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Small music venues are walking a tightrope amid pandemic uncertainty

Jan 13, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 4:15 pm

Rock royalty has played the tiny room known simply as the Bug Jar.

There was The White Stripes, before the duo became indie-rock favorites. The Black Keys, before returning to town a few years later for gigs at Blue Cross Arena and Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center. Vampire Weekend. The 1975, sharing a bill with Rochester’s Joywave. 

The Arcade Fire was here, long before it won a Grammy for Album of the Year; in fact, The Arcade Fire wasn’t even the headliner at that show in this tiny room. When Lizzo was here in 2013, she wasn’t the headliner either; she’d just independently released an album of soul-laden hip-hop, and her three Grammys were still years away.

The word “intimate” is a good descriptor for the Bug Jar, an unassuming spot with a worn brick facade and dim interior. Unless you are looking for it, you might not even see it at the corner of Monroe Avenue and South Union Street. But the artsy, edgy music venue has been there since 1991 as an altar of alt-rock sweat and kitsch. Two rooms, not counting the bathrooms, with the space in front of the stage no bigger than a two-car garage.

But that roster of stars-to-be passing through the Bug Jar for a night isn’t really the story of the venue. For every eventually ubiquitous artist to perform on stage, there are seemingly countless acts that remain obscure but are no less important to the Bug Jar’s reputation as home to unexpected spectacle.

One night, I saw a performance by the Danielson Family, a quirky, Christian indie rock band from New Jersey, complete with a female chorus dressed in what appeared to be cultish nurse outfits and frontman Daniel Smith singing in falsetto from inside what appeared to be a papier-mâché tree trunk. On another evening, it was Nashville Pussy, a blistering speed-metal outfit whose bassist was a blonde woman standing 6 feet and 3 inches tall. After taking a swig of some kind of flammable liquid, she held a small torch in front of her face and vomited a column of fire across the heads of the audience. I was standing in the front row. I can still feel the heat.

These bands are part of underground scenes that would bypass Rochester entirely if it weren’t for the Bug Jar.

But the Bug Jar’s true legacy over the years has been as a sounding board for the local scene. Rochester-area musicians, getting access to a stage and an audience. While the acts have consisted mostly of alt-rock and independent-minded musicians, the venue has also been a place for Eastman School of Music students to go off the deep end. Some grew out of it and got on with their adult lives. Some did not. A local alt-metal band, Lethargy, used to play the Bug Jar. Then its drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher moved to Atlanta and helped form one of today’s premiere metal bands, Mastodon, which won a Grammy in 2018.

The rock band Joywave continued to show up at the Bug Jar even after appearing at music festivals all across America and Europe, playing its latest single on the late-night chat shows, and showing up on the soundtrack of a “Madden NFL” video game. KOPPS followed in Joywave’s contrail with collaborations and national dates, and playing Rochester gigs almost exclusively at the Bug Jar. Mikaela Davis was also in that orbit, rocking out on harp at the Bug Jar before getting signed to Rounder Records. Yet another Bug Jar regular from Rochester, the psychedelic pop band Maybird, has been releasing music on Danger Mouse’s label 30th Century Records.

So when it comes to Rochester music, this little club has been a big deal. The Penny Arcade and Red Creek are in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. It’s time to add the Bug Jar to the conversation.

Thirty years is a long time for a music venue to survive, and the Bug Jar has been walking a financial tightrope for most of that time. As COVID-19 emerged, the situation has grown more perilous.

“You could feel it in the air, in people’s moods,” says Doug Kelley. He’s been the club’s talent buyer, the guy who books the bands, since 2019. 

“Not a lot of people really wanted to be going out,” he says. “And even a band that would draw normally wasn’t drawing as well as they should, because people were just being cautious, with good reason.

“It got really sad for a couple of weeks, then it all shut down.”

The Bug Jar hasn’t been open since March 13. So that long line of success stories, big and small, has been silenced.

It’s a tenuous line, to be sure.

“I feel like a lot of bands have problems with the bar, and I was just trying to fix that,” Kelley says.

By problems, he means that no one ever feels like they’re getting paid enough. As my friend and colleague Frank de Blase at CITY Magazine always says, “There are literally hundreds of dollars to be made in the music business.”

A small club like the Bug Jar, surviving mostly on local bands, is a tough gig. 

“You can only do so much,” Kelley says. “When you’re doing a $5 show, it’s pretty easy to do the math there.

“People that are artists and musicians, putting themselves out there, that takes a lot of courage,” he says. “I’ve gone through it myself, so I get it. It can be tough.”

Kelley has a different primary job, at the University of Rochester’s laser lab, where he works as a laser-amplifier technician. As Kelley explains, “It’s kind of like a guitar amp, but it amplifies light.” He’s also played drums in bands, including former Bug Jar regulars Alberto Alaska, a local prog-psychedelia outfit. So yes, he gets it.

Small music venues throughout Rochester have taken different approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The disparity is due not only to individual interpretations of COVID-19 state regulations, but is also contingent on the business plan of the venue itself. 

State guidelines have evolved from timed increments with labels such as Phase 2 and Phase 3 to color-coded geographical zones. Do you have a kitchen and serve food within a yellow zone? You may be open -- with incidental, unadvertised music, following capacity-limiting guidelines. For now, if your restaurant is in an orange zone, you may be open, but only for pick-up. A red zone designation, in which all non-essential businesses would be closed, would effectively be a death sentence for restaurants and venues, but is yet to be enacted in Monroe County.

At least, that’s how it is this week.

Abilene Bar & Lounge, a premiere music venue with no kitchen, is closed. The Bug Jar does have a kitchen, but cuisine purists note that it is upside down and bolted to the ceiling — a non-functional objet d’art — and hence does not count. But it is in the orange zone anyway, so the argument is moot. Bug Jar: closed.

Is help on the way? Hard to say. Congress has approved a COVID-19 relief bill that includes the Save Our Stages Act. It appears the Small Business Administration will help with its implementation, but who gets aid and how much will it be are questions that may take weeks, or even months, to answer.

In December, Monroe County legislators approved a $1.2 billion spending plan for this year that includes about $1.4 million for the arts. As is often the case, the bulk of that goes to major arts institutions, such as the Rochester Museum & Science Center and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

And we should be happy for them. But that leaves out a lot of worthy organizations. In response, Mayor Lovely Warren has announced the creation of an “arts equity fund,” but provided few details.

Will that equity reach as far as the Bug Jar, Abilene Bar & Lounge, The Little Café, or your favorite, family-owned restaurant? The kind of businesses that keep the lights on in downtown Rochester?

These small businesses cannot wait. Their employees cannot wait. A business such as the Bug Jar has back rent to pay, in addition to utility bills and venue fees. So it launched a social-media funding campaign. It recently concluded, just edging past its goal of $20,000.

But how long can a silent music venue live on $20,000? Kelley says downtown business people such as Aaron Gibalski, a co-owner of the Bug Jar, are uncertain.

“From talking to Aaron, it’s really kind of a break-even thing at the moment,” Kelley says. “Obviously, we have to make up for 2020.”

And riffing off of the utterances of public officials whenever a community is faced with trouble, Kelley adds this: “Thoughts and prayers only go so far.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.