Atlanta deserves fancy claps from its resident music lovers.
Thanks to Deerhunter and the Black Lips splashing all over the international music circuit this year, it's almost become cliché to bring up Atlanta's newfound music scene – a scene that joins the city among the ranks of Chicago, New York, Portland and San Francisco, to name a few.
Yet there's still the sense that something major is missing. That said, it only makes sense that a city of Atlanta's caliber should have a better assortment of midsized venues.
A big "For Rent" sign hangs on the abandoned blue building formerly known as Echo Lounge in East Atlanta Village across from Earthshaking Music. From 1998 through the end of 2004, Echo played host to a steady stream of touring and local acts. Then-owner Janet Ridgeway, who could not be reached for comment, had to padlock the doors forever because Echo Lounge was serving alcohol on a restaurant liquor license for six years, despite the fact that the venue never was a full restaurant.
Musician Greg Connors, 37, got to experience Echo Lounge from both sides of the stage. He grins and recalls seeing those "rich kids from New York City" – the Strokes – in 2002, before their breakthrough album, Is This It.
"It had a very good rock thing [going]," Connors says. "Kind of like CBGB in a way, but a little bigger. When it would fill up, it'd be huge."
One of Connors' fondest memories of the Echo Lounge is when he and his band, Greg Connors and the Curb, opened for Cat Power in support of her 1998 album Moon Pix.
It was the kind of opportunity Connors and others miss most about Echo. The East Atlanta spot regularly allowed local bands to open for bigger independent acts in front of 600-plus capacity crowds.
"We felt like we arrived and [Echo Lounge] made a local band feel good," Connors says.
While some local acts warmed up the stage for popular acts at Echo, others were doing their thing up the street at the Earl. Granted, they were competing venues at times. But Patrick Hill, the Earl's booking agent of six years, recalls how healthy the competition was for business and the overall scene.
"Some of the best nights in the neighborhood were when we both had cool shows, and people would bounce in between the two," Hill says. "We were allowed to serve until 3 a.m., so people would come into the Earl after a show at the Echo Lounge."
Since then, the Earl has become the premier venue to house nationally known independent bands. Though the venue may have earned the position by default, Hill says he was already preparing for such a move. When the Echo Lounge closed, it presented an urgent need for Hill and his crew to do something.
"When you lose a venue like that," he says, "I think the whole scene suffers immediately."
Although the scene has overcome the loss with other venues such as the Drunken Unicorn, Lenny's and the much bigger Variety Playhouse, Atlanta still lacks the perfect 600-plus midsize venue – unless you include the Loft's 650-capacity size in Midtown, but who wants to go to Midtown and deal with expensive parking and the inconvenience of not having restaurants and bars nearby?
Alex Weiss, OK Productions concert promoter and former Echo Lounge booking agent, says it would be nice to get that perfect midsize venue, especially since he already books shows at the Earl, Drunken Unicorn and Variety. Nonetheless, he rarely runs into problems when dealing with placing bands in venues within the city.
"Maybe every couple of months I'll run across a show that's too big for the Earl or too small for Variety," Weiss says. "That doesn't happen often enough to make me frustrated and wish there was a midsize space. It's not saying Atlanta can't use one. When the Echo was there, it certainly picked up a lot of shows. But I just haven't really missed it as far as a need for a venue that size. I don't feel the need for a venue that size very often."
Four or five times a year, Hill hears rumors about a midsize venue opening up. "I'll believe it when I see it," he says with a chuckle.
By the looks of it, he better not hold his breath.