The owners of The Stephen Talkhouse say they will sell their new club to denizens of the heart of the Art Deco district by providing nothing more than "a bar with music." Good luck. But the music this joint displays won't come from a jukebox or a going-nowhere bar band. Instead Stephen Talkhouse plans to showcase nationally recognized blues, zydeco, and rock acts in relatively intimate surroundings.
The Talkhouse is not the first of its kind -- it's the second. The original Talkhouse, located in the Hamptons, New York, is known for its presentation of high-quality music in a friendly, informal setting, and its success has already lit a buzz in South Florida cultural circles. Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Marshall Crenshaw, Taj Mahal, Los Lobos, Albert King, and John Mayall are just a few of the talented musicians who have played the Hamptons Talkhouse. And northerners know that if they take their eyes off the stage for a moment, they're likely to recognize other members of the audience as well: Billy Joel, Kathleen Turner, Paul Simon, and Ellen Barkin bend their famous elbows there. (Incidentally, the club was named for another New York celeb: Stephen Talkhouse, the last chief of the Montauk Indians.)
For the past five years the Talkhouse has been owned and managed by a group of "family and friends," including partners Loren Gallo, Jim Frain, and Peter Honerkamp. For the past three years they have been looking into opening a second Talkhouse in the hot spot called South Beach. "It made sense," says Gallo. "The Hamptons is a summer tourist place -- it shuts down in the winter, just when Miami Beach is in full swing. We saw an opportunity to expand our operations and offer the best live music year round."
It wasn't until last March that the group finally acquired a home for the second Talkhouse, a 1926 Art Deco building at 616 Collins Avenue. The new owners repainted the edifice and ripped out the insides, creating a simple, spacious interior with a palette of cheerful colors: light gray, green, purple, red. If you're looking for glitz and glamour, look somewhere else. The Talkhouse is a roadhouse that goes all out for one thing only: music.
Within the rectangular space of the club, the stage is obviously the center of attention, occupying the center third of one long wall. Curving around it in a C shape are tables, bench seating, and a dry bar. The 62-foot wood bar -- possibly the longest in Miami Beach -- runs the length of the opposite wall. It's a cozy area, hidden beneath an overhanging balcony used for light and sound control. Doors at the far end of the room lead to a quiet courtyard that will be landscaped with trees and park benches "to provide an alternative environment where people can relax and take a break from being indoors," Jim Frain explains.
Because of the Talkhouse's size (it holds only a couple hundred people), the on-stage action can be seen easily from all areas of the club. So as not to obstruct the view, the sound system has been suspended above the stage, including one speaker weighing 400 pounds (don't stand under that one). This "bar with music" also has a kitchen and plans to serve a selection of typical upscale salads, appetizers, and sandwiches.
Opening a new club is always a risky proposition -- and Miami Beach has seen more than its share of them come and go. Talkhouse owners believe they have the management experience -- and the money -- to make their gamble pay off. "We're not starting from scratch," says Gallo. "We have a concept that's proven to be successful. We plan to be here a long time." Even so he's more than willing to admit that South Beach is a long way from New York. "Up north, we can get acts already in New York City to make a stopover in the Hamptons. Here we have to book groups directly to our club. There aren't many venues for such acts in Florida." The partners hope their experience in the music industry, the Talkhouse reputation, and band loyalty will enable them to land many of the same groups at both locations.
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One might see the Talkhouse as Miami Beach's answer to the Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale and Tobacco Road near Brickell. But before it achieves the standing of those venerable institutions, it'll have to prove it can attract as devoted a following. The scene in South Beach is not the same as that in the Hamptons; celebs are not likely to be dropping by most evenings to sing a few covers with the ol' gang. As this Talkhouse will doubtless have a lower profile than the one in New York, the owners may find they'll have to lower their ticket prices, too. A night at the Hamptons Talkhouse can run as much as $50 per person; it's doubtful a bar here -- even one showcasing a name act -- could command that much.
Some might also question the wisdom of opening during the summer, which is traditionally the slow season. The partners, however, see this time as an opportunity to experiment and begin building a following among area residents. "We feel any time of year is okay to open," Gallo says. "There's a city of two million here -- if people are interested, they'll come out."
And what about the competition? Mark Weiser, long-time talent coordinator for Tobacco Road, sees no threat from the newcomers. "It will be stimulating for people to have this kind of music in more than one location. I'd like to think the club will succeed," Weiser says. "Whenever someone comes into the area with a similar format, they're perceived as competition, but actually these clubs help to increase the number of people interested in the music. They'll bring in new customers we normally wouldn't get, and the whole scene will be bigger and better."
The official opening for the Talkhouse will feature Loup Garou, beginning this Friday. The six-member band has been heating up the New York scene for a number of years with its funky zydeco. Veteran rock musician Dave Mason will bring his new band to the Talkhouse on July 31 and August 1. The club will also provide opportunities for local bands to show their stuff, and a weekly open jam session is planned. Consider checking it out. You never know who might show up.