YBOR CITY — Steve Bird spreads his tools across a patio table. He has awnings to unbolt and paraphernalia to unpry, from the busted Bop City neon by the stage to the Simpsons "El Duffo o Muerte" mural in the courtyard. He'll uproot a fountain and dismantle a roof and attempt to keep his bar intact. The decades-old walls have to stay, but the bricks that pave the courtyard, yep, he's taking those, too.
"Some days, it's like, Why didn't I just quit?" he says, sipping ice water beneath a patio umbrella. "But I'm glad I'm doing it."
Saving the spirit of New World Brewery is worth the effort. Bird's Ybor City bar is shutting down after 22 years on Ybor City's Eighth Avenue, pushed out by a condo and retail development. After the venue's final concert Saturday, Bird will move all this stuff a few miles north to a new building just off Busch Boulevard.
For a generation of musicians, this one hurts. New World Brewery might not be the area's best live music venue — although some would argue it is — but it's probably the best local music venue, hosting more Tampa Bay artists of all stripes than just about anywhere else. It was where musicians hung out before and after gigs, commingling over craft beers or catching bands like My Morning Jacket or TV on the Radio before they hit it big.
That its intimate, tree-lined patio thrived for so long in Ybor City, a vodka-shot mecca where trends and tastes can kill clubs overnight, was a testament to the devotion of its patrons, who this week mourned its passing over Belgian beer and barbecue.
"It feels very much like an oasis," says Keith Ulrey, a musician, promoter and label owner who's played and staged countless shows at New World. "You don't feel like you're in the middle of Tampa's entertainment district. That's probably the main attraction to New World: You can go there and, despite its location, you can feel like you're being transported to another world."
Ybor City in 1995 really was another world. This was before Centro Ybor, before city officials began barricading Seventh Avenue to make the strip pedestrian-friendly. Long before Tampa's craft beer boom, Bird was a homebrewer, and he wanted to open a watering hole where he could tap a few garage ales.
"Everything I brewed was both undrinkable and perfect, depending on who you were talking to," he says.
The microbrews stopped a few years in, but around that time, musician Will Quinlan convinced Bird to let him put on a concert. New World didn't have a stage, just a patio where a singer could set up and play. Amplification was minimal, artists were eye-to-eye with fans, and if you didn't snag a spot up front, you might not have a decent view.
"It was like a house show or a practice space or totally DIY spot," says promoter Jack Spatafora. "Most of the bands didn't care at all."
With no barriers between performer and fan, the space felt personal, like a backyard or living room. Everyone was in the mix together.
"It helped us form what kind of a band we wanted to be, just feeling that crowd participation," says singer Matt Burke of Have Gun, Will Travel, who cited early shows there as some of the best the band's ever played. "Having a show where everybody is that into it, in that kind of setting, where there is no separation, I'm getting chills just thinking about it. You can't orchestrate that kind of thing. It's something that just happens. It's a pretty magical experience when it does."
New World hosted indie rock, Americana, punk, bluegrass, reggae, hip-hop, death metal, poetry. Animal Collective, Lucero and the Decemberists played there; so did the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin; so did comics Tig Notaro and Kyle Kinane. And opening almost every show was someone local.
New World was not immune to the problems that plagued other Ybor bars. A regular was fatally stabbed there while breaking up a fight in 2004. A fire after a Halloween show caused some water damage in an office. Nearby Eighth Avenue outposts like the Orpheum and Fuma Bella closed or relocated, leaving New World alone on Ybor's fringe.
But regulars never stopped coming. They held weddings there, baby showers, memorial services, live concerts every Christmas night. Even as more of Tampa's creative class migrated to Seminole Heights, New World kept drawing them back to Ybor.
"I parked there no matter where I was going," says WMNF-88.5 FM host Scott Imrich, who frequently DJ'ed at New World. "I would either have a beer and go on to whatever I was doing, or I would have a beer on my way back to see what was going on. I think it was like that for a whole generation of people."
For the time being, New World's closure will leave an empty space in the Tampa concert scene.
"There's not a comparable venue," Spatafora said.
Some shows will head to Crowbar, a larger club with a similar spirit a few blocks east. Others might move across the bay to Fubar or the Bends in St. Petersburg. And promoters will eventually book shows at Bird's new club next year.
Bird has to remind long-timers of that whenever they come up to tell him how much they'll miss his club. And who knows what it could become in the new, larger space? After all, he never set out to open an iconic local music venue; he just wanted a spot to sling suds. From that, New World evolved.
"It's going to be different, but as much the same as possible," he says. "It needs a lot of work, but we'll get there."
He's got his tools ready for the move. Plenty of patrons have already volunteered to help.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.