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In a town full of Mormons and mega-churches and one of the largest Christian hip-hop movements in the country, Cole Massey couldn't find religion.
"I went to a bunch of churches around town, asking them what they offered for a 29-year-old single guy looking for some hard-core theology," Massey, co-founder of the Old Brickhouse Grill, Phoenix's dopest venue for national acts, told me by phone from his sister's house in rural Idaho. "Nobody really had anything."
I'm surprised -- not just that Massey, who opened the Brickhouse in late 2001, couldn't sate his spiritual needs in the nation's fifth largest city, but also that he made the decision to leave the business he'd poured all of his time and energy into for the last several years. Shortly before I spoke to him, I'd received an e-mail from him announcing his departure from the Brickhouse and his intention to "give my life to God and praise Him for sending His Son so we can be free."
Perhaps it was a spiritual intervention that compelled Massey to leave the Brickhouse, because, God knows, that place can use all the help it can get -- and the current owners have quite a challenge before them.
For the past few years, Massey and fellow Brickhouse co-founder Kevin Barlow operated the venue as if it had a legal occupancy of 665 people. That number would be correct if the venue wasn't also a restaurant with tables, chairs, and barriers to separate the underagers from the drinkers, but the Old Brickhouse Grill operates with a Class 12 liquor license, meaning it must make 60 percent of its revenue from food and 40 percent from liquor to be in compliance with the law -- and meaning the furniture and barriers are necessary. Consequently, the actual legal occupancy is 299 people.
The current owner, Randall Addison, looking to avoid issues that Massey and Barlow had with the city and liquor board, tells me he intends to enforce the 299-person limit, which means the volume of national acts coming through the Brickhouse is likely to decrease significantly. Addison, a real estate developer and New Orleans transplant, was just a patron of the Brickhouse until October of last year, when he, in his own words, "realized they had some growing pains" and invested a considerable amount of money in the business before taking it over completely in November.
Now, not quite half a year later, Massey has left the Brickhouse to pursue "freedom from the sin all around me," and Addison is doing his best to revitalize -- and possibly sell -- the Brickhouse, focusing more on its restaurant and art gallery facets, bringing it into complete compliance with the city and liquor board's requirements.
The Brickhouse is a large venue; at the shows I've witnessed where it was packed with 600-plus people, it felt full, but not fire-hazard full. But the primary issue with its occupancy level is not just the furniture, but also the wooden ceiling in the more than hundred-year-old building, which Addison tells me absolutely limits the number of patrons legally to no more than 299.
Three hundred bodies at a show is a comfortable number, but the Brickhouse was thriving by having promoters like TMC Presents, Stateside Presents, and Lucky Man Productions bringing national acts through that would draw more than 600. Now it's unlikely that you'll see events like Jimmy Eat World's "secret" CD release party happen there, as it did late last year. The Brickhouse will be more akin to Mesa's Hollywood Alley, which, while it hosts smaller-name national acts on occasion, is more suitable to the Valley's more popular local acts and events like the Blunt Club, which recently located to the Alley.
Addison's vision is eclectic; he wants to make the downtown Phoenix eatery, venue and gallery "an urban experience," he says. "It takes a lot of the senses into it -- a live art demonstration with the smell of hot wings, and a good group playing, you've got all the senses involved, it can't help but be an experience."
Addison is a businessman first and foremost, something the establishment lacked under Massey and Barlow's reign. "He doesn't know music," Massey told me. "He knows how to keep the doors open, and pay the bills. But he's humble enough to listen to people around him."
To that end, Addison has been assembling a crew that can manage the aspects of the business that he's not familiar with, like hiring Kim Larowe, the Mason Jar's longtime booker, to bring in the musical acts. Though Addison says he'd sell the business to the right buyer with the intention to continue the business's legacy, he also says he'd shut it down before he put the wrong person in there. Hopefully, the Brickhouse will successfully make the transition from a large-audience venue to an artier downtown version of Hollywood Alley. With the rash of venue closings over the past few years, the latest being the Mason Jar, there's certainly room for another smaller venue in the 'Nix, and Addison believes the increased revenue from the restaurant and art gallery facets of the business will compensate for the Brickhouse's lack of 600-plus-patron shows.