One Bottle Down: The End of an Era for the Bottletree Café

Posted March 29, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

A famed Birmingham music venue comes to the end of its journey

All photographs courtesy of J Matthew Cobb

Birmingham’s music scene doesn’t have the pizzazz of Nashville or the historical rumblings of college town Athens, Georgia (where R.E.M. and the B-52s were birthed), but it has proven itself to be the perfect incubator for small bands hungry for a breakout. Feed them with live, intimate shows at the Bottletree Café — one of the city’s ethereal music hall institutions — and the beast of fame is sure to grow.

Ask any critic in or outside of Birmingham about Bottletree and you’ll probably get the same honest answer. Most of the time, the venue is hard to describe. At its apex, the venue sported a kind of spontaneous rustic quality, over-saturated with pop culture memorabilia, album covers, vintage video game covers, dusty 45 rpm cylinders. The restrooms were coded with album covers acting as artistic time warp tiles. The stage usually looked like it had been transported straight from the galactic imaginations of Sun Ra. Young, ambitious indie bands, while on tour, would manage their way unto the Bottletree’s calendar, hoping to hone their gifts in the intimate venue with a maximum capacity of 250. And over the years, those bands would land on the lists of many music critics, from Paste to Rolling Stone, for being the musical acts to check out. Of all the varied music venues in town, Bottletree — the strange and quaint venue nestled near Birmingham’s Avondale — would somehow become the city’s favorite choice for music. On any given night, a different style of music would probably be represented, setting a trend that most music venues in town have tried to model. Throughout the week, you could hear some of the most underground alt-rock, indie rock, synthpop, hip-hop, electronica and indie soul. But at its core was their commitment to booking local acts, giving up-and-coming acts the opportunity to build a following and develop their stage presence.

Bottletree was where the six-piece country rock band Banditos, originally from Birmingham, built their following before making their move to Nashville. St. Paul and the Broken Bones also rose up the ladder of notoriety after playing sold-out gigs at the venue. One of their earliest stints was in August 2012 when they appeared on stage with a diverse league of rising talent in Birmingham’s music scene. The horn-carrying band led by soulful frontman Paul Janeway were spotlighted inside the music issue of B-Metro magazine alongside MackOne, FisherGreen and Coldplay-sounding band To Light a Fire (which later dissolved) and won the affection of the music-hungry audience with their originals (“Call Me”) and Otis Redding classics. By the time the Birmingham-based band returned to the quarters of Bottletree, fame was now chasing them. A rare two-day stint in 2013 focusing on tribute experiences to Otis Redding and Alabama soul native Wilson Pickett were sold-out in a matter of days.

Other local bands to make a splash at the Tree include Nashville bound India Ramey, Ocean Liner (a splinter group from To Light a Fire), soulful singer-songwriter Gabriel Tajeu, rap collective The Green Seed, indie folk rock band Delicate Cutters and the zydeco/jazz combo Chad Fisher Group.

But the venue has also netted a number of major acts. Critically-acclaimed rock band Japandroids returned to the venue with a ninty-minute free show in 2013 after cutting their first show short due to illness from Brian King the previous year. With a few huge albums now under their belt including, TV On The Radio — now summer music festival favorites —played the Tree back in 2009. Throwback soul singer Mayer Hawthorne brought his Mazda2-sponsored tour to the Tree back in October 2010 and was accompanied by a full band with horns and a number of powerful opening acts including Gordon Voidwell and The Heavy. Mexican singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo even stopped by the Tree in October 2012.

In 2008, fresh off from cutting their infamous “A-Punk” single, Vampire Weekend made a stop at the Tree.

Club bounce star Big Freedia brought his genderbending regimen and booty-shaking ruckus to the Tree twice (first in 2013, the other the following year), packing the house both times. And even though the New Orleans party maker usually draws black gay audiences, both nights were exceptionally diverse and exposed the magic of Birmingham’s changing and inclusive demographic.

When the Sidewalk Film Festival held its Saturday evening after party at Bottletree in August 2013, the outdoor parking lot along with every nook and cranny of the venue had turned into a glorious display of entertainment. Papa John’s Pizza served endless slices of pie, while bottomless brews delighted the crowd. EDM with incredible lasers pounced the concert stage indoors, creating the ultimate party experience for its filmmakers, VIP patrons and hundreds of volunteers.

’80s New Wave dance parties hosted by DJ/VJ crew Neon Electric also proved to be insatiable to the appetite of party lovers. An extra perk to their Friday shows was the live remote broadcast of their playlist to Birmingham Mountain Radio. With cool, colorful graphics outlining the stage’s backdrop and dizzying lasers added to the mix, dancers were literally glued to the floor. Their New Year’s Eve celebration last year was a sold out event.

When The Atlantic profiled the venue in 2012, Brian Teasley — a member of touring band Man or Astro-Man? — revealed the secret to the venue’s success. “You can book unfathomably great national bands, but if you don’t bolster and help sustain the music you have in your own backyard, then the whole aspect of community is taken out of the equation,” he said. The article continued by saying “that notion of community extends to the Bottletree providing space for local organizations to host benefit events, screening under-the-radar films passed over by theaters, and mounting exhibitions for local visual artists.”

