My first visit to the new Inner Harbor club and music venue Baltimore Soundstage was inauspicious.
Though it had been open for a week, its bar was limping along without liqueurs or vermouth; only a few domestic beers — by the bottle — were on sale. The kitchen hadn't come online yet. And the place was so empty it echoed. It was about 1 a.m. and only a few inebriated stragglers remained from the Monday night party Noise in the Basement.
But the night wasn't a total bust, thanks to the two bartenders on duty. Justin Van Buren, the trucker-hat-wearing, mustachioed guy manning the bar on the concert side of the club, bantered with the lovably obnoxious customers who idled by the bar in a far more gracious way than most bartenders would have. He was also honest about the club's deficiencies this early on, and some nights later — at a different party — was fast and nimble-fingered while the bar was mobbed with people.
Service is one of Soundstage's best qualities. The crowds have so far been uneven, and the bar and kitchen still haven't become fully operational. Meanwhile, the best thing that can be said about the room is that it'd be a great place to throw a homecoming dance. As a music venue, the sightlines are solid and the stage ample, but it's not a game-changer. The charming, chill staff make up for some of that.
Open since Sept. 6, Soundstage isn't really a new venue. It used to house Iguana Cantina, and then Mist. The promoters and managers, who have also pulled double duty at Bourbon Street, which will close Sept. 30, have remained the same through the changes.
In September, Mist became Soundstage in a bid to host concerts that attract crowds in the 500-1,000 range. And though there's plenty of spillover from Mist — the old club's logo is still plastered all over the exterior; 92Q DJ Konan still hosts a Friday night party there — Soundstage is not strictly nightlife-driven.
In the past two weeks, there have been concerts by B-list bands and novelty acts — Edwin McCain has performed, and so has Stryper, a Christian metal band — and parties thrown by City Paper and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
As a venue, Soundstage differs from Rams Head Live in that it's one, long warehouse, as big as a high school gymnasium. Divided by a tenuous partition, there's a lounge area with leather couches and two bars on one side, and a dance floor and stage on the other.
But unlike Rams Head, you can't watch the show from different vantage points. Fans can either stand before the stage or, if it's a seated show, sit at the 10 or so high-top tables that are scattered around the dance-floor's perimeter.
As a place to watch a concert, Soundstage is satisfactory. The acoustics are good and the stage may even be bigger than Rams Head's. And it's high enough that the sightlines from the tables are good, even if there's a large crowd standing in front of the stage. But Rams Head still has more options for spectators and certainly more drinks, including beer on draft.
On nights when it hosts dance parties, Soundstage's advantage is that it can hold large crowds. But the problem with venues that are as big as gymnasiums is that they can be cacophonous. Because the partition is not wall-to-ceiling, whatever ruckus the DJ's making spills over into the lounge.
As a bar, Soundstage is still coming along. It does not yet have a cocktail menu or craft beers — general manager Sam Chaney said both are coming, and the club will carry 10 craft brands, including Dogfish, Brewer's Art, Kona Brewing and new Belgium Fat Tire.
A kitchen that serves panini and light bar fare is also in the works, pending approval from the Baltimore Health Department. Beers for now are in the $3-$5 range; vodka lemon drops are $7.
I've been to Soundstage three times now, and the night when it was at its best was during City Paper's party. Even though the place was jam-packed with people, the staff rolled with the punches, keeping the chaos under control and serving drinks quickly. Despite its noise and limited bar, that's just enough to make me want to give Soundstage another try.
Back story: Soundstage was first Iguana Cantina, which closed in 2006 amid concerns about underage drinking at its college nights, and then Mist, which also appealed to young crowds. Its first night as a music venue was Sept. 6, with a performance by the New Orleans funk band Big Sam's Funk Nation.
Parking: Limited to metered parking and parking garages around the Inner Harbor.
Signature drink: A cocktail menu is forthcoming; try the vodka lemon drops ($7).
Where: 124 Market Place, Baltimore
Contact: 410-244-0057; baltimoresoundstage.com
Open: On nights when there are dance parties — like Mondays and Fridays — or when there are concerts scheduled; see venue calendar for dates.
Price range: Beers are $3-$5; cocktails are likely to be under $10. Concerts are between $10 and $60.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times