Already one of the signature names in town, the Chattanooga Choo Choo is evolving into a hub of live entertainment, shifting the scene away from the family-focused Tennessee Riverfront and into the Southside neighborhood.
In a move that signifies a major shift in the city's live music scene, news arrived this week that Rhythm & Brews, a downtown staple for the last 16 years, will host its last show in September. Rhythm & Brews manager Mike Dougher has accepted a job as music buyer for Revelry Room, a 500-seat venue set to open in late September in the Choo Choo complex.
The Revelry Room will sit next to a bar called Hush that will be open nightly. When Revelry has a show, a roll-up door separating the two will be opened, creating a single open space. The venue will be near The Comedy Catch, which is relocating to the Choo Choo from Brainerd Road.
The announcements of the new clubs and Dougher's hiring come two weeks after Monica and Adam Kinsey, owners of the popular Track 29 music club on the Choo Choo campus, said they also will move their venue into the empty Centennial Theater space. The spot where Track 29 now sits will be turned into residential space.
Adam Kinsey recently was named president of the Choo Choo Partners LP, the facility's parent company.
Dougher said he was told recently that Craftworks Restaurants & Breweries, which owns the building housing Rhythm & Brews at 221 Market St., would not be renewing the club's lease. When the Kinseys got word of the imminent closing, they reached out to Dougher, who has managed Rhythm & Brews since it opened in 1999. Rhythm & Brews' last show is set for Sept. 26.
Dougher booked acts at the popular Sandbar on Amnicola Highway for 12 years before he went to Rhythm & Brews. Over the last 25 years, he has brought in everybody from War to the Dave Matthews Band to Hootie & the Blowfish to Lucinda Williams over the years.
"We are so excited to be working with Mike," said Monica Kinsey, general manager at Track 29. "It will be fun for me to work with Mike. I've held him in a high regard for a long time. Mike is one of the key players who have built the foundation of music in Chattanooga."
Dougher will work alongside music buyers at AC Entertainment in Knoxville to book shows at Revelry. It's a similar relationship to the one Kinsey has at Track 29, with AC, which produces the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., and the Forecastle music festival in Louisville, Ky., booking most of the national and some of the regional touring acts for the Revelry Room, while Dougher and Kinsey book some regional acts and all of the local acts.
AC recently was contracted by the newly formed Tivoli Foundation to operate and manage the Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium, and now books a variety of venues in town with seating capacities ranging from 500 to 3,800.
Adam Kinsey said the Choo Choo has been talking with other restaurant and bar owners in the Southside about sharing some marketing concepts for larger events in the area.
"We've been a tourist destination, and the big focus for us now is regaining the local market," he said.
Both the Kinseys and Dougher said that opening brand-new venues will allow them to tailor the facilities based on lessons learned over the years, including such knowledge as how to get better sound, how to configure backstage areas for the acts and how to set music schedules.
"We've learned from our mistakes since opening Track 29 five years ago," Monica Kinsey said. "There are some things we can do better."
Dougher describes the new arrangement as a way "the box can get opened a little wider."
"I can't tell you why, but I do feel we can be much more creative," he said. "I've worked with AC for 25 years, so that partnership will be easy. Plus, when something is new, people will come check it out and come see some things they might not normally see, just to see the new venue itself, which will be great with great sound."
He added that he has been brainstorming with the Kinseys about new ideas and possibilities.
"That's the fun of it, and I get to work with folks that really love this."
Local musician and music fan Jonathan Sussman says losing Rhythm & Brews is bittersweet.
"I've played there for 15 years," he said. "I've had some of the best times in my life there, and some of the not-so-great ones, too. With them being able to create a new space, this could be really good, though."
Bill Pollard, Dougher's partner at Rhythm & Brews along with Rob Stickley, said he and Dougher had been considering changes at the club for months, since it was becoming apparent that the live music scene was shifting away from the Tennessee riverfront.
"We were becoming more and more an interruption to the family environment in that part of town," Pollard said. "If we were siting a locale for a club today, we would not put it there."
One recommendation that came out of the Chattanooga Forward Initiative, commissioned last fall by Mayor Andy Berke, was to establish entertainment districts around the city.
With the changes coming to the Choo Choo, as well as the opening of Clyde's on Main, the Southside Social and the Flying Squirrel, the Southside is positioning itself as the entertainment center of town for adults.
Adam Kinsey was one of the chairmen of the Chattanooga Forward committee, along with Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Bob Doak and local TV talk show host Alison Lebovitz.
"Obviously this is a positive and we're excited this move is happening and to create more density, intensity and vibrancy," Doak said. "That's where I believe we can have the best impact — these entertainment districts such as the Southside."
Kinsey said his vision changes almost daily, but he sees the Choo Choo as a place where locals and tourists can come have a cocktail in one of the bars or lounges, stroll through the gardens listening to street performers and get dinner in one of the restaurants before taking in a comedy or music show and maybe stopping in another bar afterward for a nightcap.
He sees the same thing happening in the Southside in general, especially with the changes planned on and around 14th Street, which runs between The Terminal, the Flying Squirrel and what will become a new Choo Choo entryway. Flying Squirrel co-owner Dan Rose is opening a new, as yet unnamed restaurant in the area, as well.
"The destination concept is huge," Pollard said. "Having these things in a cluster will be big."
Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.