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In the heart of Louisville, there is one particular stretch of downtown where the air is sparked by something fresh and new behind its rustic façades. Just south of all the fancy restaurants and cool bars on Fourth Street, two city blocks of cracked sidewalks and ancient storefronts are wedged between Broadway and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Halfway down those couple of blocks is Mercury Ballroom, the newest addition to Louisville’s musical landscape.
At the Ali end is The Seelbach, a legendary hotel that remains a palace of early 20th-century opulence, with ghost stories of Al Capone, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other icons of Prohibition rebellion. On the Broadway end of this stretch of Fourth Street is The Brown Hotel, a more subdued remnant of 19th-century aristocracy that leaves one longing for a bygone era.
Around the corner on Chestnut, there used to be a jazz club where Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Charles Mingus once played legendary sets. Now, there’s just a stale, washed-out, nearly empty strip club that soon will fade away to urban progress.
And then there’s The Louisville Palace Theater, with an old-fashioned marquee that comes alive, welcoming patrons into the ornate neon temple built to the Hollywood gods of cinema. Designed to look like a fantastical Italian village, the theater’s interior is adorned on all sides by gilded, hand-carved building fronts that recall the fair Verona of Romeo and Juliet. The ceiling above is painted a deep blue with sporadically sparkling inset lights recreating a crystal-clear night sky overhead.
Two doors down, at 611 South Fourth Street, your eyes will land in the shadow of The Palace on a sign-less storefront with an inset door off the sidewalk. Frosted on the rolling storefront glass are the letters “MB.” This is Mercury Ballroom. Opened in the spring of 2014, this midsized music venue has quickly become the cornerstone of a bustling and burgeoning Louisville music scene.
In the club’s relatively short lifespan, music legends like G. Love, Les Claypool (of Primus), Mike Gordon (of Phish), Nappy Roots, Psychedelic Furs, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic already have graced the stage.
Opened by House of Blues Entertainment LLC, Mercury Ballroom occupies the repurposed Wright-Taylor Building. It was constructed in 1928 as the home office of Wright-Taylor Distillery, which manufactured Old Charter Bourbon.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Wright & Taylor was a wholesale house operated by John J. Wright and Marion E. Taylor, who bought Old Charter Bourbon from its founders, Adam and Benjamin Chapeze. The Chapeze brothers had been distilling, aging and bottling the brand since 1874. Based in Bardstown, the brothers utilized their proximity to the L&N train line to distribute their bourbon more widely than most distilleries of the day were able to manage. This built the brand recognition so profoundly that it proved to be a logical purchase for Wright & Taylor sometime around 1900.
Inside Mercury Ballroom, the history of Wright & Taylor fills the space with a gritty juxtaposition that pits times gone by against the modern age.
The venue has no entryway, lobby or hallway. When you walk through the door, you’re already in the room. Ancient bourbon-soaked bricks are exposed through the walls at irregular intervals around the space. Old seats pulled from the regal Palace next door are fixed in the center balcony, and portraits of classic musicians such as Freddie Mercury, Lou Reed, Loretta Lynn and Kurt Cobain are painted directly on the walls by New Orleans artist Scott Guion. There’s a lot of glass and recessed neon, so the club seems to glow rather than light up. The rest of the area is pretty chic, with a heavy coat of modern minimalism.
On stage, there is a state-of-the-art sound system—a prototype designed by JBL Electronics—and a top-notch lighting rig. “We were able to bring in a light and sound package that is literally one of the best in the country in a venue this size,” says Matt Schwegman, talent buyer for Live Nation Entertainment (House of Blues’ parent company). “We have light directors come in and are saying, ‘We don’t even need to bring our lights in.’ Mercury Ballroom’s lighting system really shouldn’t be in a venue this size [general admission occupancy around 900 people]. It’s that good. We’re glad that it is—don’t get me wrong—because it makes for a really fantastic fan experience.”
The ballroom did open under a haze of doubt, being a corporate-run venue in a city that thrives on its local uniqueness. “My personal goal coming down here—knowing that we might be perceived as outsiders—we really wanted to make ourselves part of the music scene and part of the neighborhood, help out with local charity events and fundraisers,” Schwegman says. “We’ve really enjoyed not just being a part of the local music community, but the local business community as well. Partnering with radio stations, restaurants and businesses.”
Expanding outside its corporate bubble, Mercury Ballroom has hosted after-hours concerts for the Forecastle Festival, a locally run music festival. In addition, it’s hosted a Four Roses Derby event and has offered up quality space for local artists who just needed a stage to play.
When it comes to the future of Mercury Ballroom, Schwegman seems cautiously optimistic. “Right now, in 14 months, we’ve had a lot of success, but there’s always room to grow,” he says. “In the meantime, we get to throw some really cool concerts and make a lot of memories for people. I know it sounds corny, but that is what we do. People have that correlation, where they’re like: ‘In college I went to this place, and saw this guy,’ and they do make memory connections to venues like this.”