Around Town

Setting the stage at Warehouse 535

by Christiaan Mader

After years without a marquis home for honky-tonking, Mark Falgout and co. bring the big stage back to town.

Since Grant Street Dance Hall’s tumble into the void, Lafayette has lacked a proper big room and stage to present household names that once kept our little music boom town on national tour routes. No doubt blessed with colorful and cantankerously hot spaces, music lovers have tended to pile into ad hoc venues to steam like a can of sardines on a hot tin roof. Artmosphere, The Blue Moon Saloon and The Feed N’ Seed, the cream of Lafayette’s standing-room venue crop, are undersized and under-equipped for anything but sweaty regional shows and the occasional glimpse of a national performer in an intimate setting. Sharing a sweat blanket with a favorite artist has its charms (I speak from much experience here) and keeps Lafayette’s music scene raucous and rambunctious, with acts tending to play to the party and keep fevers rising. But to the extent that the modern touring road show requires green rooms, loading docks, ample capacity, stages tall and wide, glass rattling PAs and a bar long enough to keep show goers efficiently lubricated, Lafayette has been in the lurch.

The conversation comes up often in my social circles. “Why did band X go to city Y instead of Lafayette?” Where band X means the classic ’80s punk/proto-Americana outfit of that name, the answer is: “They did come to Lafayette. In the 1980s when there was a venue that could hold them.” Ask your elders, these sorts of shows happened in town more often than you can imagine. The Replacements came here. Black Flag came here. The Band came here. Stevie Ray Vaughan came here. Medeski, Martin & Wood. Alex Chilton. 311 (a somewhat dubious honor as concerns this reporter).

Randy Leblanc and a worker admire the new stage.

Someone once told me that Outkast came here on the ATLiens tour. The story may be apocryphal but is plausible for Lafayette circa 1996. The District on Johnston Street is an impressive facility, but as Downtown and its contiguous neighborhoods become more attractive, walkable and accessible, the “old city” has become the bona fide entertainment center for the Hub City. And while AcA’s James Moncus Theater in the heart of Downtown has done a bang up job of keeping road shows classy and educational, there is just a certain type of traveling band that won’t come unless we build “it.” Thankfully, “it” as it happens, is currently under construction at 535 Garfield St. in Freetown, and will open this August as a multi-use event center complex called Warehouse 535.

Blue Moon owner/proprietor Mark Falgout and his wife Nicole LeBlanc, along with Grouse Room partner Matt Chiasson, are cutting beams, building platforms, filling in sidewalks, asphalting secure parking, commissioning art work, carving two acres of grassland and converting the 10,000-square-foot, former Hadacol warehouse into a mid-sized entertainment Mecca Lafayette.

The project is ambitious and a big departure from Falgout’s “back porch presents” model at the Moon, featuring a regular roundup of saloon bands and Americana. The facility will house three co-operative entities: The Rhum Room, a Hemingway’s Cuba bar loosely inspired on the Floridita club Papa frequented in Havana; a 600-capacity event space with a 15-by-22-feet stage, comfy green room, accessible loading dock and band patio; and a yet-to-be-leased restaurant portion.

I’d be remiss to hide my biased excitement in all of this. Playing in touring rock and roll bands for the past 10 years has highlighted to me Lafayette’s lack of an adequately electrified and sufficiently curatable mid-sized venue. We never asked much. Just a place where we could load in some lights, take command of the room for a day without worrying about walk up bar traffic, get a comfy sound check, and head around the corner to grab a bite before we played. The basic model in all of this were joints like Schubas in Chicago or The Black Cat in Washington D.C., which provide top notch production support, a Goldilocks-sized performance space, kick-ass sound systems and access to a decent meal.

Warehouse 535's complex oozes charm, even considering that as I am writing this it’s currently under heavy construction. A quick look at the stage, the back bar in the event room, the horseshoe bar in the Rhum Room, the back porch overlooking the future outdoor festival grounds and its handful of steal-away nooks and crannies demonstrate a heavy attention to detail. LeBlanc has taken on the project’s aesthetic direction, aiming to generate something that feels at once homey and timeless, but with enough contemporary touch to make a broad cross-section of humanity feel comfortable there. This place should be able to host a Steve Riley show on Friday with ample space for whirling dancers, a Jewish wedding on Saturday with plenty of room for a 300-person hora and clear everything out in time for a chili cook-off on Sunday.

For Rhum Room, the center piece is a colorful but ominous painting by Rocky Perkins that hangs above the horseshoe bar. Commissioned by LeBlanc and directed in collaboration with Perkins, it depicts a woman standing at the shoreline, dense clouds looming, oceans writhing, and the subject herself resolute and stoic. “The salt on her lips reminded her of a time when everything made sense,” LeBlanc wrote in poetic correspondence to Perkins.

The bar will serve as the day-to-day operation of the complex, open over local dive-type hours. Sandwiches by Ridge Road's gas station Cubano king José "Pepin" Sanchez will be served along with a selection of cocktails set to inspire Lafayette’s own booze-soaked literati.

The event space is vaulted and long, with a substantial stage and plenty of sound and climate insulation. If one thing can be said about this joint, it’s going to be the most air-conditioned venue in the parish. Falgout saw to that with air ducts the size of tree trunks hanging in rows to the back wall (and scattered around the facility I might add). In total, the ducts will supply climatized air from 30 tons of aggregate air conditioning. By opening, a sign reading “live music, cold as hell” is all it will take to draw in the customers by the truckload.

Current plans for the event space involve use for heavier weight national touring acts, event rentals, and in house special events like Aug. 22’s Latest Shipment, a showcase of unheard talent curated by Nue Moon Revue matron Caroline Helm. As it stands, that will be the first performance in the event space, an upcoming date for which Falgout et al are working around the clock to ready the rooms. To boot, by opening as an event space, it affords an all-ages, anything goes approach to rentals. Daytime theater performances, legion-sized angry yoga classes and your LARPing club's annual tavern brawl are all welcome here.

Long term, Warehouse 535’s restaurant portion will be leased out on a third party basis. Falgout, LeBlanc and Chiasson have no envie for life in the restaurant business, but hope to attract one that fits the vibe of the complex as time goes on.

“I want people to taste the salt air coming off the water,” Falgout says to me standing on the larval stage of his back deck. He glances over into the backyard while a construction crew rakes concrete into a sidewalk below. There’s no ocean out there, but I see what he means. Lafayette is not in short supply of airborne salinity. Falgout and LeBlanc, through recent travels to Cuba, are aiming to create a timelessness that provokes a calm amidst the unknown. Walking around the grounds in the middle of July, you realize what they’re after is turning a hot Louisiana summer night into transport to gentler climes. A mojito and fellowship in a handsome bar is sometimes all you need to feel like the world isn’t melting around you.

For now, keep an eye on Warehouse 535’s developments as we await Lafayette’s latest cathedral to music culture.