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On the Town

Live From Baltimore

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page WE05

THE NEWEST PLAYER on the regional concert scene, Rams Head Live (20 Market Place, Baltimore; 410-244-8854) holds about 1,600 patrons, making it bigger than the 9:30 club, the Birchmere or the Black Cat. B.B. King, Chris Isaak and George Clinton and P-Funk have already taken the massive stage, and blues legend Buddy Guy and Tower of Power are scheduled to appear in coming weeks. Among the amenities are five brushed-steel bars, two sit-down restaurant areas and more than 40 flat-screen televisions.

The only caveat? It's in Baltimore.

Baltimore's Rams Head Live is larger than other concert venues, with two levels and a third VIP area. Euge Groove, above, from Hagerstown plays to the crowd. The venue also includes multiple bars and TVs showing the concert, at left. (Photos Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

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Baltimore has some really cool places to see a band, including the Recher Theatre and the gritty little Ottobar, but many touring acts eschew Baltimore for larger, more established venues in the Washington area. With a capacity twice that of other Baltimore clubs, Rams Head Live hopes to change that, explains promotions manager and "talent buyer" Joe Szoko. "We aren't really competing [with the Birchmere or the 9:30 club]," he says. "Our mind-set is that Baltimore is a separate market from D.C."

Some bands that hit the Rams Head, including Guy and Clinton, are playing in smaller venues in Washington as well. Country singer Robert Earl Keen, who performed at the Black Tie & Boots inaugural gala, is playing Rams Head Live later this month while his tour skips the Washington suburbs altogether.

As you might have surmised, Rams Head Live is a sister venue to Annapolis's popular Rams Head Tavern concert venue. Over the past few years, owner Bill Muehlhauser and his son Kyle have steadily enlarged the Rams Head empire, opening a Rams Head Tavern in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and one in Savage, Md., plus the laidback Rams Head Roadhouse in Crownsville, Md., as well as an expansive new Fordham brewery in Dover, Del., to provide beer for all five locations. Muehlhauser says he spent six months looking for a venue in the Washington area before deciding on Baltimore's Power Plant Live complex last spring -- a virtual night life strip mall of popular chain restaurants and bars such as McFadden's, Howl at the Moon Cafe and the Have a Nice Day Cafe near the Inner Harbor. Thankfully, there's plenty of parking nearby.

Millions of dollars have been spent renovating this old brick building, adding a self-contained Rams Head Tavern restaurant, state-of-the-art speakers and lighting, and a mixing board that looks like a prop from "Star Wars." Rams Head Live opened Dec. 14 with a party featuring local boogie-woogie queen Deanna Bogart, a regular fixture at Rams Head in Annapolis.

"Our idea when we built this club was 'We'll book anything and everything,' " Szoko says. "We've got [alt-country singer] Neko Case coming in, we had Joe Cocker, we've got Gregg Allman, Lyle Lovett, Keller Williams [in coming weeks]. We'll do country, reggae, classic rock -- anything and everything, including indie rock."

Despite its size, the Rams Head doesn't look like it will battle the 9:30 club or the Recher for the latest hip-hop or alternative concerts. Most of the acts on its schedule, including Keen, bluesman Tommy Castro and college-rock favorites Fighting Gravity, would be a natural fit at the Birchmere or the State Theatre, which are half the size of Rams Head Live, while others are veterans of the 250-seat Rams Head in Annapolis.

"We don't want to take artists from Annapolis, but if it makes sense to have them here, we will," says Szoko, who books acts for both locations, and points to Bogart and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as bands that will be switching to Baltimore. "Some bands have outgrown Annapolis. . . . There have been bands we've been on the verge of booking in Annapolis, but because of the capacity and the space, we couldn't. Lyle Lovett played our Annapolis club a couple years ago and he loved it, but for a room that size, he would have had to play four nights" to sell as many tickets as he will at Rams Head Live.

Rams Head Live has a viewer-friendly layout similar to the 9:30 club or the old Bayou, with a high stage at one end of a cavernous room.

Upstairs, a balcony snakes around three sides, even hanging over the stage at one point to provide an outstanding bird's-eye view of the performers. Each level has multiple bars and food stations, including a restaurant on the second floor with weathered brick walls and handsome old black-and-white photographs, though it's somewhat hidden and occasionally closed for private parties. (There's a third level, too -- a skybox with fat leather sofas and carpets -- but the only way to see it is to rent it for the night or be a friend of the band.) Unless you're stuck behind a six-foot-tall guy wearing a cowboy hat, there's not a bad spot in the house. I spent a whole show wandering around the venue and taking in the concert from different vantage points, and found that I had little trouble getting a good view or great sound, whether I was standing at a bar, on the balcony or in the rear corner of the room.

But like the 9:30 club, the Rams Head doesn't offer many places to sit down and rest your feet. While there are a couple of dozen stools clustered around the large ground-floor bar, the best seats in the house are in a set of bleachers upstairs: While all-too-reminiscent of your high school gym, they're perfectly positioned for a view of center stage.

Szoko acknowledges the new venue may have to "change the mentality" of Rams Head regulars who are used to catching bands at the original venue, where all audience members sit around tables, supper-club style. "The zydeco acts we book in Annapolis, like the Iguanas, work in a seated room, but we get comments like 'Thanks for booking them, but we really wanted to dance.' " The lack of seating in Baltimore may be great for fans of the Iguanas or the legendary George Clinton and P-Funk, who recently kept a crowd dancing into the wee hours at the 9:30 club, but I wonder about the audiences for B.B. King, Buddy Guy or Joe Cocker, which tend to skew a bit older. How many of them are going to want to stand for more than two hours (when you include the opening act)? If you're given the choice between seeing Guy at the Birchmere or the Rams Head, a lack of seating may be a deciding factor.

Speaking of amenities, though, the Rams Head has quite a few.

Closed-circuit cameras beam all the onstage action to flat-screen televisions on walls and behind every bar, just in case you find yourself stuck in a mid-concert beer line. Similarly, sets of JBL speakers in the bathrooms ensure you won't miss a note.

Even if you're not catching a show, the street-level Rams Head Tavern is worth a visit. Its five trademark Fordham beers are available, along with a large menu of sandwiches and seafood. The happy hour -- common to all Rams Head Taverns -- is among the best I've seen, with $1.95 drafts Monday through Friday, as well as free wings, tacos or German sausages. For preconcert diners, though, a ticket stub is worth a 10 percent discount.

Ah, right. Tickets. The Rams Head has an interesting new ticketing system that works along the lines of supermarket UPC coders. When you buy a ticket online, you're given a unique bar code to print and bring with you. Once it's scanned at the door by a bouncer, that ticket number is invalidated, so you can't print a few and slip one to a friend.

(Learn from my mistakes: Concertgoers are free to move back and forth between the main room and the Tavern, but need to remember to get a hand stamp first. Otherwise, when you try to return, your invalidated ticket stub won't work and you'll have to buy another, or talk your way into the bouncers' good graces.) I know some readers will grouse about having to head to Baltimore to see a concert, but Rams Head Live is worth the trip, especially when an artist's Washington area dates are sold out (fans of Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely, consider yourselves warned).

© 2005 The Washington Post Company