Come original: Out of all the live music venues on the Suncoast, three have stood firm in their long-time support for original music, thanks to their owners

Published September 22, 2010

Howie and Dawn Hochberg of Cock & Bull
Cock & Bull Pub, 975 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota, the-cock-n-bull.com.

There’s no one in the area who has been in the original music game longer than the Cock & Bull. Owner Howie Hochberg started booking local bands seeking an outlet for their creativity way back in 1994 when he opened a coffee shop on Central Avenue in the Rosemary District, and soon found an accomplice in his future wife Dawn. The two upgraded to a bar on Main Street in 1997 and continued to book original acts, although the crack down on live music during that period often made it difficult, as they were frequently ticketed for violating the city’s newly instated noise ordinance laws. Fed up with the red tape, the Hochbergs moved operations to their current location on Cattlemen Road in 2001, and the industrial zoning location meant they were finally free from the sound restrictions that had been limiting them. Thus, the rustic beer hall we have all come to know and love was born.

Over the years, the Hochbergs have become far more than just a venue willing to hire original musicians, they have actually developed deep personal relationships with many local artists, as well as many of the touring acts just swinging through town. “We love the Sarasota music,” says Dawn. “Some of them are old enough to be our peers, but we call them our kids.” She says her “kids” are too numerous to list, but mentions Cassolettethe EquinesElysian Sex Drive and Sons of Hippies off the top of her head. “We’ve been doing this for about 15 years now and it’s definitely personal relationships,” she says. “That’s why this community works. You look around and all the people in the bands are pretty supportive of each other and they’re friends.” Howie chimes in: “Like Pete from Cassolette, his dad was coming and singing at my coffee shop just on a whim. It’s a family affair.”

“I think part of the reason there’s so much talent in this town is the people in this town have such emotion and creativity and they’re so open with it,” continues Dawn. “But it is nice to get a touring band and hear something different. There are bands that we’ve adopted like Andy Matchett and the Minks (from Orlando).” While C‘n’B has spent years establishing bonds with the locals, their rapport with out-of-towners has come about more recently. After years of actively courting national and regional acts, they have now developed a reputation as a welcome stop for bands on the road. “The word has gotten out that we’re willing to pay touring bands, so now they’re literally seeking us out,” says Dawn. “We’re willing to book bands’ extra nights so they get some extra money in their pocket. As long as it’s something that we personally believe in we’re willing to do it.”

A big reason musicians tend to find their way back to the Cock & Bull’s stage is actually the hospitality of the venue’s regulars. Local artists routinely open their houses for bands to crash at after their shows, and sometimes even lend their equipment to ensure the best performances possible. “There’s like a brotherhood,” Howie says of the kinship between musicians. “It’s like if you’re in the service and you meet somebody else that did a tour, you open up to them.” It’s acts of kindness like these that always make C‘n’B local artists’ first choice when putting together the scene’s biggest collaborative musical events like Noise Ordinance,Drummer’s Night and Art Brawl.

Luca Rizzi of Pastimes
Pastimes Pub, 6540 Superior Ave., Sarasota, 924-7782 or myspace.com/pastimespub.

Since taking over the space that formerly housed Octave four years ago, Pastimes has been the Gulf Gate area’s undisputed live music champion. After owner Luca Rizzi and his business partner Dennis Hooper left the local Gecko’s chain to open their own establishment, they realized that the special exception that came with their newly purchased property, which allowed them to skirt the county’s noise ordinance laws, meant that live music had to be part of the business model. Their original concept of daytime sports bar and nighttime music spot quickly morphed into the full-fledged music hub that is now Pastimes. And the two partners, along with Rizzi’s brother-in-law Jonathan Abrams, haven’t looked back since.

Unlike most local venues that have given up on original music or never tried it to begin with, the boys at Pastimes view it as their source of success. “We’ve just had better luck with original music,” says Rizzi. “There’s a lot of places that do covers. That’s a frustrating thing as a musician, not just in Sarasota, but anywhere you go. I think we’ve come a long way, and I think Sarasota has come a long way. There’s people that want to come to Sarasota to see shows, and that didn’t happen four or five years ago. I think it’s picked up in the last couple years. We were sitting around two Friday nights ago and there were four shows going on. That’s nuts — four original shows in Sarasota on one night. That’s ridiculous.”

