It’s an odd thing to stand there watching a group of people you don’t know standing beside another group of people you largely don’t know yet all the while building this camaraderie based purely on the experience at hand. There’s no need to wax nostalgic here or send up a venue that doesn’t need me vouching for it. When Pitchfork, AV Club, and various other big name press outlets are giving you the “indie street cred,” as it were, you’re kind of set from go. That isn’t to say, however, that the cash flow is just rolling in, either. And that’s why the Bottletree Cafe in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, matters. I won’t do the staff there a disservice by saying it’s not about the money, but it’s certainly about a hell of a lot more than that. When you’re backending a performance with indie darlings Wye Oak with a show featuring the critically acclaimed black metal behemoths, Agalloch, you’re not simply proving your mettle to placate the masses. You’re showing your love for an artform that too often gets sidelined in the wake of pop culture and big name music labels.
Bottletree isn’t the only great venue in Birmingham, and it’s certainly not the only one Steel for Brains will cover. I just thought I’d start there, because so many of the shows we get here in Birmingham that are worth coming to, end up playing in this small 3rd avenue venue. It’s always fascinating, and I’ll admit I’ll grin like an idiot, when I meet someone right next to me who’s driven from Chicago or Houston or from even further not just for the band we’re about to see but for the experience of being at Bottletree. There isn’t a venue like it anywhere else, and there sure as hell isn’t a crowd like the Bottletree’s crowd anywhere else. You talk to every artist who’s played there - never mind the genre - and you’ll always get the same response. They love it because the Bottletree loves what it does. The staff get just as excited when the lights go down and there’s that abbreviated hush right before the feedback hits the amps and the smell of hops, coffee, and whatever else is cooking lilts over the crowd in those few seconds of dark.
Bottletree Cafe matters because it’s not an arena. It’s not a corporate shotgun wedding venue who basically shuttles artists in and out in hopes of making a buck. They’re a venue who struggles from week to week yet is nationally and critically acclaimed by artists and fans alike. We’ve all seen the headlining bands pack out the arenas, and we’ve all been exposed to the clusterfuck that can be a shithole of a venue. Then there’s the kinship that’s almost palpable when you walk in the doors of the Bottletree. Whether it’s Ted Leo, Man or Astro Man?, the Melvins, or even Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the venue doesn’t just physically fit these massive names within the confines of its walls to make a buck. It does it because it matters. It matters that nationally renowned artists are playing the same stage and being treated the same way as local artists right here in town. It matters because you have musicians running the venue itself and seeing it from the perspective that, at the end of the day, you just treat people right, you go with your gut, you find your passion, and you make a comfortable place not just for the artists you’re featuring but for the crowd who’s coming to see them as well.
I thought I’d take a moment this weekend and put the brakes on interviews and such and simply talk briefly about a place I love that’s not in Atlanta or Nashville or New York or Chicago. Nope. It’s right down the street, and it’s making it far less about the hype and more about the experience itself. That smell. The familiar faces. The weird shit on the walls. I’ve been to countless shows at Bottletree, both big and small, and I’ve yet to see someone utterly pissed off that they were there. It’s just that kind of place. These venues exist all over the country. They’re small. They’re not garish. But goddamn do they make you feel at home. Maybe that’s why many bands will pass up bigger venues just for the chance to play there. Maybe that’s why the Bottletree has weathered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. No matter what it is, the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama is here to stay. If you’ve yet to catch a show there, take the time and do it. I guarantee it won’t take five minutes, and you’ll feel like family. And that’s before the show even starts. It’s Bottletree. It’s Birmingham. It’s home, and it starts here.
Thanks to all my friends at Bottletree, especially Merrilee, who’s put up with countless emails and questions from me. Next weekend Steel for Brains will be posting an interview with her to gain insight into just what it takes to make the impossible possible in a world that’s hellbent on swallowing up the smaller venues. Thanks, as always, to the Birmingham Freepress for allowing no name writers like myself to do what we do and make our passions and dreams a reality. Birmingham isn’t just a town you stop in between Atlanta and Nashville anymore. It’s a hell of a lot more, and you’ll know why, readers. Just drop by the Bottletree.
Cheers. - D
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