Cleveland Heights native Kathy Blackman didn’t study business in college. She never played a musical instrument.
But she’s been able to keep running — and relevant — for two decades, despite the changes in the music industry and in the Coventry Village neighborhood.
Blackman, a 1986 grad, is celebrating 20 years with a series of shows starting Sept. 11 and running through the end of the month. Though she’s excited for them all, there are a few that stand out.
“The weekend of our anniversary, the day we actually opened up, which was Sept. 22, that weekend we’re doing shows that (feature) local bands that are no longer bands anymore,” Blackman said. They are all reforming for the special shows. “We’ll pay tribute to Cleveland and the people who have not only supported us as patrons, but also their bands were part of our history.”
“That’s really our family, and the fact that so many people are actually flying in to do it is really cool to me.”
From a beloved neighborhood hangout to a celebrated concert venue
Blackman opened The Grog Shop in 1992 at the bar’s original location, 1765 Coventry Road. She originally had two partners in the business — Matt Mugridge and Sean Heineman.
They had all worked together at Club Isabella, a jazz venue in University Circle.
“I was waiting tables (at Club Isabella). I was just a year or two out of college. We just sort of saw an opportunity because the bar wasn’t really doing much and said, hey, let’s open a bar,” said Blackman, who studied French and journalism at the University of Wisconsin. “We had music but not every night. We started locally and slowly grew and started doing national acts. We were nothing like we are today.
"One of my partners, Matt, was really into bands, and he kick-started the passion for the music end of it, and it just become my job, career, life, whatever you want to call it."
One of the local bands that regularly played The Grog was The Chargers Street Gang. Lachlan MacKinnon, former guitarist for the band, said they played there several times in their career from 1997 to 2004 and again in 2009 for the concert venue’s annual Christmas show. Band members who moved to Texas and New York are flying in so they can reunite. Matt Fish, owner and former drummer for the band, is also taking the night off to play the show.
They will perform Sept. 21 with headliner Disengage and Roue, Cowslingers and Sheilbound.
“We agreed right away when (Blackman) asked. There have been a lot of great local bands and for her to ask us was an honor,” MacKinnon said. “No clubs last 20 years. It just doesn’t happen, especially in a town like Cleveland because every four or five years the scene sort of has a new group of people in it.”
Blackman said adapting to the evolving music industry and the neighborhood has been the biggest challenge.
“Getting people to come to the shows and constantly reinventing yourself so that you’re relevant and people care. There’s a lot of competition out there, and like the hipster music crowd may have lived here at one time but they don’t anymore. So we face the challenge of convincing people, who may be driving over from the west side, pulling in that clientele that once lived in the neighborhood and don’t anymore,” she said.
The Cleveland Heights resident, who now has two kids and says she doesn't make it to as many shows as she used to, says the most challenging part of her job is also the best.
"It's nice that it’s constantly changing," said Blackman, who appears to not have changed much herself. The tan and slender 44-year-old looks at least 10 years younger. Her hair was pulled back in messy pony tail and she wore capri pants with a faded army fatigue pattern. She rolled up the sleeves of her brown T-shirt and kicked off her flip-flops while sitting outside Coventry Yard, looking at the exterior of the business as she spoke about the best aspects of her job.
"It’s, you know, stressful to run a business, and staying in business is very difficult. But it’s nice to be able to make your own rules. I can wear whatever I want to work, come in whenever I want. The flexibility is great. I have two kids now, and I’ve been able to switch gears and still have a family but still have a job. And it’s fun. The people. The people that you’re constantly meeting and dealing and interacting with is fun. And the music."
Remaining relevant in the Cleveland music scene
The old Grog was an established, celebrated Cleveland concert venue featuring local, national and international acts, just like it does today. But it was also a neighborhood watering hole where people would come to just hang out and have a beer, even if there wasn’t a show scheduled. But when it moved in 2003 to its current location at 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Blackman said the Grog became more of a destination spot.
“We’ve definitely become more of a club than a bar. And I think we’re losing that identity because we’re doing bigger shows. And it’s not as intimate anymore. So that’s a challenge. We used to have people come in no matter what, but now if I don’t have a show no one is walking in the door,” she said. “I’d love to cultivate that regular crowd again. The people who just came and hung out, but I don’t know how to do it.”
Another challenge is getting people to come to the shows, though her anniversary lineup is doing quite well. The Guided by Voices show sold out right away. And she’s booked other national acts that would normally play at a larger venue then the Grog, which has a capacity of 400.
“The other (anniversary) nights was really me trying to get some bands that have gotten larger than our club, but have played here back in the day many times to come back and do a smaller club appearance, which is very hard to do,” she said.
Perhaps they agreed to play a smaller show because she’s helped them along the way.
“Kathy helped us get shows through booking agents and promoters who she became friends with in other cities,” MacKinnon said. “You hear bands tell stories of Kathy going above and beyond for people.”
And maybe it’s because bands know without The Grog Shop, they may have never made it big.
“Kathy has been at it 20 years, and in those 20 years there have been many bands that broke, you know, their careers started a The Grog Shop and now some of them are playing stadium concerts,” said Steve Presser, owner of , which also celebrated 20 years in business. “It’s pretty amazing that we have a club of that caliber right in our backyard.”
To see the full anniversary lineup and for more information about special events like preshow BBQs and free after parties at , visit The Grog Shop's website.
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