Fillmore Silver Spring makes splashy entrance on D.C.’s concert scene

On Thursday’s opening night at the Fillmore Silver Spring, it’ll be Mary J. Blige belting the big notes. But on a recent afternoon at the region’s newest nightspot, it’s all hammers thwacking and drills hissing and mops sloshing and paintbrushes glopping.

Workers scramble to install a sprawling hardwood dance floor as the sound system’s subwoofers are wedged into place. After nine years of red tape and legal battles, the 2,000 capacity venue is finally set to open where the old J.C. Penney department store once stood at 8656 Colesville Rd., just off Georgia Avenue.

(Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST) - Workers admire their handiwork during a lighting test of the stage.

But what happens to Washington’s greater nightlife ecosystem when the largest music hall of its kind opens shop in a rebounding suburb outside the city? Will the fans come out to fill it? And who are they?

“We want everybody,” says Stephanie Steele, the Fillmore Silver Spring’s general manager. “We’re doing as much as we can to make sure that there’s something going on here that appeals to everybody in this region.”

But for starters, the target audience appears to be older fans and their kids. With more than three dozen performances booked at the Fillmore through December, many are baby boomer-drawing acts (Cheap Trick, Levon Helm) and teen-friendly artists (Joe Jonas, Mac Miller), with some comedians sprinkled throughout (Adam Carolla, Lewis Black). Sandwiched between the venue’s grand opening with Blige and a Sept. 17 gig by Grammy winner John Legend, the venue will host a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.

Steele says the Fillmore — which is operated by national concert promotion behemoth Live Nation — isn’t focused on the 20-to-30-somethings who heavily populate the rest of Washington’s nightclub circuit. “It’s definitely an all ages venue,” she says.

It’s other things, too. It’s a brand with a trippy, hippie history and a 21st-century family focus. It’s a self-dubbed “economic engine,” aiming to draw patrons out to neighboring restaurants, but will offer an appetizer and entree menu of its own. Even the room is a paradox, simultaneously cavernous and cozy.

And it’s quite handsome. The sight lines to the stage are excellent, with a five-tiered horseshoe balcony that hovers high over the dance floor — not unlike the layout of Washington’s 9:30 Club.

But I.M.P., the Bethesda-based owner of the 9:30, was a vocal opponent of the Fillmore long before the new venue settled on a floor plan.

In 2007, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett abruptly killed a five-year negotiation with owners of the Alexandria-based Birchmere to open a second music hall at the former J.C. Penney site, saying that the talks were taking too long. (Representatives at the Birchmere declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Soon after, Leggett sealed a deal with Live Nation to develop the Fillmore with $4 million in state funds and another $4 million in county funds. With the county using tax dollars to subsidize a for-profit enterprise, criticism came from all directions. After requests to place its competing bid were ignored, I.M.P. filed suit against the state of Maryland in 2010 to try to block the Fillmore’s funding. It didn’t work, but the suit did surface the fact that the project actually cost taxpayers at least $11.2 million.

Now, Arich Berghammer, the Fillmore’s executive vice president of clubs and theaters for North America, hopes that the venue’s programming will serve the people of Silver Spring well enough to quash any bad vibes.

“If you do it right,” Berghammer says, “you become the fabric of the community.”

* * *

Will the Fillmore hurt other area nightclubs?

“I doubt I would lose too many shows directly to them,” says Dante Ferrando, owner of Washington’s Black Cat. “But I do worry that they’ll take an approach with, say, the 9:30 Club to compete head on. If 9:30 loses some shows, they have to fill their Friday night. Now I’m competing with them over a show I would have gotten. If I lose that show, then I’m competing with Rock & Roll Hotel over a show they would have gotten.”

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a trade publication tracking the concert industry, says that kind of domino effect could hit fans in the wallet.

“When you have competing promoters bidding for for the same talent, it’s about who’s going to pay the band the most money,” Bongiovanni says. “And that translates directly into higher ticket prices.”

