The Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly was, by all accounts, a legendary venue.
It was the birthplace of blues acts like Roomful of Blues, and the venue where Stevie Ray Vaughan once was an opening act rather than the headliner. It was home base for Big Joe Turner, Leon Russell, Johnny Copeland, guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley.
The only trouble is, as time passes, a place like The Knick can become more sentimental than profitable. “Legendary” can translate into “history lesson” — and you know how most kids respond to history lessons.
So it got a little quiet at The Knick for a few years. And then ownership changed hands. It became a nonprofit, changed its name to the Knickerbocker Music Center, and moved its focus to preserving its history while expanding access to music of all genres.
In other words, The Knick needed to be cool again if it was going to stay afloat.
“We found out that you really can’t live on blues bands,” said Mark Connolly, executive director, “because — it’s unfortunate, but it’s true — most of the people who love blues are older and they don’t drink as much and they just don’t spend as much.”
Connolly had a long career at Jamms Restaurant in Mystic and was in semi-retirement when he joined the leadership at The Knick.
When they first took over, Connolly said, the Knick was only open Friday and Saturday nights and booking acts that appealed to an older crowd.
No wonder people don’t talk about the Knickerbocker, he thought.
“So we said, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Connolly said. “That’s when we thought of open mic and we thought of this Wednesday dance night.”
That was one of the first moves: make sure the doors were open.
The Music Center hosts an ”Open Mike” on Tuesdays where anyone can step on stage. People have told jokes and performed hula dances (not at the same time). Teenagers can take the stage with their band and experience a
“Let’s Dance Wednesdays” feature swing dance lessons and bands. Thursdays are devoted to bringing in bands that the Knick couldn’t afford on a weekend but that broaden its client base - bands like Providence-based Deer Tick, which filled the place.
“Nobody thought of us as that kind of club that would have Deer Tick,” Connolly said. “… If people want to see a band, it doesn’t matter where they are, they’re going to come. It is good to have a name and have an image, which we are building now — but it really does come down to, ‘I want to see them, and this place I can get to, and I’m going to go.’”
Meanwhile, Connolly and crew also gave the Knick a makeover.
In addition to structural changes like the shape of the bar and spacing of the risers area, they looked at details including the color of the walls. They were white and made for a tough sales job when Connolly approached younger bands.
“It seemed like a gussied-up VFW Club,” he said with a laugh. “And you walked in, it was like a lot of tables and chairs was all you really saw.”
Glenn Kendzia is a local musician who grew up in Westerly and played the club with his band, Wild Sun. Kendzia and Connolly struck up a friendship, talking after Kendzia’s shows.
“There was always a question mark of, Why aren’t my friends coming to this place? Why aren’t people my age coming here?” said Kendzia, who has a degree in entertainment marketing from Emerson College. “So I started talking to him about some ideas I had, and started doing marketing for the club.”
Kendzia’s focus became the Tap Room, a barroom adjacent to the main club. There were five big-screen TVs, curtains over the windows, and it opened early in the morning.
“It wasn’t the impression we wanted to give,” Connolly said.
Kendzia referred to it as a hideaway dive bar.
“It was one of those places you would go to not be known where you are,” he said.
The TVs got removed, the curtains were pulled from the windows, and the decor changed. The room has a new sound system and a small stage.
“It’s more about that kind of visceral connection with music,” Kendzia said. “We only play records. So there’s a physical sense of, the record goes off, the bartender goes (over), flips the records, picks out something (new). People love it. No one’s doing it around here.”
A board on the wall announces, “Now playing” to let the clientele know what’s on vinyl at the moment.
“If there’s not records playing, then there’s a musician playing on stage,” Kendzia said. “There are no TVs, no artwork; there’s no real distraction. So people have conversations. The music’s never dominating the room, but it’s one of those balances. It’s like a house concert. … You can still mingle and talk, but the music is equally as important as everything else.”
Moving forward, the non-profit organization, which was formed in partnership with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, will participate in a multi-phase project to become a center for music education along with the United Theatre, which will be renovated and reopened.
“I love it here,” said Kendzia, who’s lived in Boston and California before moving back. “I just missed Westerly. … It’s become a big nightlife destination for people of all ages.”
The Knickerbocker Music Center is located at 35 Railroad Ave, Westerly, RI. For more information, call 401-315-5070 or visit knickmusic.com.