The history of Bottletree is still a relatively short passage in the city’s patchwork of music venues. It opened in 2006 with sibling-partners Brad and Merrilee Challiss. Brian Teasley was also a partner in the new venture, and even married Merrilee in 2011. In 2014, Teasley walked away from the everyday routines of Bottletree’s booking affairs and focused on his band. Although Teasley moved on to other things outside Bottletree, he never forgot his roots. His loyalty to the venue would pop up when he occasionally booked the venue on Mondays, a usually dry night for entertainment, for his magical gaming console expeditions. Literally every gaming console except the Neo-Geo was on deck with 16-inch televisions hosting individual portals into 8-bit/16-bit/32-bit and popular generation consoles like the Atari, Sony PlayStation, Sega Genesis and N64. On the larger projector screen facing the stage, you could easily find endless tournaments of Super Mario Kart.

As time lapsed, the tight family affair structure changed and the rigorous pains of a crushing economy and plenty of competition from neighboring venues, such as Avondale Brewing Company, Parkside Cafe and the bustling business inside the Lakeview entertainment district, made it harder for Bottletree’s survival. Even the delicious vegan menu (also featuring thickly battered chicken tenders and a generous serving of sweet potato fries) coming from their connected kitchen and a Sunday brunch addition wasn’t enough to keep the Tree from murky, uncharted waters of fiscal danger.

Last week, the rumor mill went abuzz about a potential buyer for the building when their Instagram account featured a post that shocked us all. The venue’s management claimed their Instagram account was hacked, but the damage was done. The words “Bottletree has been sold” rocked the very foundation of the community, causing a social media firestorm full of rants and disappointment over the news.

The admin for the venue’s Facebook account tried to quell the troubling data, but it only brought more confusing to the matter. “Yes, we are in negotiations to sell…in the meantime, for goodness sake, take a deep breath, step away from the computer and the social media feeding frenzy. Realize that there is a great big world out there full of wondrous, important things.”

Hello people of Birmingham, here is what I will say to address the rumors. Someone, not us, posted on our Instagram…

Posted by Bottletree Cafe on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

That statement, made on behalf of the venue, did a poor and crappy job in giving comfort to hurting fans. I quickly rebuked the statement by calling it “terrible PR,” especially when the writer smeared Bottletree with the idea that it wasn’t exactly a wondrous, important thing. In the last couple of months, maybe the owners felt as if it wasn’t unimportant, that the people of this city had forgotten about that rustic portal into indie glory. They misjudged the reaction, but learned quickly that Birmingham hates to see its own history fade away. Like the historic Terminal — which landed on Gizmodo‘s list of 9 of the Most Beautiful Buildings We Ever Tore Down, the fate of Bottletree could be the same. And with a sale in the air, it could be rendered the same type of fate.

According to the Birmingham Business Journal, Nick Pihakis, Jr. of Fresh Hospitality revealed he had plans to purchase the property. Pihakis, who is affiliated with several restaurants and businesses around the city including the giant BBQ chain Jim ‘N Nicks, originally planned to keep Bottletree a music haven, according to reports from Weld Birmingham. What will become of the building no one actually knows, but what is for certain — it will not be what it once was.

Before Bottletree made its grand entrance to the music scene, the venue, which later evolved into a short-lived furniture store, was actually the home of a popular gay pub called Misconceptions. Owner Ronnie Ingram closed the doors of Misconceptions in June 1998, which concluded with a charity camp drag benefit for their softball sponsored team.

In the last days of Bottletree, rumors started to swirl that the venue wasn’t making any money. With nearby competition and a newly announced music hall started by Teasley named Saturn that’s slated to open later this year, the sole proprietor of Bottletree decided it was time to lay their baby to rest.

Travis Morgan, a local concert promoter and the organizer of Secret Stages, spoke to Weld Birmingham and revealed his optimism about the nearby Saturn opening but also fears a certain type of void will be left by Bottletree. “The problem that I see is the size of Bottletree is about half the size of Saturn,” he says. “So a lot of the bands that would’ve played Bottletree, and not be able to see it out, obviously they aren’t going to play somewhere as big as Saturn.”

“Every venue is a major ambassador for their given city,” Teasley said to The Atlantic in 2012. Those words are true. Every music venue in the Magic City gives the city its charm — from Southside’s Zydeco to the popular oasis of Iron City. But Bottletree was all ours.

Pictured from top to bottom:

  • Header picture / Interior of Bottletree
  • Outside of Bottletree at Sidewalk Moving Picture Film Festival, Aug. 24, 2013
  • Jane Paulway with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Aug 17, 2012
  • Mayer Hawthorne, Oct 23, 2010
  • Vintage video game night, Oct 10, 2012
  • Gabriel Tajeu, Mar 27, 2014


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About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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