As the number of intown live music venues dwindles -- one of the biggest losses being East Atlanta's Echo Lounge at the beginning of the year -- the pressure on some local clubs to absorb the rock audience might be showing.
It doesn't help that, at the same time the city is cracking down on code violations, club owners seem to be making avoidable mistakes.
A recent Friday night album release show by hip-hop group Psyche Origami at the Earl also was an occasion for a surprise visit by Atlanta fire marshal inspectors, who allowed the concert to continue only after some of the night's audience had been hustled out the door.
Rapper Charles Gilbert, aka Wyzstyk, of Psyche Origami says he was performing a song with opening act Cadillac Jones when an Earl manager jumped onstage, "yelled that everyone had to leave because the fire marshal was there," and cut the sound.
About 40 minutes later, after inspectors checked out the room, audience members were allowed back in -- but only 106 of them, to reflect the official (and some might say unusually low) capacity for the room, according to Gilbert.
He says he ended up playing to a crowd that looked at least two times smaller than the volume of people who were there only an hour earlier.
Having a show shut down for overcrowding "makes a great story for us," Gilbert says. "But it's a pain in the ass."
He adds: "The Earl might want to think about raising its capacity."
The bar's owner, John Searson, says he's planning to do just that.
Originally, the Earl's back room, like its front room, was intended for restaurant seating. But then Searson decided to pursue live music bookings instead -- apparently without seeking approval from the city for a new capacity more reflective of a music venue.
By contrast, the admittedly larger Echo Lounge, which did not serve food, was approved for crowds up to 450. (Then again, the fact that the Echo was illegally operating under a restaurant license led to its eventual closure.)
Searson says he doesn't believe the Earl has been singled out for scrutiny, even though city fire inspectors were back the following Friday night, Nov. 18, to closely monitor traffic in and out of the bar. That night, perplexed patrons were turned away at the door, despite there being a relatively thin crowd inside.
"I've got to live by the city's rules," Searson says. "It could have been a lot worse; they could have shut us down for the weekend."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that while the fire marshal has been visiting East Atlanta lately, it's nothing out of the ordinary.
A bartender at Lenny's, a couple of miles west on Memorial Drive, says that while fire inspectors have dropped by in recent months, the club has avoided any citations. He says Lenny's has a capacity of only 90.
Atlanta Fire Marshal H.B. Dodson confirms that his inspectors routinely make the rounds of nightclubs every few weeks.
"A lot of the overcrowding has traditionally been in Buckhead and Midtown, so we concentrate efforts there," Dodson says. "But we try to hit every nightspot in the city at least once a month."
As for obtaining approval for a higher capacity, Dodson says it comes down to a standard formula of square footage and the number of exits. On average, the formula requires 15 square feet for every seated customer and up to 3 square feet for every dancefloor patron.
"It's not like I just make it up off the top of my head," Dodson says.
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