Thomas Carter, owner of the State Theatre in Falls Church, says he’s always felt competition from the 9:30 and the Birchmere and welcomes the Fillmore into the mix. “When you’re up against a couple of 800-pound gorillas like the the 9:30 Club and now Live Nation, it can be a little tough,” he says. “[But] if we just stick to our guns and play our game of being the good independent alternative in the market, I think we’re okay.”

The State aims to expand from a capacity of 800 to 1,200 before the end of the year — something Carter says is not a response to the Fillmore’s opening.

Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the 9:30 Club, says the Fillmore’s demographic might not end up overlapping so much with the 9:30’s. “I thought they might be competition, which is okay,” Hurwitz says. “But they are clearly going after the soccer mom crowd and their children — people either too old or too young, to be venturing down to the big city. ”

And the Fillmore says it isn’t here to divide and conquer, anyway.

“We have not viewed this as competition,” Berghammer says. “There is a lot of incredible arts, music and entertainment that can be done. . . . And I really believe you’re going to see a wide swath of things coming up.”

He and Steele say that the programming will expand as the Fillmore gets its footing, hosting rock en Espanol groups, more comedy and children’s programming in the daytime. Berghammer says the venue might even book acts as nontraditional as self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne.

“I don’t consider it a nightclub,” Berghammer says. “We’re an entertainment complex.”

The venue also plans to rent itself out to local promoters and at a reduced rate to community groups as per an agreement with Montgomery County. The agreement requires Live Nation to provide 36 event slots a year at the reduced rate, but no community events have been booked as of yet.

* * *

The original Fillmore in San Francisco became the stuff of rock legend after promoter Bill Graham began hosting psychedelic rock acts in the 1960s — the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone. When Graham opened the Fillmore East in Manhattan in 1968, it became a veritable delivery room for dozens of classic live albums. Since then, Live Nation has turned the Fillmore into a branded chain of nightclubs, with locations operating in Denver, Detroit, Miami and Charlotte.

Like all the other Fillmores, the club’s trademark chandeliers drip from the ceiling of the Silver Spring hall. Concert posters from sister Fillmores hang behind the the venue’s three bars — one on the balcony level and two flanking the dance floor. Burgundy velvet curtains line the walls of the 23,000-square-foot space — and they’re functional, too. The curtains can seal off the balcony areas and large segments of the hall, enough to help make lesser-attended shows feel more intimate. “We can go from 200 to 2,000,” says Berghammer.

Most events will be general admission, with certain areas on the balcony level reserved for VIP ticket holders. Restrooms are on the fourth floor and in the basement and are accessible by stairs or elevator. Venue merchandise will be peddled in the lobby. Nearby public parking garages offer thousands of spaces — most of which are free after 6 p.m. — and the Fillmore says performances will end in time for patrons to catch the last Red Line trains leaving the neighboring Silver Spring Metro station.

Outside, Steele walks past the three box office windows and points out the art deco metalwork on the face of the building. It’s embellished with LED lights that will jump like equalizer bars on a stereo whenever a concert is taking place in the venue.

Even trippier is the venue’s basement VIP lounge. Decked out with black lights and couches that look like they were upholstered with old Bridget Riley paintings, it’s a wink to the venue’s psych-rock heritage.

But even if Live Nation owns the storied Fillmore brand, it’ll still have to forge its own reputation in Silver Spring.

“The Fillmore name was really magical in San Francisco and New York. I’m not sure how important it is in the District,” says Bongiovanni of Pollstar. “The real test will be if people enjoy going there or not — if the doormen are friendly, the acoustics are good and the beer is reasonably priced. . . . My guess is that it’s probably going to be okay. I don’t think the 9:30 Club is going away. And I think the Fillmore will be successful. But we’ll see.”

Read more about the Fillmore Silver Spring in Friday’s Weekend section.

 
Read what others are saying