A quiet opening for the Aquarius Music Hall, but the best is yet to come

by Ryan Snyder

Donna the Buffalo christens the Aquarius Music Hall as the venue’s first headliner. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

About a half-dozen people sat on the hardwood floor around the stage where Jukebox Riot, a potent trio who’s name alone conveys their intent better than any one-sheet could, played on Friday to a grand total of only a handful more than that. Their offerings included an unholy union of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to the tune of Sublime’s “What I Got” to go along with a rather honest cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” It was a scene that’s not unusual to find in any given dive around the Triad, but this particular show stuck out. Jukebox Riot and their dozen or so onlookers could have shared the stage together, but they all appeared even smaller within the expanse of the 25,000 square foot space of the second floor of downtown High Point’s Natale Building.

Not merely a Sunday night at Wahoo’s, but this curious scene signified the opening night at the Triad’s shiniest and newest music venue, the Aquarius Music Hall, the pet project of former Ziggy’s hand Thomas Canoy and his business partner Gabrielle Natale. Being a soft opening, the evening’s profile was kept at a minimum to allow for a live sound and lighting systems check before the venue’s first national act arrived the following evening, so the scant crowd was easily justifiable. Close to the end of Jukebox Riot’s set, the need for a preliminary run became apparent as the fire alarm triggered inexplicably, prompting a visit from the High Point Fire Department and resulting in a $100 false-alarm service fee. It’s entirely possible that the bar didn’t bring in that much the entire night.

Able to accommodate around 1,000 people, one could fit both the Blind Tiger and the Garage inside and still have room for a Green Street Club local weeknight showcase. To put it simply, the Aquarius is suddenly the largest music-dedicated venue between Asheville and Raleigh. While capacity wasn’t quite tested at the Aquarius’ big debut on Saturday, Donna the Buffalo ensured that not only would the sound system get an additional workout, but the bar take would be able to absorb any more unwelcome surprises that may come about. The sound of the cavernous room was nearly immaculate however, as the sheer vastness of the room enables crystal clear acoustics from any vantage point.

When a venue has this much potential to change the face of the Triad Music Scene, a kickoff by a band like Donna the Buffalo is a safe and logical bet. It’s tricky enough to build the kind of brand needed to sustain a live entertainment venue in one of the most volatile of commodities — artists and promoters can be a tricky bunch — so shooting big and missing early on can sink the cash flow quickly. That was the story for the Flying Anvil, who spent big on great talent outside of rotation until the well finally dried up. Greensboro caught incredible acts like Of Montreal and Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, but the lack of a forum for local talent undercut the momentum created by events like that. Canoy said he wants to do things differently, however, as indicated by the opening trifecta of Dohanna Station, Jukebox Riot and Wyndy Trail Travelers. In an interview before the venue opened, Canoy assured that this will be the norm.

There are a couple of ancillary effects that a successful Aquarius accomplishes for the area. It gives High Point a viable venue to compete with those of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, while creating a mini-touring circuit to foment local artists. If it sustains, such a rich variety of venues can only serve to deepen the area’s talent pool. It might take some time at the current pace however, as only one other national touring act is currently booked. Edwin McCain will play a New Year’s Eve show and while the name may not cause hungry music fans to jump from their seats in anticipation, it’s another safe bet to do well while word of this new location’s existence permeates music circles. Both Canoy and Natale are confident that new acts will follow soon and state that a deal to book Warren Haynes’ Southern-rock outfit Gov’t Mule in January is being finalized. Haynes performed with the Dead at the Greensboro Coliseum in April, but hasn’t brought any of his other projects to the Triad since a 2007 Mule show at the Millennium Center.

The onus now is on the fans to come out to the shows.

There won’t always be a Donna-inspired Herd like this weekend, but the potential for even greater things exists. Fans should get used to the shows where the room seems to swallow a crowd whole, but the reward is nights where the room doesn’t seem big enough.