Music Venue Check-in: The Southern

Posted on February 25, 2013 by

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The Southern Café and Music Hall has been a strong driving force in Charlottesville’s music scene over the last few years, bringing in national touring acts and showcasing great local talents. Owner Andy Gems has been running the “small” 300 cap venue nearly single-handedly since its opening after Gravity Lounge closed, almost four years ago.

the southern logo

I recently had a little Q&A session with Gems where I found a new appreciation for the local music scene and all the work that goes on behind the scenes to bring great music to Cville.

Why did you open up The Southern Café and Music Hall?

Honestly, it just kind of happened. It was never my dream to open a music venue. I had been working at the old incarnation of this place and found myself being frustrated about a lot of things that were happening here and one day I had a “put up or shut up” moment. Once it became clear to me that the space was going to open up, I started hatching plans.

What was your favorite act(s) to perform at The Southern?

My guiding philosophy here has always been to put the shows first and let the business follow, so I’ve always booked bands that I think are excellent even when I’m not confident that we’ll put bodies in the room.

While I think it’s the right way to run a music venue, it’s really not a smart way to run a business, but it is what it is. One of my goals has been to build a reputation for having high quality artists so that people will take a chance on a band they might not have heard of.

Bottom line – I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of bands that have played here, so I can’t say I have a favorite – there have just been too many great shows – Tim O’brien, The Steel Wheels, Shovels and Rope, The Wood Brothers, Larry Keel, The Civil Wars, Joe Pug, Kylesa and the list goes on and on and includes a lot of local bands.

You have had many Grammy nominated/winning acts play at The Southern. How do you find and bring in such talented artists?

I’ll be honest, a lot of shows come to me and then I check out the artist and first and foremost see if I think they’re good and then I do some research to try and gauge the potential for success on the show – though like I said, most of the time I put a higher value on the quality of the artist over the potential for success.

But there are plenty of shows I chase – bands I like that I think are on the rise. I also pay attention to what other venues are booking and ask people I know have good taste in music what they’re listening to.

How much work actually goes into opening and running a music venue? What are the most challenging things about it? What are the most rewarding things about it?

It’s an unbelievable amount of work. If I had known then what I know now, I never would have done it. It’s 24/7 all the time and I’m still always behind on things. It just never ends – even when I sleep I have dreams about running shows. I’m always on my phone or my computer. Not only do I have to deal with all of the day to day stuff, but I run all of the shows so on show days, I work all day on business stuff and booking and promotion and then I work another full day running the show. I purposely put my office in the sound booth so I could deal with emails and work while dealing with the show.

Everything is a major challenge – everything. Bills, taxes, booking agents, bands, staffing, and on and on.

The most rewarding thing is when a show starts. I love music.

When the work hours don’t seem to ever end, what drives you to keep going?

The shows keep me going and my love and passion for music. A great show will give me enough of a boost to make it through until the next great show. Though the grind is still always very hard to get through.

I recently realized that it probably falls into an addiction type of disorder. Chasing the high of a great show. Though like other addictive substances, you do build a tolerance and there are days when I’m not sure I’ll make it through another show.

With such a thriving and talented local music scene, what you would say to get “stay at home”ers to come out to shows?

It’s tough. People are busy, money is tight. And people need to want to see an artist. I get a little bit upset every once in a while when I don’t see certain people at a show that I know they would have loved, but people have things going on and it’s hard to fault someone that’s having a rough or busy day – or is broke until their next paycheck – for not coming out to a show. I have been known to hand out tickets or put people on the guest list as motivation to get them out. But what can you say? I sometimes find myself running a show and wishing I was at home sitting on the couch watching a movie.

In what ways has music influenced your life and driven your career path; past and present?

In every way. I grew up in a musical family and started playing and listening to music at an early age and that’s never changed (though I rarely get to play anymore – too busy). Everything I’ve done from working in a book store to working for an internet company has always involved music in one way or another.

What is your vision for The Southern and its relationship to the music scene in Charlottesville?

I want The Southern to be a great place to see a diverse range of local, regional, and national talent. I want this place to be where people discover great music so in a few years down the road when they’re at The Pavilion watching a killer show, they think, “I remember when I first saw this band at The Southern.” I especially want this to be a place that nurtures our local music scene and that’s something I think we’ve done a great job with. We care about local artists and we want to provide them with a great place to play and to be heard and make sure they have a great experience.

What is next for The Southern? Anything exciting in the works for upcoming shows or events?

There are always great shows coming up! Again, I book music that I like so I’m excited for every show on our calendar and I know they’re all going to be excellent shows. There’s such a diverse lineup of music coming up – everything from gypsy jazz to heavy metal – singer/songwriters, bluegrass, indie rock, americana. Every genre of music is currently represented on our calendar and there’s local, regional, and national acts. I can’t narrow it down!

As for some shows where I’m not sure this town is hip to the artist yet and I’d recommend people take a chance: I’m excited for The Constellations on March 14. They’re a really fun band out of Atlanta with a fun, funky, and soulful sound and they’re a real party band so it’ll be a fun show. I’m excited about The Deadly Gentlemen – great new and modern bluegrass and some real heavy hitters from the next generation of players. I’m also very excited about Brown Bird. I think they’re going to be big – very cool up and coming duo that reminds me of Shovels and Rope and Jack White. They take blues and american roots music and put a fresh take on it.

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Check out local musician Michael Coleman and Yorkshire born Benjamin Francis Leftwich this Wednesday, February 27th!

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