by Jordan Green
The Winston-Salem music venue Ziggy’s is closing in February, bringing an era to a close and raising questions about what the future holds in store for the local music scene.
The renowned local music venue Ziggy’s will close at the end of February 2016, marking the end of a three-way partnership between owners Charles Womack, Brad McCauley and Jay Stephens.
A letter from 9th Street Properties LLC, which owns the property, notified the business owners that a new lease would not be negotiated and the business would be expected to vacate the premises by Feb. 28.
9th Street Properties LLC is owned by developers Hank Perkins and Drew Gerstmyer, who are responsible for a complex of restaurants and venues at the north end of Trade Street that were rezoned as an Entertainment District by Winston-Salem City Council. They recently renovated Big Winston Tobacco Warehouse, which houses Black Mountain Chocolate and Broad Branch Distillery, and the partners own the old Angelo Bros. wholesaling building — next door to Ziggy’s — which will soon be home to Wise Man Brewing. Other tenants of properties developed by Perkins and Gerstmyer at the north end of Trade include Camel City BBQ Factory, Mary’s Gourmet Diner, Mission Pizza Napoletana and the Famous Toastery.
The current Ziggy’s, a 1,000-person capacity venue at Trade and 9th streets, opened in 2011 with a concert by veteran local industrial punkers Codeseven. The opening marked a triumphal return for Stephens, a respected figure who operated the club at its former location on Deacon Boulevard near Wake Forest University. Stephens needed investors to make a go of it at the new location, and he brought in Womack and McCauley, respectively the publisher and a sales representative at Yes Weekly, an altweekly in Greensboro. (Disclosure: Triad City Beat’s editors, including the author, were all previously employed by Womack at Yes Weekly.)
Womack said in an email on Monday that he was “sad” and “confused” about the decision by 9th Street Properties to not renew the lease. Womack said the reasons given by the landlord for not renewing the lease were late rent payments and confusion about insurance certification.
“The late rent was a misunderstanding that our partners, Jay, had with the landlords,” Womack said. “It happened three or four times, but ultimately it is on me for trusting someone else with my credit and my reputation.”
Stephens declined to comment on the characterization, but said he is severing his relationship with Womack and McCauley. Stephens’ relationship with Womack and McCauley was famously contentious from the start, and Womack concurred that he and McCauley have no plans to work with Stephens going forward.
Ziggy’s in its previous incarnation, which closed in 2007, achieved a near mythical status.
Ed Bumgardner, a local musician who wrote about music for the Winston-Salem Journal from the 1980s through the 2000s, recalled that glam-rock band Great White played at the old Ziggy’s shortly before the band’s tragic West Warwick, RI concert in 2003, in which 100 people were killed in a fire caused by the band’s pyrotechnics display.
“The old Ziggy’s was just a magnificent mess,” Bumgardner said. “It was totally hand-built and in reality I don’t know how it passed code. Great White played there literally the day before the incident in Rhode Island. Ziggy’s was literally wood and tarp. It’s amazing it didn’t go up in flames. You had hippies doing the wiring. Everybody was smoking. You couldn’t believe the whole thing was running.
“I’ve never been in a cooler room,” Bumgardner continued. “If you played there, you were not going to have a bad night. Jay had a great staff over at that place. Some of them were the craziest hipsters you met in your whole life. But they always got the job done.”
Bumgardner said Stephens developed a reputation for not only cultivating local talent, but also spotting national bands on the rise.
“Jay has this uncanny knack to be on top of and in front of musical movements,” Bumgardner said. “Dave Matthews, Hootie & the Blowfish and Phish all played there. Years ago, I can remember seeing Dave Matthews. I remember getting calls at the paper from people saying, ‘You need to see these guys. They’re from Charlottesville, and they’re going to be big.’ They were big. It was a thing of beauty.”
Clay Howard, a local musician who is now the vice president of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship in Greensboro, opened for the Derek Trucks Band at the old Ziggy’s in 1997.
“Probably the best description of it that I’ve heard came from Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes,” Howard said. “He said, ‘When we showed up to play, it was like playing on your parents’ deck.’”
The old Ziggy’s operated under a mantra of “roots, rock, reggae” — a signifier carried over to its signage at the current location — but also occasionally booked hip-hop shows.
“I saw Public Enemy there,” Bumgardner recalled. “The Nation of Islam was out in full force. It was a surreal site to see the frat boys with their backwards baseball caps and the Nation guys with their bowties.”
Howard, who played at both venues, complimented the acoustics and staff at the club in its different incarnations.
“They had a great sound system,” he said. “Even if you’re a local band, you get treated well.”
The new Ziggy’s has continued its core value proposition of “roots, rock, reggae” with Donna the Buffalo and Peter Rowan booked on Thursday, while the Wailers and Tab Benoit are scheduled into January and February. The venue has broadened its booking into country, metal, hip-hop and ’80s glam-rock nostalgia acts.
“There was a faction that wanted to see Cinderella and the resurrected hair-metal bands, which business-wise is not a bad decision,” Bumgardner said. “There was another faction that wanted to see hip hop.
“There were too many cooks,” Bumgardner added. “Traditionally, if you look through the music business, if you have two or three people making decisions that’s going to cause chaos.”
Ziggy’s status as the only downtown venue that consistently provides a showcase for hip hop has caused some anxiety about whether fans of the genre will have a place to gather.
Eric Pegues, a local hip-hop promoter, told Triad City Beat that landlord Hank Perkins expressed to him that he has an aversion to hip hop shows.
Pegues said that after Stephens raised objections about his decision to bring Kevin Gates, a Louisiana hip-hop artist, to Ziggy’s in August, he and Perkins discussed the matter.
“Hank’s conversation with me was, ‘I don’t have no problem with the parties, as long as they keep it country, rock and reggae,’” Pegues said. “He kept specifically saying, ‘Reggae like the old Ziggy’s with Jay.’”
Pegues alleges Perkins’ comments made during a conversation about promoting parties at Status, a former Winston-Salem nightclub operated by Womack, were more explicit.
“Charles used to just do pop and disco at the club,” Pegues said. “We came across the idea of mine of doing urban parties with urban people. As soon as we started doing that, the owners of the building — Hank is the one I’m familiar with — he didn’t want to have dance parties — black parties — downtown in that building that Charles was leasing. His quote was, he didn’t want ‘hip-hop parties.’”
A representative of Perkins and Gerstmyer’s company, who spoke to Triad City Beat on condition of anonymity, responded in an emailed statement: “This sounds like a mischaracterization of the comment, ‘The venue shouldn’t be a country club, metal club, hip hop club, rock club, or polka club. The building needs to house a non-style specific live music venue for the people of Winston-Salem.’
“Live ‘roots rock and reggae’ was the goal and there have been all kinds of great shows there (from hip hop to metal), but consistently being late on rent and violating lease terms does not make that situation sustainable,” the representative added. “Downtown Winston-Salem, and the Entertainment District in particular, is for everyone.”
The representative of 9th Street Partners said the company is leaving its options open as to what will happen with the facility at Trade and 9th streets, but added that it’s fair to assume it will again function as a music venue. For his part, Womack said he is “looking at other options.”
Howard said the closing of Ziggy’s leaves a vacuum.
“It’s one of the mid-sized venues that will book local bands that play original music,” he said. “I think we need a mid-sized venue between Asheville and Chapel Hill. National acts stopping in your town tells people that you have a music scene.”