How a Meadery reshaped my view of live music (and other opinions)
Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on the music culture of Columbus or anywhere else. I don’t claim to have any accurate inside knowledge on recent developments with Brothers Drake or any other venue in Columbus. Tuned Up is a place for discussion and “starting the conversation” on things worth talking about in music culture – mainly the awesome bands and those that help them along the way. Also there is a distinction between critiquing people and practices, and also critiquing the actions of the owners and the actions of those that curated the music culture of an establishment. Keep that in mind as you read.
Words: Ryan Getz
Many things played a key role in my getting plugged into the local music scene here in Columbus, OH. This getting plugged in developed my heart for the musical underdog to the extreme and helped initiate a drive to find undiscovered gems in other cities as well.
One of these elements was an establishment called Brothers Drake Meadery.
Not only did Brothers Drake stoke a love for local music but it also was one of my gateways from truly being immersed in the culture of living in Columbus, Ohio.
The first time I heard of Brothers Drake I think was in relation to a band called Modes that is either defunct or on indefinite hiatus. The psych-post rock band with trippy visuals and haunting vocals seemed like an unlikely candidate to be playing an up and coming local hangout that sounded to me like a glorified art gallery with alcohol, but I kept an open mind. I just remember hearing about a show they had there from one of my roommates at the time, who went to art school with a couple of the members.
I don’t recall exactly what show at Brothers Drake was my first, but I know I saw a large variety of acts there. We owe that to the booking talents of April Kulscar, who sought to be both on the cutting edge of what was popular as well outside the box thinking of what would fit that room. Some of my favorite shows there have included sets from Captain Kidd (indie pop from Columbus), Ravenhill (Gospel infused blues rock from Nashville), Vesperteen (indie pop from Columbus), Pluto Revolts (ambient/math rock from Cincinnati), and Anderson Cale (post rock from Columbus). That Anderson Cale show in particular was poignant and nearly brought me to tears, and was also one of the most packed shows I saw in the place. From what I hear, even that show paled in comparison to Pat Chase (of Gelatinus Cube)’s (in)famous Halloween shows. I never made it to one of those but in the words of a TobyMac song, “You never know what you got til it’s gone.”
Many in Columbus were talking about Brothers Drake in the context of it being a hybrid venue. The fact that it doubled as a production facility for mead gave it a classy sense of character. You could go to the show there and feel a bit more sophisticated for an evening even if you didn’t view yourself that way. I mean, you’re drinking mead for goodness-sakes. I realize hybrid venues are getting more common in the US these days (look at Mahall’s in Cleveland, or Natalie’s in Worthington) but Brothers Drake Meadery forced me to break my preconceived notions of “music venue = bands + cheap booze” or “a youth room that can barely stay in business.”
While the mead certainly came before the music, as of a few days ago nearly everyone I know associated the place with music. A Facebook friend just the other day posted an open invite to go out and enjoy some music. The music and culture of the place alone was enough to drive this person (and many others) over there for business – irrespective if they had a friend group to go with. In January, rumors began to circulate that they were steering away from music culture and more of a “music in the background” sort of vibe. By March, that decision was temporarily reversed – I suspect because of bad PR. And now, we have the venue rebranding again. Now why is that?
The unofficial word is that permit issues kept the venue from operating in it’s current form. Yet, an article on (614) Magazine outlining the changes seems to indicate that the owners are merely continuing forward with the idea that emerged early this year. If that were the case, why the delay?
In recent days there has been a subtle outcry of artists on social media against the changes. The venue has been surprisingly silent on what is a major change. With little fanfare, the stage (which I am told was pretty pricey to build) was dismantled early in the week following a Saturday night show with MoJoFlo. Most rebrandings have been preceded by extensive marketing campaigns and hints of what’s to come. Not the case here. I can’t help but think that much of the bar’s walk-up crowd is up for a rude awakening when they arrive this week.
So why am I compelled to blog about this? Well, it’s just feels bizarre to see place that became an icon for local music and alter my paradigm of what a music venue looks like change direction so abruptly. Especially when the issue isn’t a matter of staying in or going out of business. I, and several other patrons of the local music scene feel confused and perhaps a little deceived. This isn’t to denounce all the hard work folks put into making the place awesome to hang out. My hat goes off to you. If there in fact was a permit issue, why did it take nearly five years to come to light? Why isn’t there more transparency? Obviously saying “we’re rebranding” instead “we messed up and have to make these changes” is better PR but any official statements from the bar about the changes were oddly under the radar.
So, what now? There will probably be a domino effect in crowds that used to frequent shows at Brothers Drake spreading amongst the existing smaller venues. This whole conversation makes me think back to the $5 cover debate that surrounding the opening of Notes, a jazz-leaning underground venue. I find it ironic that a venue that the community championed as being a cultural hub is changing direction just about a year after this same community was debating what culture meant in light of a new venue opening in the Brewery District. I also think Brothers Drake heralded an era of venues being very deliberate in their design as well. People complimented the stage of Brothers Drake frequently, and in the past 1-2 years alone we’ve seen the opening of Notes, a venue that was very carefully designed and undoubtedly was inspired by the class of Brothers Drake (even if the overall ambience differs). We’ve seen Rumba Cafe and the Shrunken Head get needed improvements. And, two years ago, Kobo rebranded to Spacebar – less divey than the former yet still retaining an ethos of supporting the underdog. All of these venues have a feeling that’s deliberate yet organic in development. Something I experienced at Brothers Drake first.
Cities, take notice. What can you do to foster art and business side by side? Just make sure all of your i’s are dotted first. It appears that may have been the downfall of Brother’s Drake as we know it. If I may end this blog post on an optimistic note – I strongly believe this will be but a wrinkle in the development of the Columbus music scene, one subset of America’s “Test City,” as a friend dubbed Columbus recently (you should check out the blog Test City, USA). It can be easy to antagonize others in a time of transition, but I hope that everyone will emerge on the other side having learned some some things.