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Forging a New Music Future? 

Owners Adding Diversity to Neighborhood Theatre Menu

Outside the Neighborhood Theatre it's the sort of windswept, bone-chilling December night that can make a homebody of the staunchest live music fan. But inside the NoDa landmark, a parade of local bands offers various levels of musical intensity for the hundreds of people who thumbed their frozen noses at the cold to celebrate the Complex Radio show, a tribute to the Charlotte music scene.

But there's another kind of heat being generated inside the venue this evening, too. It's the type that's forged by hard-earned experience, steep learning curves, on-the-fly decisions and flat-out fickle fate. Because if nothing else, putting on a two-stage, eight-act show over the course of a seven-hour evening will test -- for better or worse -- a club owner's mettle.

Not to mention their reputation. A rep which -- for the five core members of JEM Entertainment, the Neighborhood Theatre's new ownership group -- is still in the process of being melded. From all reports, this evening goes well, if imperfectly (there are always glitches -- it's rock & roll, after all). But it's how you handle the unforeseen crises -- the missing electrical cord/mike stand/bass player -- that counts. And this group is nothing if not dedicated to their dreams of making the theater the centerpiece of the latest NoDa revival and overcoming the prevailing skepticism about Charlotte as a music-friendly town.

"We have no great plans to be the best venue in Charlotte, we just want to complete the circle that's here now," said Zach McNabb, who handles booking for the club. "We want to help put NoDa on the map and put (the theater) out there as an enjoyable place to go, with a very diverse lineup that offers something for everybody."

Since agreeing in October to take over the 58-year-old venue from long-time owners Paul McBroom and Sharon Pate, the members of JEM -- Joshua Landry, Michael Stone, Eric St. Clair, Gary Leonhardt and McNabb -- have already put their imprint on the theater. The group cautions that they have no plans to cut back on the Americana programming that's been the theater's bread and butter booking over the last seven years (the Avett Brothers' sold-out show -- a Neighborhood first -- would counsel against that course of action). But they do hope to enhance the theater's reputation through addition, not subtraction. An open house, hard-core shows (a theater first), cultural festivals (such as this Saturday's inaugural "Neighborhood Freak Show"), split bills (early and late shows), and a fuller, more varied calendar are just the first steps in the theater's transformation, they say.

Restoring the theater's original, 1940s-style marquee is also a top priority. So is updating the web site (adding MP3s for upcoming acts, for instance), making continued interior upgrades (they've already expanded the beer options), and improving the venue's marketing (with an eye toward duplicating the success of Asheville's The Orange Peel). Rather than implementing all these changes at once, though, the group's philosophy has been to step on as few toes as possible.

"We didn't want to make drastic changes to the most public of our interfaces, the web site," said Landry, by example, "because we didn't want to scare people" who've been long-time patrons. "We're hoping that's going to be an organic process."

They've also been busy. Landry, Stone and St. Clair -- the original core of JEM -- gained experience from running the short-lived 15th Street Garage venue (which closed due to zoning issues) from Oct. "02 to February "03. But running events and shows six nights a week at the 700-capacity theater is a taller order.

"We don't have everything nailed down with what we want to do," said Landry, who also does booking for the venue. "We're trying to get a handle on just operational things that we think we can be doing a little better than we are today."

So every show provides a few more logistical lessons: adding access ramps for the bands, four hours spent hanging lights for Cowboy Mouth, or figuring out a way to improve the sound at The Other Side (the venue's smaller stage).

But Landry and McNabb have already run into the greatest hurdle they'll likely face for implementing their all-inclusive musical vision. They've found that it's not that easy convincing booking agents and their acts that traditionally skip Charlotte for venues like the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro or The Orange Peel that another night in North Carolina will be worth their while. Especially in a town with virtually no college radio -- at least one that broadcasts beyond school confines -- and one as event-oriented as Charlotte can be.

"The biggest issue is that the names (of previous Neighborhood Theatre acts) aren't ringing bells with them, because it's not their sub-sub-genre or whatever they're focused on," Landry said. "Landing one big name will probably open a lot of doors."

Yet the members of JEM believe they'll eventually overcome that bias, using many of the contacts established for them prior to their tenure.

"I think we're going to see some acts that have never been to Charlotte before, playing on a consistent basis in the theater," McNabb said. "All the legwork we're doing now to build these relationships with bands, with the agencies, all this is going to pay off great dividends."

And that would surely warm the heart of any music fan sick to death of driving four hours to see their favorite band.

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