While Rizzi doesn’t claim credit for what he sees as an uptick in original music, he does credit the rising popularity of local acts as being instrumental to Sarasota’s becoming a more attractive destination for touring bands. “What we do is we try to book local bands with touring bands. It gives everybody a shot,” he says. “When people come and see the local bands they’re going to see the person that goes on before them. And now they just got exposed to all these people, and then they pay that back when [the local bands] go on tour. There’s nothing better than that, if you go to a town and you don’t know a soul and you get to play for 50 or 60 people you’ve never seen before. That’s really selling your product. It’s cheaper than a booking agent.”

Judging by the number of band merch shirts that hang on Pastimes’ walls and the thick book filled with every concert flier that they’ve accumulated over the years, the system has worked quite well. But surprisingly, the biggest problem Rizzi has encountered has been finding enough local acts to book with prospective touring ones. “I could definitely book seven nights a week with bands that nobody’s heard of, no problem,” says Rizzi. “We get at least four or five emails a day from touring bands. But if I can’t find local bands to play with them there’s not going to be anybody here and it doesn’t help anybody.”

Although they’ve had to turn down numerous out-of-town acts due to lack of locals, there are still plenty of area musicians that greatly appreciate Pastimes support for original music. A prime example is The PsychoTropic Band, formerly Established Unknown, who have played countless shows for years around the Siesta Key Village with rare opportunities to give crowds a taste of their own sound. Pastimes has given the group a long-deserved chance to perform their music for the masses with aregular gig every Tuesday night. “Their deal is they can’t play their original music down there,” says Rizzi. “They’ve written all this music and that’s the part I want. I don’t want your covers.”

Renee Bennett of Ace’s
Ace’s Lounge, 4343 Palma Sola Blvd., Bradenton, 795-3886 or 4aceslounge.com.

The mother of Renee Bennett, owner of Ace’s Lounge in Bradenton, originally had a bar called The Rainbow back in the late 1970s just south of where the current Ace’s sits. After she sold that corner lot to 7-11 in the late ’80s, she decided to build a new bar behind it and call it by her nickname, “Ace.” Bennett and her sister helped their mother bring down the wood from an old barn they collapsed up in Tennessee, which still covers the interior of the venue to this day. A gamblin’ woman, “Ace” sold the bar numerous times over the next decade and a half, but it always managed to end up back in her hands, until the final deal five years ago when Renee and her sister bought out the final owner and pledged to keep their mother’s establishment afloat.

Then about three years ago, Bennett’s sister called and told her she was relieving her of the duties of everyday operations at the bar, and her primary responsibility would now be to book the bands. “I said, ‘What? Book the bands? I don’t know anything about booking bands,’” recalls Bennett, who has worked as a full-time independent dental technician for he past 20 years. She eventually embraced the role and dove head first into the world of booking agents, publicists and touring bands. “That’s been a challenge because I believe in having win-win opportunities and creating a good synergy with the bands and the venue and trying to make things work for everybody,” says Bennett. “Now they’re all coming to me. Their friends have played here. I don’t have enough days on the calendar to book everything.”

Bennett is serious about making sure the bands she brings in are taken care of. The only thing she asks is they put in their fair share of effort to bring out the crowds. “I don’t need to take all the money,” she says. “I just need for them to help me promote it, because we have no money to promote.” One thing that helps get the word out is Bennett’s constant support of local community radio stations like WMNF and WSLR. “I’m a huge music lover, a 30-year listener/sponsor with WMNF,” says Bennett. “I like music that’s not overplayed. I sat in here many nights and said I can’t listen to this band play that cover another night. It’s just not me, you know.”

It’s a good thing for the Suncoast that Bennett isn’t too keen on covers, because she now brings in more touring acts than any other venue in Manatee County, as well as a lot of the crowds they attract from Tampa and St. Pete. She has developed a relationship with The Parrot Inn next door to Ace’s and many people from across the Skyway make a weekend out of their musical Ace’s excursions. The Parrot also puts up all the bands she books, and the walk across the street after a night of jamming tends to be quite popular with touring acts. “I’ve built relationships with several booking agents that know I’m solid and that their artists can come through and have a nice place to play and a good stopping point.”

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