New sounds in Newport: Local music scene gets a reboot
It’s Friday evening and the William Menefield Trio
is well into its first set in the “Heaven Parlor” room at Thompson House
in Newport, Kentucky. As bass player Brandon Meeks and drummer Greg Artry lay down a steady groove, Menefield’s brown, bald head bounces up and down, and his fingers race across his piano keys. Toward the end of their rendition of “No Greater Love,” Menefield encourages the audience to participate in a call and response game.
“I feel good!” he exclaims.
“Alright!” the 45 people in the audience shout back.
The band leader is enjoying this hometown performance; he knows a lot of people in attendance. He occasionally exchanges a little banter with his mother, who sits near the front. He also dedicates a performance of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight” to his friend Melvin Grier
-- the photojournalist and jazz aficionado perched at a table near the bar in the back of the room.
Grier has become a regular at Thompson House. Every Friday night since its grand opening in early June, night club promoter Walter “Doc B” Broadnax has been taking “Jazz in Cincy with Doc B”
there. Grier is a fan.
Grier has frequented jazz performances all over Cincinnati, including The Redmoor
, the downtown Hyatt and both the old and the new locations of the Blue Wisp
. The jazz club atmosphere at Thompson House, though, is becoming his favorite. He even thinks it’s comparable to jazz clubs in other cities.
“It’s got some character to it,” Grier says.
Famous jazz clubs are often smaller than many fans expect. “Thompson House has that sort of intimacy,” Grier says. He considers the local artists Doc B books to be top notch. Plus they can be enjoyed for a fraction of the price of what a listener would pay to see a similar show in New York or Chicago. “William Menefield is equal to any national pianist I’ve ever heard. He’s incredible.”
Grier never came to shows in this building back when it was the acclaimed Southgate House. “It was not my music,” he says.
The new audience that Grier represents is characteristic of the drastically different venue Thompson House has become since the Southgate House closed. A lot has changed there.
Instead of being named after Richard Southgate, the politician and attorney who began construction on the house in 1814, the new venue is named after John Taliaferro Thompson, the famous “Tommy Gun” inventor who was born there in 1860.
“We are going in a whole different direction than this building has ever been taken before,” says Kirt Lee, the owner and operations partner of Thompson House. He says that the building’s renovations are about 45 percent finished, and it shows.
What was once called “Junie’s Lounge” has been renamed the “Rockstar Lounge.” Lee had local artist Kyle Penunuri paint large murals of Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger on the walls. The animal print carpeting that stretches across the floor of the lounge, along with the purple walls and gold trim, reinforce Lee’s “rock and roll royalty” theme.
The “Parlour” on the second floor -- now known as “Heaven Parlor” -- maintains its original 19th century look. But since smoking is no longer allowed in the room, the cigarette cloud that often filled the space during performances is gone.
All of these superficial changes are just visible manifestations of a substantial shift in Thompson House’s focus. The building once represented a regional hub for punk, alternative, roots and bluegrass music. Now the “Tommy Gun Theater” -- the former “Southgate House Ballroom” -- still books rock bands like Bayside
, The Aggrolites
, James Durbin
, and Sea of Treachery
But the artistic experiences available to the audience are more participatory and have expanded to include jazz and poetry readings. They even hope to have magic shows soon. “It’s a chance for everyone to come and express themselves through art,” Lee says.
In July, Lee brought Cathy Creason on board to serve as the new space’s artistic director. Her extensive experience as a theater director will come in handy as Thompson House places more emphasis on musical theater.
The show tune performances that take place every Tuesday at Thompson House are a stepping stone toward Creason’s plan to stage grand musical theater shows in the main room -- the “Tommy Gun Theater.”
Another opportunity to attract theater talent will arrive when "A Chorus Line" star and Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie
begins teaching a chorus line workshop Nov. 3 and 4.
Creason hopes to launch her first musical by late spring of 2013. A new sound system and custom-built lighting truss have already been installed on the main stage in anticipation of live theater, and Creason has recruited an advisory board of local theater professionals to help her.
“We want to encourage all kinds of creative expression,” Creason says.
The variety of programs makes any single definition of the new spaces elusive. For example, with Halloween approaching, Lee and Creason are also leveraging the building’s reputation as a haunted house
. They expect increased interests in the “Spirits of Thompson House” -- a weekly haunted tour led by psychic Bonnie Campaniello.
Thompson House also hosted the 13th annual Witches Ball
on Oct. 13; FotoFocus
will hold “CARNEVIL,”
it’s Halloween closing party there on Oct. 27.
“All are welcome, but those who enter are subject to original creative and visual performance art,” Lee says.
But musicians like Mark Utley, the leader of Cincinnati-based folk/Americana band Magnolia Mountain
, are still sore about the transition from the Southgate House to Thompson House.
“When I first heard about it I couldn’t believe it.” Utley says. Magnolia Mountain performed at the Southgate House at least once a month. Until the final shows there last New Year’s Eve, “it just seemed like the Southgate House was one of those things that was such a part of the fabric of life here,” he says.
Now the owners and operators of the old Southgate House, Ross Raleigh and his daughter Morrella Raleigh, have finished preparations of the former Grace Methodist Episcopal Church and turned it into the new home of Southgate House Revival
Located just a few blocks away from Thompson House, the Southgate House Revival hopes to bring back the old camaraderie between the fans, staff and musicians. “Our concept is the same,” General Manager Morrella Raleigh says. “It is a place where people feel a strong sense of community.”
Much like the old venue, The Revival will host live music on three stages — a small lounge, a medium sized parlor called the “Revival Room” and a large stage called the “Sanctuary.” But being housed in a newly renovated 19th century building will necessitate some differences, Raleigh says. The Revival will feature custom-built bars to accompany each stage, easier loading areas for the bands and a small parking lot of its own.
Despite recent setbacks (the original Oct. 5 opening had to be postponed), the Southgate House Revival hosted its first big event -- the Cincypunk Fest
on Oct. 12 and 13.
As for Utley, his band reunites with the Southgate House crowd in November. Raleigh can’t wait to visit with old friends from groups like the Mudpies
, The Tillers
and The Newbies
“It’s been an emotional time for anybody who worked there and anyone who played there a lot,” Raleigh says. “I think we’re all just going to be thankful to be back in each other’s company.”
While the people who frequent Southgate House Revival may not have musical preferences in common with those who spend time at Thompson House, both groups share an enthusiasm for the scene they are helping create.
Creason welcomes business that helps to fuel a vibrant community life in the neighborhood – things like Arcadian Comics & Games
, the Mammoth Coffee & Co.
to Jefferson Hall
. She says Newport is going through a sort of renaissance.
“We are so blessed with the musicians we have in this area. It really blows my mind,” Raleigh adds. “We have to have the venues for them to play.”
Geoffrey Dobbins is freelance journalist based in Cincinnati. He learned how to write for magazines, newspapers and blogs while studying journalism at the University of Cincinnati. Between runs to the comic book shop, he's been a contributor for Cincinnati Magazine, The Nation.com and Wire Tap magazine.