Known for art, St. Petersburg grows as live music destination

Sister Sledge will be among those playing Mahaffey’s New Year’s Eve disco bash.

Getty Images (2007)

Sister Sledge will be among those playing Mahaffey’s New Year’s Eve disco bash.

For the past two years, St. Petersburg has earned first place on a list of AmericanStyle magazine's top 25 U.S. arts destinations for mid-sized cities.

That distinction recognizes the city's vibrant arts community, which heretofore has touted the Chihuly, Dalí and other visual art venues, and not so much the performing arts. But there's more here than meets the eye.

Listen up: "Sleepy St. Pete" is becoming a vibrant live music scene.

Since taking the reins at the Mahaffey Theater, Bill Edwards and his team at Big 3 Entertainment have added a new wrinkle to live music in South Pinellas.

"It's interesting because everywhere we go, people are starting to see the new branding, and they are taking note of a more diverse lineup," said Joe Jiminez, manager of Big 3 Entertainment. "But we're only getting started.

"We're at 81 shows for the season," which doesn't include children's programming, said Jiminez. "We're pacing 70 percent ahead of last year for bookings, and we only started booking 63 days ago."

The lineup, which includes Marc Anthony and Cedric the Entertainer, also features a New Year's Eve disco bash with Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor and Maxine Nightingale.

Big 3 is also making inroads in the community by sponsoring several acts that benefit local nonprofit groups, including the recent grand reopening of the Manhattan Casino. It has created a buzz around town and has upped the ante for other venues as well.

"There's no doubt that he's (Edwards) changed the game," said Peter Hodgdon, manager of Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill.

"He's definitely putting the Mahaffey on the map," said Hodgdon, who added that there are acts in the lineup he's interested in seeing.

Hodgdon and other local businesses welcome the change.

"A more vibrant downtown is better for us, because we're on the edge."

He's not alone in that assessment.

"Bill (Edwards) is not afraid of taking a risk," said Rob Matson, co-owner of Total Production Services of Pinellas, which provides audio and staging equipment for major events at Vinoy and Straub Park and several venues in the region.

"The music scene in St. Petersburg is booming," he said, adding that there are other venues that are being under utilized.

"Demens Landing and Williams Park are great places to do shows."

But both venues have more dark nights than some would prefer.

On the other hand, Jannus Live patrons could argue that the music scene has been active for nearly 30 years (it opened Oct. 1, 1982).

"Everyone has a different aspect to offer," said Adam Simons, director of production and marketing at Jannus Live.

"I'm 27 years old, and I've been coming here since I was 11," he said. "There's no venue that puts together showcases with local artists like we do.

"What it comes down to is the experience — you're part of the experience" at Jannus Live, he said. "I don't want to go to a show where I'm seated. I understand that it depends on the demographics."

But while the city's demographic is trending younger, many people don't care for the Jannus format, new suites notwithstanding.

For years, three consecutive days of live music usually meant the Florida Orchestra was playing at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Carol Morsani Hall in Tampa.

But a new day is dawning as more venues offer live music to draw patrons (see box).

Jiminez and Big 3 Entertainment have lofty goals:

• Greater diversity in the acts they bring. "This is their theater, and we want residents to be able to afford it," he said.

• More shows and fewer dark nights.

• More bodies in the building. Big 3 is on pace to have 250,000 people in the building for the year.

• Less subsidy for the city to pay.

"Every day the entertainment community is believing more and more and familiarizing themselves with the Mahaffey, and that was not the case 90 or 63 days ago," said Jiminez.

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8874.

. Fast facts

Other venues offering live music

Ale and the Witch, 111 Second Ave. NE

Craftsman House, 2955 Central Ave.

Dave's Aqua Lounge, 10820 Gandy Blvd.

Emerald Bar, 550 Central Ave.

The Hideaway Cafe & Recording Studio, 1756 Central Ave.

The Local 662, 662 Central Ave.

Push Ultra Lounge, 128 Third St. S

Ruby's Elixir, 15 Third St.

State Theatre, 687 Central Ave.

The Venue, 2675 Ulmerton Road

Known for art, St. Petersburg grows as live music destination 11/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 4:56pm]

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