When the red carpet unrolls at tonight's sneak preview of the new Rams Head Live!, its owner and developer are betting that it will usher in an influx of big-name acts who previously bypassed Baltimore - and hordes of concert-goers who have had to go elsewhere in the region to catch live musical performances.
But first, the club must overcome Baltimore's reputation with bands and booking agents as a second-tier market and doubts about whether an over-21 club that will hold as many as 1,800 people can attract a regular crowd.
The new $10 million club, in the Power Plant Live! complex a few blocks from the Inner Harbor, opens tomorrow.
"The city of Baltimore has been dying for a venue of this sort for years," said owner Bill Muehlhauser. He believes the year-round venue - with a tavern, five bars, 40 flat-screen TVs, a stage with a huge video monitor behind it and three food kiosks - will attract conventioneers, tourists and locals alike.
Some booking agents, though, say Baltimore has never proven that it can fill such a large performing venue. Its capacity is more than twice that of the current largest club in the Baltimore area, the Recher Theatre in Towson, which can handle a crowd of 750. And it is 50 percent larger than the facility likely to be its chief competitor, Washington's 9:30 Club, with a capacity of 1,200. "It is a huge jump to 1,800," said Paul Manna, the booking agent for the Recher. "The big question is, can they maintain it? As a fan, I love it, but it's a tough business. I've seen a lot of clubs open and close."
The operators, however, say the time is right for a live music club. They point to the renovated Hippodrome Theatre as the type of success story they expect to emulate, noting that in its first year it managed to out-gun Washington's Kennedy Center to land the national tour of The Lion King.
"I think this will have just the same impact on the downtown that the Hippodrome has had," said David Cordish, who owns the PowerPlant Live! complex and is leasing the space to Muehlhauser.
"It is going to raise the bar on the types of acts that play here. It is going to help with conventions. It is going to bring more people downtown."
Baltimore's mayor agrees.
"I think it really fills a void," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, also lead singer of the Irish band O'Malley's March. "So often we've all had to go down to D.C. to see national touring acts."
"I don't ever want to drive to Washington, D.C., again in my life if I don't have to," said 37-year old Chris Xavier, who owns Baltimore's Reptilian Records and sees live shows "a couple nights a week." Xavier said he's missed seeing some of his favorite acts just to avoid the hassle of parking and driving in Washington.
Muehlhauser, who opened the venerable Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis in 1989, announced in April that he and Cordish planned to create a new club in a vacant building in Power Plant Live!, a group of bars and restaurants that Cordish developed. But it was apparent from the beginning that the new Rams Head would be a much different venture. The Annapolis club holds about 250 patrons seated at tables and features established jazz and folk acts.
Besides its five bars and video-screen amenities, the new Rams Head will serve American, Italian and Mexican food. A state-of-the-art music system will pipe songs into the restrooms, Muehlhauser said.
The ground level is taken up by the dance floor and food kiosks. A second level - really a balcony wrapped around the dance floor - includes more standing room and bleacher seating. A small room tucked away on the left and the third level balcony are both reserved for VIP seating.
The club will be open seven nights a week, and Muehlhauser hopes that eventually it will host 10 to 15 national acts each month, plus local and regional groups. (While such venues as Pier Six Pavilion can accommodate up to 4,200 concert-goers, they're not open in the winter.)
But the ambitious undertaking makes some music professionals skeptical. They doubt that Baltimore is big enough to make such a large venue profitable. They point out that the only comparable larger facility within hundreds of miles is Philadelphia's 2,500-capacity Electric Factory - and Philadelphia's population is more than twice that of Baltimore's.
And local music history buffs could point to Liberty Hall, a 2,000-capacity live music venue with national ambitions that opened with great fanfare in the same Baltimore block in November 1988. The area, then called the Fishmarket and Brokerage complex, closed nine months later due to financial problems.
There have been more recent high-profile failures as well, including Redwood Trust, a 19,000-square-foot nightclub that opened in 2000 and closed earlier this year. (Unlike Rams Head Live!, Redwood Trust featured DJ nights and regional acts, not national bands.)
"I've always found it quite difficult to do that kind of business in Baltimore," said Seth Hurwitz, a co-owner of the 1,200-seat 9:30 Club. But he acknowledged that "it hasn't really been tested with a really, really nice venue, which it sounds like they're building. This is going to settle the question once and for all about whether the problem with Baltimore has been the market, or the lack of a venue."
O'Malley is confident that there is an untapped audience here. But he added, "It all depends on the acts, of course."
And therein lies the challenge.
The roster for Rams Head Live!'s first weeks doesn't fit the definition of cutting-edge fare. Such acts as blues legend B.B. King, pop crooner Chris Isaak and jazz man Maceo Parker have been around for decades.
While he wouldn't name the acts he hopes to book in the future, Muehlhauser said fans could expect "bands that are current, that are up-and-coming, and, yes, some of the ones that have been successful."
The 9:30 Club regularly sells out concerts and Muehlhauser said that proves there is a market for large live music venues.
But even Rams Head Live! staffers admit they'll have to educate bands and their managers about the advantages of doing business here.
"There is a perception - particularly if you are an agent sitting in Monterey, Calif. - that Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are one and the same," said Kris Stevens, a booker for the new club. "I think that they think Baltimore is some kind of suburb of Washington, D.C."
Jason Pitzer, an agent with P.G.A., a national music talent management firm, said Washington still will be his first choice. "If we want to play at D.C. but we can't because someone is booked at the 9:30 Club, [Rams Head Live!] is an option," he said.
In fact, he has agreed to book deSol, a new and much-praised Latin band, in the space.
However, Pitzer is uncomfortable with the decision at Rams Head Live! to restrict admission to those 21 and older. "That would be a huge sticking point for me and my artists," he said. "You're saying to fans, 'You can't come hear the music because you can't drink.'"
Muehlhauser doesn't see it that way. "Personally as an owner, I don't like the responsibility of policing 18-to-20 year olds," he said. "If I was steering toward that audience, I wouldn't have put in five bars."
Meanwhile, Cordish is accustomed to naysayers. After all, when he first began developing Power Plant, observers doubted that Baltimore could attract such national chains as ESPN Zone and Hard Rock Cafe, which with Barnes & Noble now anchor that complex.
"If you think that people question this, you should see what they said when I announced we were doing Power Plant," Cordish said. "My friends were asking, 'Are you insane?' You've heard the old expression, 'The harder I work the luckier I get'?
"Well, we've worked very hard on Rams Head."
Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this report.
Live music clubs
Regional nightclubs with year-round live music (with capacities):
Rams Head Live!: 1,800*
The Recher Theatre: 750
Ottobar : 450
The Funk Box: 450
9:30 Club: 1,200
Black Cat: 600
State Theatre: 950
Electric Factory: 2,500
Trocadero Theatre: 1,240
Theater of the Living Arts: 800* awaiting final city permit
- Annie Linskey