Next Tuesday will be the last night for Sugarhill Atlanta's premier destination for live soul and progressive urban music.
It's a stunning announcement but maybe not too surprising considering the obstacles the venue has faced since its inception.
Much of the onus for the club's closing lies with "Underground [Atlanta] mismanagement," according to co-owner Richard Dunn, who partnered with Jason Carter (Sol Fusion promoter), Freddy Luster (former co-owner of Yin Yang Café), and Rival Entertainment/Center Stage co-owners Josh Antenucci and Tom Cook to open the venue in September 2006.
When Sugarhill opened nearly three years ago, it was the only bright spot in the city's attempt to remake the touristy wasteland Underground Atlanta into a hub for Atlanta nightlife. City officials even went so far as to designate Underground as the only place within Atlanta city limits permitted to serve alcohol past the 2:30 a.m. pouring curfew instituted near the height of Buckhead's sprawling bar and party scene.
Yet, Underground still seemed to attract a motley crowd at best with its random mix of urban-oriented clubs (Motion, Frequency, the House).
"It's hard to get our clientele to cut through that environment," Dunn says, admitting that unless they booked big draws it was hard to pull the kind of consistent crowd necessary to sustain operations. "It basically became a destination spot."
Such was the case two Saturdays ago when indie soul heavyweight Eric Roberson headlined the monthly Harmony in Life showcase. By 10:30 p.m., a standing-room only crowd had packed Sugarhill's lower level and the balcony was overflowing.
But for a clientele of grown folk ranging in age from mid-20s to 30-something, such a night on the town was often more hassle than it was worth.
Most trips to Underground Atlanta require patrons to pay $3 for parking. Add to that the $2 cash-only fee required to enter Underground at 9 p.m. or later on weekends plus the long walk from parking garage to UA entrance to closest ATM (if you happen to have no cash on hand) back to UA entrance and the average working-class, live music fan is already spent before paying the cover and buying a couple of drinks at the bar.
"That $2 thing didn't help it," admits Dunn, referring to the aforementioned admission fee Underground started charging weekend revelers about a year ago. It boiled down to a nightlife tax put in place to capitalize on the swelling, college-aged crowds. But it only hurt business for Sugarhill, which caters to a different audience altogether.
While Dunn is "99 percent sure" that Tuesday night will be the last night of business for Sugarhill, he says the owners hope to find a new location for the venue "sooner than later." He plans to make the announcement of the closing official next week. That provokes a larger question where will Atlanta's progressive urban/soul scene migrate to next?
Dres the Beatnik just moved his hip-hop night to the venue in early 09 after severing ties with Apaché Cafe last year and trying out a short run at the Masquerade. And soul incubator Harmony in Life has blossomed into a local label since housing its popular monthlies at Sugarhill over the last two years.
On it's last scheduled night of operation Tues., May 5 Sugarhill will host a birthday bash for Atlanta soul singer Phillipia. This Saturday, May 2, the venue features ever-popular Philly soulster Bilal. Expect the house to be packed.
Bilal, Yaw. $20-$25. 9 p.m. Sat., May 2. Sugarhill, 50 Upper Alabama Street. 404-658-0068. www.sugarhillatl.com.
(2007 photo of Joi hosting Tuesday Jam at Sugarhill, courtesy Joeff Davis)
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