear for those last-minute Ritz transfers, for instance, they had to schedule around symphony rehearsals.

"Our problem," Lavery admits, "is availability."

But it didn't have to be this way. In October 2011, the architecture and engineering firm Heery International submitted a plan to the city titled the "Facility Condition Assessment." Its proposals aimed to revitalize the performing-arts complex so that they would be "competitive in today's entertainment market." The upgrades were meant to curb losses, entice promoters and improve adaptability. Some of those suggestions, like upgrades to lobbies and air-conditioning infrastructure, were or are being implemented. But one key piece was not just ignored but left out of the final report altogether—the construction of a multiuse venue, without seats, that would hold just shy of 2,000 people.

That's right, a city-owned version of The Ritz in downtown Raleigh.

"We already have 1,600 seats covered," Lavery says. "Promoters are now telling me that they need a multiuse theater with 3,000 or 4,000 seats, and then they could make some money. We don't have a free-and-clear space like that."

In retrospect, such a space could have been a coup for Raleigh, serving as the city's answer to the Durham Performing Arts Center. Since 2008, that single, large room has lured an impressive and eclectic roster of comedy, music and theater acts, siphoning shows from Lavery's multiple rooms while they've accommodated the city's growing resident companies. The rock venue would have enabled shows seven days a week.

The Ritz's location outside of the city center—not to mention its ownership by a third party—reiterates the city's consistent underestimation of a stable entertainment core downtown. The problem traces at least to 1990, when Raleigh decided that building an arena in the city's center would be a nuisance and opted, instead, for a coliseum complex along the interstate. Recent efforts to revitalize those talks for Raleigh's next arena even caused one political strategist to note that any such plan would guarantee a one-term limit for Mayor Nancy McFarlane, were she audacious enough to pursue it. Raleigh now has a downtown amphitheater, but it sits fallow six months of the year.

Yes, it's a stretch to envision an alternate scenario for downtown Raleigh, where that amphitheater, a 2,000-capacity room, a convention center, an arena and a performing arts center coexist near the middle of the city. But it's not impossible, either.

Still, sequestered as it is near an abandoned honky-tonk and rows of car dealerships and grocery stores, The Ritz will likely succeed. This area has little or nothing like it. Live Nation has the reach to land big names. And every day, our growing markets seem to have more people with plenty of cash to spare for parking.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rock club, inc."

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