One of Raleigh’s biggest and oldest music venues is getting an expensive facelift from its new owners: Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter, has purchased The Ritz, a 2,000-plus capacity club just inside Raleigh’s beltline, with a long-term lease on the property. The Ritz will be owned and operated by House of Blues, a division of Live Nation, with the goal of presenting at least 80 concerts in the space annually. The move could bring a lot of new bands—and another touch of competition—to the market.
“It’s an unbelievable room with tons of heritage and history,” says Grant Lyman, the Charlotte-based Live Nation talent buyer who will book the room. “We want to get it back to the place where people want to come and play it.”
To achieve that goal, Live Nation has launched a massive overhaul of the room for an estimated $1 million. They’ve replaced the HVAC systems, remodeled the backstage dressing rooms and the bars and redecorated the interior. A prevailing complaint that has often plagued the venue—essentially, a tin warehouse in an industrial park—has been its lackluster sound. To address that, Lyman says, Live Nation’s in-house engineers are adding sound curtains and other acoustic enhancements. They’ll also build permanent sound and light rigs in the room, replacing the venue’s previously rented equipment with something customized to the space.
“I also book Fillmore Charlotte,” Lyman says, “and our goal is to get it to the level of Fillmore Charlotte.”
In October and November, artists who are skipping The Triangle in favor of a stop at Fillmore Charlotte include Slayer, Jeezy, Amon Amarth and Dillon Francis. Lyman says such acts might eventually be routed through both cities, but more important, the new Ritz will give Raleigh the opportunity to land such marquee names with more consistency.
The changes won’t mean a new name. Lyman says “The Ritz” has too much local history to be swapped now. It does, however, mean a slight downgrade in capacity. Previous owner Judy Powers had cited attendance figures of 2,400 to 2,500; for Lyman and Live Nation, the target is 2,000. That puts the remodeled Ritz directly between two nearby city-owned spaces—Memorial Auditorium, which seats 2,323 people, and Meymandi Concert Hall, which holds 1,747.
Jim Lavery is the general manager of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which houses both theaters. Though The Ritz isn’t in downtown Raleigh, he says, it will affect the city’s ability to book bands—and perhaps the capability of clubs like Cat’s Cradle and Lincoln Theatre to present shows in his spaces.
“We were hoping to get more of that business going forward, so we will have to get more aggressive on that end of things,” Lavery says. “We’ll see it through other promoters who use our spaces not being able to get hold of bands because Live Nation can make a better offer.”
That same reach could impact area clubs with capacities less than 1,000, including Lincoln Theatre, Cat’s Cradle and Haw River Ballroom. When the Led Zeppelin tribute act ZOSO plays in Charlotte next month, for instance, they’ll play the Fillmore. They’ve been a favorite at the Lincoln Theatre for more than a decade. (Neither Lincoln Theatre nor Cat’s Cradle returned calls by press time.)
Another unnamed city official says that Live Nation has been pursuing downtown Raleigh properties in search of a space suitable to build a venue the size of The Ritz for years, but nothing ever seemed ideal. The Ritz, the official said, seemed like a back-up solution. Lyman could not comment on that aspect of the revamped club, but he says Live Nation has long had its sights set on the Triangle for a venue of this size.
“Live Nation is always looking at every market to see if there is a certain size room size that is being underutilized, so that we can help fill in gaps,” says Lyman.
Opened in the ’70s as a disco, The Ritz evolved into a rock venue in the ’80s, bringing big bands to the city long before rooms like Lincoln Theatre opened. Its alumni range from Jay Z and Dave Matthews Band to Sonic Youth and Hootie & the Blowfish. Under the leadership of Powers, The Ritz fostered dual identities by serving not just as a rock club but also a Latin hotspot for Raleigh. She booked the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte there in 1985. “People told me I was crazy,” she said in a recent conference research paper written by UNC graduate student Amanda Black. “They said, ‘Who is going to go to a show like that?’”
But people did come to a show like that, and for the last three decades, The Ritz has persevered as a hub for Latin entertainment in the Triangle. In 2005, the room even renamed and rebranded itself as Disco Rodeo, a move meant to reflect Powers’ increased dependence upon Latino shows. In 2012, however, she renamed it again, returning to The Ritz.
“I just walked in one day and decided it was time for a change,” she told WNCN in 2012.
Lyman says that he hopes Latino shows continue to be part of The Ritz’s programming, adding that Live Nation has several employees that specialize in routing such bands through their nationwide network of venues. During her tenure at the club, Powers worked with several independent Latino promoters, relationships Lyman wants to maintain.
The Ritz becomes the first venue that Live Nation owns in the Triangle, though they also have contractual booking rights to Walnut Creek Amphitheatre and Red Hat Amphitheater. It is the 56th venue to be owned and operated by House of Blues Entertainment. To date, The Ritz only has four more shows on the books for 2014: The John Butler Trio on Nov. 15, Lecrae on Nov. 16, The 1975 on Nov. 30, and Chase Rice on Dec. 18. Other shows previously scheduled for The Ritz, including Jimmy Eat World and Phantogram, have been moved to other rooms.