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New identity for Water Street Music Hall hopes to build off good memories of old

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on October 18, 2019 5:11 pm

Water Street Music Hall, which had been the most-significant club on the local scene since the late 1980s, is rising from the ashes of discord once again. The two-headed entertainment center announced its return Wednesday afternoon with a ribbon cutting ceremony at the red brick, turn-of-the-last century old warehouse tucked away off of Andrews Street in the St. Paul Quarter.

Owner Peter Sewell explains that the extensive renovations are working alongside a repurposing of the two rooms, a restaurant called Jack’s on Water Street and the larger music venue side, Water Street 2020.

A re-branding of Water Street was essential. Sewell says the venue’s nights of bad economic management and hip-hop brawls are over.

“I’m not letting in promoters that were infamous for taking the fast buck,” Sewell said Tuesday afternoon, as he and a handful of new employees and contractors scurried about, nailing down details.

That’s walking a tricky line, as State Senator Joe Robach knows. He’s a music enthusiast who saw many shows at Water Street. His last appearance there was more than two years ago, when George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic played the grand opening of the site’s most-recent incarnation, Funk ’n Waffles.

“Over the years, the music side, they’ve really not only launched a lot of local bands, but they’ve really gotten some big-name acts, and what I would say was some alternative acts before it was really cool and popular,” Robach said. “(But,) we want to have peaceful venues and law and order, but again you want to give people the freedom to have the type of acts and things they want here.”

Jack’s on Water Street is now operating on what Sewell calls a soft opening, serving drinks and food in the evening as the kitchen gets up to speed; he waxed eloquently over one of the hors d’oeuvres that General Manager and Chef Garrick Umland was serving at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting - lollipop wings - a sauce-drenched drumstick with the meat folded back so that it can be held by the bone.

The opening of the music side, Water Street 2020, will soon follow on Oct. 27 with veteran hip-hop performers Biz Markie and former Salt-N-Pepa DJ Spinderella.

It’s hip-hop, but once again that’s relative; it’s been quite a few years since either has had a hit. But that show, Sewell says, will draw the audience he’s seeking, the “older professional crowd.”

To draw those older professionals to Water Street 2020, Sewell is working with local people such as comedian and promoter Jay Real and Rams Head Live!, a Baltimore-based club. The concerts it’s putting on at its Baltimore venue are not exactly designed for the “older professional crowd,” with a lineup this weekend of New Orleans funk and hip-hop band Tank and the Bangas and metalcore band All That Remains. But Rams Head Live! does seem to have the music-industry presence that Sewell needs to return Water Street 2020 to the level that it once enjoyed, when it played host to acts such as David Byrne, the Barenaked Ladies and Marilyn Manson.

“We’re looking for longevity,” Sewell said. “But it may take time to re-acquaint ourselves with national booking agencies.”

Sewell has owned the building for 28 years, back to when it was known as the Country Warehouse, then the Warehouse, then the Horizontal Boogie Bar, then the Boogie Bar, and then Water Street Music Hall. For a while it even had a rave club, Piranha, in the basement. Sewell maintained ownership of the building after moving to California, and later Las Vegas, but a combination of new management teams and the club’s business owners proved problematic. A decade of violence, including guns being fired and brawls spilling into the street, led to several city-ordered closures and even the loss of Water Street’s liquor license at one point. The building began falling into disrepair, bands complained they were shortchanged, bills were reportedly going unpaid. In one notorious incident in 2015, rocker Dweezil Zappa arrived at Water Street with his band, only to find the club locked and the show cancelled. California singer-songwriter Anna Nalick had a show there in January of 2016, but with no heat in the building; people were reportedly walking out because of the cold. Nalick wore mittens during the show.

In a March 2016 letter announcing that the club’s entertainment license would not be renewed, the City of Rochester cited eight incidents which “significantly impact the public’s safety and welfare.” Three of those involved gunshots, the others brawls or people blocking traffic.

The arrival of a new tenant in May 2017, the Syracuse-based restaurant and music club Funk ’n Waffles, brought calmer times to Andrews Street, but no financial relief. Rochester did not embrace the idea of waffles and chicken, and after an opening night featuring the funk legend Clinton, few national acts were booked. Eighteen months later, in November 2018, Funk ’n Waffles closed.

“They never embraced Rochester,” Sewell said. “They tried to import Syracuse.”

Now the St. Paul Quarter club welcomes Jack’s on Water Street, named for the rescue pit bull that Sewell acquired while he was in Rochester helping to ready the building for Funk ’n Waffles.

Jack’s on Water Street’s new look includes the removal of the stage, making way for more restaurant seating. The room has been brightened up, with partitions built in part from glass blocks that were once a part of the building’s windows.

And Sewell is banking on people remembering Water Street’s best moments.

“I want people to know, ‘It’s the Water Street I grew up with,’” he says, although those people may not recognize the bathrooms, which have had significant layers of grunge removed. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I was there for my first-ever concert, it was a high school battle of the bands.’ I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘My first concert was, fill in the blank, at Water Street.’”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts and Life Editor. He can be contacted at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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