When Painters Mill Theatre went up in flames early Monday, it burned a big hole in Baltimore's live music scene. Granted, it's always sad to see a concert hall silenced so abruptly, particularly one that was home to so many musical memories. Over the past three decades, the hall was host to an astonishing array of talent, including Derek & the Dominos, Bruce Springsteen, the Police and others. Bob Dylan had played to a sold-out house there just weeks before the fire.
But the loss of Painters Mill cuts deeper than that. This wasn't just Baltimore's premiere midsized concert hall -- it was the only pop music venue in its class between Washington and Philadelphia. Well-known, well-liked and open year-round, it made an awful lot of pop concerts possible in Baltimore.
And without it, things are going to be a lot quieter.
Just how irreplaceable Painters Mill had become was apparent last week, as promoters scrambled to relocate shows that had already been booked for the hall. Some found new homes without too much trouble. Great White, with Bullet Boys and Steelheart, has been moved to the Towson Center tomorrow night, while the WHFS 23rd Birthday Bash, with Jellyfish, Jesus Jones and the Tragically Hip, will now take place at Hammerjacks on March 28.
Other shows were not so lucky -- both Pilobolus and the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir were canceled.
"It's a very unhappy state of affairs," says Mike Jaworek of Chesapeake Concerts, which managed the facility. "Painters Mill was back to where it once was, and equal to where other places like it -- Valley Forge, Westbury Music Fair, Front Row Theatre in Cleveland -- are now.
"And because it was out in the 'burbs, you would get both the suburban as well as the urban audience. It was a venue that everybody went to, and everybody liked to go to."
What made Painters Mill so attractive? Part of it was a matter of size; with roughly 2,400 seats, it could handle acts whose audiences were too big to squeeze into a nightclub yet too small to fill an arena.
Size isn't everything, though, and Painters Mill had other advantages over similarly sized halls like the Lyric Opera House and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. For one thing, it was available. Explains Jaworek, "Both the Meyerhoff and the Lyric are filled with classical events, that take up weeks and weeks of time and are booked so far in advance that they prevent a choice of dates -- or sometimes any dates -- from being used for more short-term bookings."
By contrast, Washington's classical music events are largely restricted to the Kennedy Center, meaning much greater availability for venues like D.A.R. Constitution Hall or George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
Then there's the matter of cost. In addition to having high rents, the Lyric and the Meyerhoff use only unionized stagehands; Painters Mill, says Jaworek, was a non-union house. Consequently, shows at the Meyerhoff or Lyric are more expensive and thus riskier for promoters.
Finally, there's the fact that Painters Mill could handle almost any kind of entertainment. As Jaworek points out, the hall "was doing all sorts of things, from boxing on [closed circuit TV] to boxing live, to country, to metal, to middle-of-the-road music.
"Now, you're in a situation where certain types of music don't have a home anymore. Because you either can't get a building, or the venue is inappropriate."
As a result, there are an awful lot of bands that probably won't play Baltimore until they're popular enough to fill the Baltimore Arena's 13,000 seats. And even then, there's a good chance these groups will skip the city altogether, and head straight for the Capital Centre.
Obviously, the city won't be completely shut out. Mid-level artists such as Patti LaBelle, Lou Reed, Freddie Jackson and Kitaro have played either the Meyerhoff or the Lyric in the past, and there's no reason to think they won't return.
But don't expect to see Slayer play the Meyerhoff any time soon.
Where the loss of Painters Mill will be most sorely felt, says Jaworek, will be in the country and dance music markets -- audiences which, for the most part, would feel out of place at either Hammerjacks or the Meyerhoff. "There was a nice dance package I was looking at with Stevie B and C+C Music Factory," he says. "But I can't do that now.
"And where do I go with the country shows? The only real options are the Baltimore Arena or the Towson Center." But both halls are bigger than Painters Mill, meaning that a crowd that could have filled Painters Mill will seem tiny in those arenas. "With the Arena, you can scale the seating down to almost as low as 3,000," says Jaworek, "but you're still in the Arena."
Things aren't completely hopeless, of course. When the new PierSix Concert Pavilion opens this July, its enlarged capacity ought to pick up some of the slack, even if only for the summer months. But given the Pier's history of booking family-oriented, middle-of-the-road talent, odds are we'll miss out on more adventurous bookings like Sam Kinison, the Kentucky Headhunters or Suicidal Tendencies -- all of which played Painters Mill.
Painters Mill may yet rise from the ashes, however. Although Jaworek admits that rebuilding the hall is "speculation at this point," he adds that, "it is something we're looking at very closely. We're not just walking away from it."