A few days after Cosmic Charlie’s opened its new home on National Avenue, co-owner Mark Evans pondered what the new space allowed him to do that the self-described “funky music club” didn’t in its previous digs in University Plaza.
“Everything, really,” said Evans, who, as head of the Louisville-based Vectortone booking agency, is the venue’s talent buyer. “Just being in a neighborhood that feels like it’s a community, where we can cater to our neighbors, was something that was really important to me. Also, we’re able to put in better production, better lighting. Really, it’s just about having a clean slate.”
Having operated out of University Plaza at the corner of Euclid and Woodland avenues since 2009, Cosmic Charlie’s had been housed in a space that had been home to numerous clubs over the decades, from the Library Lounge in the 1970s to the famed Lynagh’s Music Club in the ’90s and beyond. But when the venue’s lease came up for renewal this past summer, age, along with an antiquated design, began to reveal itself. The room had no windows, giving it a perpetually dark cast. The dimness hid a space that was largely worn out. It was dirty and dingy, and we won’t even talk about the bathrooms.
“The old room was just so cavernous and dark and depressing,” Evans said.
There is a just a lot more energy here instead of being in a dark old cave.
Mark Evans, Cosmic Charlie’s co-owner
So Evans and his partners went “shopping,” as he terms it. What they found was a spot in the warehouse block along National Avenue, one of the more recent Lexington neighborhoods experiencing a retail and residential renaissance. The specific space chosen was a warehouse, so an entire music venue had to be built from scratch. But what resulted was a room roughly comparable in space to the University Plaza spot, but with higher ceilings and large, garage-style doors with windows. Not only was Cosmic Charlie’s part of a new neighborhood, it was part of a neighborhood you could view from the inside.
“There is a just a lot more energy here instead of being in a dark old cave,” Evans said.
After a weeklong run of shows that included a DJ party and the new room’s first live music performances, the National Avenue reinvention of Cosmic Charlie’s will have its grand opening this weekend with a two night engagement by Born Cross Eyed, a Lexington band that has its own reason to party.
Born Cross Eyed is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a Grateful Dead tribute band. The last third of that history has been spent in Evans’ company. It found a regular performance stage at The Fishtank, a defunct venue opposite University Plaza that’s now home to the Best Friend bar. During the Fishtank days, Evans was working as a bartender. That’s when he struck up a friendship with Born Cross Eyed guitarist Lee Owen.
Jam bands are our roots, so it’s sort of perfect to celebrate our grand opening with Born Cross Eyed’s 25th anniversary.
Mark Evans, Cosmic Charlie’s co-owner
“Mark was a college kid who tended the bar back in the Fishtank days,” Owen said. “I was also part of Bluegrass Collective that played the Fishtank every Sunday night. So it’s been great to watch Mark grow and take to the business at Cosmic Charlie’s and really widen the scope of the place.”
The “scope” of the original Cosmic Charlie’s began with jam bands. Born Cross Eyed was one of the venue’s regular acts: Owen’s “Grateful Monday” shows, a Monday night Grateful Dead tribute performance with rotating personnel, became a staple of the club’s calendar. That might seem obvious since Cosmic Charlie’s and Born Cross Eyed both take their names from 1960s-era Dead songs. But Evans wants to expand the stylistic range of the acts playing the new venue that began during his later years at the old site.
“We work pretty heavily with jam bands,” Evans said. “Not that I dislike that, but I’d like build this new place for everyone. But jam bands are our roots, so it’s sort of perfect to celebrate our grand opening with Born Cross Eyed’s 25th anniversary (Lexington-based drummer Dino English, who tours with the nationally prominent Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra, will sit in both nights with Born Cross Eyed). It’s amazing for a tribute band to play for that long.”
For Owen, Born Cross Eyed grew out of a simple love of Grateful Dead music, its genre-jumping appeal and the community feel it created among fans.
“Within the Dead, there’s country, there’s jazz and there’s crazy psychedelic rock ’n’ roll,” Owen said. “There was a lot there to wrap your head around. Before long, friends come together that know these songs, and we had a band.
“We sort of did it as a novelty, to have fun. And since the Grateful Dead were very much open to improvisation, you had the freedom to make the music your own. The next thing you know, you’re on a stage and people are coming to your gigs. That’s an incredible thing. We’ve all been in lots of different bands and have played a lot of empty rooms. So I think one of the biggest reasons we’ve continued is just because people came out to hear this music. There really seems to be a market for it.”
Mark has been open enough to bring a lot of great music here. He’s a great guy who really wants to diversify.
Lee Owen, Born Cross Eyed guitar player
Owen remains devoted to jam-band music and bluegrass, but he became one of Evans’ more valued allies at Cosmic Charlie’s, serving several years as the club’s primary sound operator.
“Lee took a lot of pride in it,” Evans said. “He really cared about the room and tried to make it sound better. Even when he wasn’t working, he would go in there and do whatever he could to make it a better space. Since then, we’ve remained friends, and Born Cross Eyed has become a staple to the jam scene in Kentucky.”
Owen is equally complimentary of Evans’ work, not only in establishing Cosmic Charlie’s, but helping with the opening of another prime live music venue in Lexington, The Burl. Evans’ Vectortone agency books many of the bands playing there as well.
“I can sometimes get very deep in the tunnel vision of my hippie world and my bluegrass world,” Owen said. “But Mark has been open enough to bring a lot of great music here. He’s a great guy who really wants to diversify. With the type of acts he brings to The Burl and the type of acts he brings to Cosmic, … I mean, the ultimate winners are the people in Lexington.
“It’s tough to open a venue. It’s tough to keep one in business. It tough to understand not only what good music is but what people are going to pay to come out and see to keep a venue rolling. It’s great to working with someone who knows how to keep it rolling.”
If you go
What: Grand Opening featuring Born Cross Eyed
When: 10 p.m. Dec. 9 and 10
Where: Cosmic Charlie’s, 723 National Ave.
Admission: $10 each night
Here are some the shows already confirmed for the new Cosmic Charlie’s at 723 National Ave.:
Dec. 12 (and every Monday): Grateful Monday (9 p.m., $3)
Dec. 13: Shane Mauss (9 p.m., $12-$15)
Dec. 14: Kool Keith (9 p.m., $15)
Dec. 16: Owsley County, Emory Joseph (10 p.m., $10)
Dec. 31: Unknown Hinson (9 p.m., $20)
Jan. 20: Afroman (10 p.m., $15-$20)
Feb. 8: Rainbow Kitten Surprise (9 p.m., $12)
March 4: Agent Orange, Guttermouth, The Queers, The Atom Age (9 p.m., $18)
March 10: Ne-Hi (9 p.m., $8)
March 17: Mac Sabbath, Metalachi, Okilly Dokilly (9 p.m., $18-$20)