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Lucinda Williams.

Metro Santa Cruz Bars & Clubs 2003

[ Intro | Guide | Live Music | The Catalyst ]

The Cat and the Fiddling

With the Catalyst sale a done deal, the new owner and the vet booking agent talk about taking chances, home improvement and the return of local music

By Mike Connor

On Oct. 1, the Catalyst officially passed from its eccentric founder, Randall Kane. The sale marked the end of a 34-year journey of live music, and the beginning of ... well, another journey of live music.

I meet with new owner Paul Gerhardt--who managed the spy club in San Jose but has since moved to Santa Cruz--to discuss his plans for the historic SC club. As we sit in the Catalyst Atrium along with booking agent Gary Tighe, Tighe tells me how he worked his way up from a dishwasher at the club to booking shows in '78.

"You were 2 and I was booking the Doobie Brothers," says Tighe.

It's clear that this place has some history behind it, but I can't help but notice the conspicuous absence of certain decorative fixtures of the club that Kane has already removed, like the gigantic black cat head and the naked woman reclining on an animal pelt above the bar. The walls look strangely barren, with only odd rectangular markings where the paintings had been for years. Still, Kane left some gems, like the old maps of Paris, the clay mask exhibit and--sweetest of all--the guitar-playing Jesus above the entryway.

"We've heard criticism that we took down his artwork, but we didn't take anything down," says Tighe, eager to bring the rumor mill to a grinding halt. It's been churning out its usual fare of naysaying every since people got wind of the sale, with skeptics pre-emptively slamming the new owners for their supposed scheme to turn the Catalyst into spy 2, with more DJs and less live music.

"Nah," says Gerhardt dismissively, "we plan on continuing to do live music. All our partners are basically musicians in some way--Joel still plays in a band, Dave is a lawyer-guitarist. Bob is the lead singer of Triple Seven; they've played here at the Catalyst a few times. Even I play a little bit (upright bass)--but we just love live music. Even when we opened the Usual in San Jose, our goal was to be the mini-Catalyst of SJ."

Explaining how the purchase came about, Gerhardt says, "We've owned the Usual for the last eight years, and had this relationship with Gary booking. Three years ago when the Catalyst came up for sale, Randall had, like, three offers in that were for the full amount, in cash. But he ended up taking our offer. He really liked our package, and wanted to make sure that Gary and the live booking stayed in place, which we thought was the key to its success."

"Randall still owns the building; he still wants it to be successful," says Gerhardt. "He's been real helpful with whatever we've needed to get us going here. He's a great guy; it's been a real positive experience so far."

A glance at the Catalyst event calendar suggests Gerhardt isn't bluffing, with shows like Lucinda Williams, Hieroglyphics, Mondo Generator and Lonely Kings already booked. But why, then, are there so few live bands booked into spy--formerly known as the Usual and a SJ hub of live rock music?

Tighe points to the fact that the spy is licensed strictly as a nightclub. That means it's illegal to allow anyone under 21 into the club under any circumstances, which severely limits potential audiences of rock bands. The Catalyst, on the other hand, is licensed as a restaurant, and can therefore host all-ages and 16-and-over shows, provided that minors are not allowed in areas where alcohol is available. Booze has traditionally been sold in the Atrium during such shows, but they're experimenting with making liquor available on the balcony like they used to do at Palookaville. The aim is to please the drinkers and the kids who want to come see a show.

"We're not a babysitting service," says Tighe, explaining the 16-and-over shows with East Coast frankness. "We don't want 9-year-olds in the audience. But we occasionally do all-ages shows if it's right for the kids. And I think we're going to have one balcony open at the Hillary Duff show coming up on Nov. 19; she's selling like crazy. Seventy percent of the acts are underage acts nowadays, and a lot of bands insist on doing shows that are under 21."

In addition to the big live shows on weekends, the new owners will also be experimenting with the off-nights. They're already offering three nights of free pool for bar patrons on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and may install a few TVs for sports viewing. As far as fixing up the place goes, everyone will be relieved to know that they recognize the bathroom problem--also a chief concern of employees, all of whom were given the chance to fill out anonymous suggestion sheets when the new owners took over. Gerhardt and Tighe estimate that 90 percent of the staff is sticking it out, and that there's a general buzz of excitement for changes.

"We are fixing the bathrooms," assures Gerhardt. "Within the next month you'll see either obvious improvements or completion in the downstairs bathrooms."

They're also thinking about opening earlier for breakfast, reworking their menu and experimenting with dinner-and-a-show tickets for some of the earlier sit-down shows, giving priority seating to people who buy the package deal.

Perhaps most significantly, though, they're toying with the idea of bringing back dollar-nights and local music showcases.

"We had a very successful dollar-night years ago," says Tighe. "No Doubt played it, Sublime and the Reverend Horton Heat played it, Chris Isaak, Huey Lewis, the Goo Goo Dolls played it--we'd like to reintroduce that. And once it gets established, we can bring in that regional buzz band."

And with an ever-declining number of venues where local bands play regularly, a local showcase would undoubtedly help to fill a void in the SC music scene.

"The major acts that play for us, they bring in their own opening acts. It didn't used to be like that. So where can we put the local bands?" asks Tighe, "We ran our showcase night for three years in the backroom, and it was an artistic success, but we lost a little bit of money on each show," he says, explaining that it could work out if they moved it into the easier-to-staff Atrium.

They plan to keep Wally's Swing World going once a month, but are also interested in recruiting new bands to play the Friday happy hour, and come January, will be focusing on upcoming local bands with demo tapes.

"We're still open-ended right now, but we're just trying to add to what was already here," says Gerhardt. "As an overall approach, we want to get in here and work with everyone, including the community, and see what kind of suggestions we get without doing any drastic changes, just some subtle stuff over time. We want to keep it the Catalyst."

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From the October 22-29, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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