The decidedly middle-aged crowd queuing up to the Assembly box office at 10th and K streets Tuesday night tossed conventional wisdom out of the window. For those who think older people won’t come downtown, or venture out midweek, evidence to the contrary was several bodies deep. A healthy audience of 40- and 50-somethings packed the club to see “American Idol” sensation Crystal Bowersox.
Though the club’s new executive managers, Brett Bair and Eric Rushing, were off enjoying the Kings game, the Bowersox concert was part of their plan to give Assembly a vibe makeover.
The pair quietly took control of the nightclub in October, succeeding Randy Paragary and his partner Kurt Spataro, who had envisioned the space as a valuable, much-needed midsized music venue. Paragary retains ownership of the property, which is connected to his KBar and Cafe Bernardo at the busy corner.
Bair and Rushing see Assembly in the same way Paragary and Spataro did, but also as a smaller, 500-seat complement to their thriving, 1,000-person-capacity Ace of Spades music venue at 1417 R St.
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“Eric and I had been looking for another venue, for a smaller room so we could put in developing acts,” Bair said. “We had been looking at really small venues, divey-type places, and then Assembly came up. It’s built out, it’s really nice, it’s got great, state-of-the-art sound equipment.”
It has all that because Paragary has been building and rebuilding the space, trying to find the right fit for it in the surrounding entertainment district.
It opened as the Cosmo Cabaret in September 2008, a $15 million joint effort with developer David Taylor and real-estate investors CIM Group, in conjunction with Paragary and California Musical Theatre.
The cabaret shared the ground floor of the Cosmopolitan building with Cafe Bernardo on K (formerly the Cosmo Cafe) and the KBar, all operated by the Paragary Restaurant Group (the nightclub Social occupied the building’s second floor). A year ago, CMT ended its involvement with the space after unsuccessfully producing chamber musicals there, and Paragary took it over himself.
After spending more than $300,000 this spring to remodel the 9,000-square-foot interior and add a bar, Paragary reopened the cabaret space in March as Assembly. The club can accommodate 240 people at tables or 500 general-admission standing customers. Above the bar, which bisects the room, are nine booths on two levels.
Despite the renovation, the venue never found its footing or created a notable identity. So Paragary reached out to Bair and Rushing, who he was already in business with on R Street as their landlord at Ace of Spades, and asked if they were interested.
“We’ve had that business relationship as landlord and I’ve watched them grow, and take what used to a be nightclub (called Empire) and turn it into a live-music venue with great success, even though it’s relatively a slow process,” Paragary said. “I know that they’re very good at it.”
What Bair and Rushing hope will make a difference, and more importantly, make Assembly work, is their musical experience and booking acumen, which Paragary readily admits he did not have.
“I naively took that on and we tried to book national touring acts,” Paragary said. “But it was a struggle for me to operate it.”
Paragary worked with promoter Scott Brill-Lehn and others to bring events to the space. While the venue did host acts such as The Fixx, Wang Chung and Leon Russell, as well as popular dance cover bands, it just didn’t book enough dates to make it viable.
“I just didn’t see a future in me being able to do the 20 dates a month that Ace of Spades gets,” Paragary said. “I don’t have that experience with booking agents or band management – that kind of thing.”
Bair agreed that filling the calendar would be key.
“At the end of the day it’s kind of about quantity,” he said. “The business wouldn’t make financial sense if we didn’t have 15 to 20 shows every month.”
Bair has nearly 20 years’ experience with rock bands, starting out managing acts such as Papa Roach and Hoobastank as a law school dropout. He and Rushing were promoting music in the ’90s through their Newscastle Productions. Rushing was later the main talent buyer and promoter for the Boardwalk from 2001 through 2011.
Rushing said their philosophy is to bring all types of musical genres and fans into the building.
“We want to have a business model more like a House of Blues where we have all different styles – it’s country music, it’s hip-hop acts, it’s Top 40 acts,” Rushing said. “It’s really about doing all different kinds of things and then cultivating the locals as well.”
In just one week in December, the venue will host party rocker Andrew W.K., followed by Northern California perennial Americana rockers The Mother Hips and Compton OG Rapper DJ Quik.
Ace of Spades alone will produce 160 shows this year, and Rushing said for many of those acts, people used to have to drive to San Francisco to see them.
“That was kind of the main focus and idea to be able to … bring those shows to Sacramento,” Rushing said. “Now having a smaller room, we can have something in the downtown area that’s not out in the suburbs. And as we become a metropolitan city and get a new arena, there’s all kinds of redevelopment that plays into it. There’s no void now really for live music venues in Sacramento.”
In order for there to be enough shows in the venue, Bair knows he and Rushing can’t do it all themselves. He expects to continue working with Brill-Lehn, who booked the Bowersox show through his SBL Entertainment, as well as Brian McKenna and his Abstract Entertainment company.
“Brian and Scott are established promoters themselves,” Bair said. “They have relationships with bands, agents – contacts they have (that) we don’t have. They’ve spent years cultivating those relationships. We more than welcome them into our room. It’s business. It’s better than the room being dark and the show happening somewhere else.”