Wrecking Ball reckoning
The Masquerade hosts one final blowout before heading west
On a sun-baked Thursday afternoon on the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, an endless procession of dog walkers, bicyclists, young couples, and joggers in gym shorts stroll along the North Avenue bridge overlooking the Masquerade. Below, in the midst of a formerly derelict railroad corridor now defined by high-rise luxury apartments, upscale Ponce City Market, and the new Historic Fourth Ward Park, the music institution that started as a mill for excelsior packing material more than a century ago stands quietly. It’s the calm before the storm. Beefy men in cargo shorts and black “Security” T-shirts and young women bartenders in black denim cut-offs enter through the enclosed breezeway, preparing for their evening shifts. The main event for the night: Cobb County-based hip-hop crew Larry League headlining a showcase of local talent including Danger Incorporated, Swaghollywood, Mahalo, and more.
It’s business as usual for the Masquerade on this day, but changes are afoot. In the back, hidden behind the building’s black walls, rock foundation, and neon purple logo, the former outdoor Masquerade Music Park is now a massive dirt hole in the ground. Backhoes and bulldozers are scattered throughout the scene, like guard dogs patrolling the chain-linked fences that surround the property. In 2005, now-deceased former owner Dean Riopelle sold the property for $4 million. And now redevelopment is coming home to roost. Soon this will be the site of a three-story parking deck and a five-story multi-family apartment building offering 228 units. As a designated landmark the building can’t be torn down, but the second-floor midsize concert hall, Heaven, the smaller club performance space below it, Hell, and the adjacent Purgatory will be converted into restaurants and boutique shops in a complex rebranded as North + Line.
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The Masquerade’s hardscrabble character is intrinsically linked to the building’s decaying façade. But after more than a century, the crumbling property no longer fits in with the upscale vibe that has transformed the neighborhood. The Masquerade is moving on, adopting another abandoned industrial facility on Atlanta’s Westside. With the move comes an opportunity to reboot the club’s identity, its legacy, and its place as a vital music venue amid the changing urban landscape.
“We’re looking forward to moving straight from this place into something new,” says Greg Green, Masquerade’s vice president and talent buyer for the club and the festival.
The new location, a former warehouse, possesses a different character. Its brick, aluminum, and concrete frame creates a much different backdrop than the late 19th century stone walls, heavily trodden wood floors, and deep black walls that create the Masquerade’s gothic rock ’n’ roll vibe.
“It’s a much different place,” Green says of the new space. “How it will look and what those opportunities create remains to be seen.”The Masquerade is one among many long-standing cultural institutions being forced out in a sweeping wave of intown redevelopment. In 2015, Thunderbox Rehearsal Studios and Dad’s Garage Theatre were uprooted to make room for mixed-use developments. In 2016, Doppler Studios, where everyone from Aretha Franklin to Aerosmith recorded, suffered the same fate.
Rather than fade away into memory, the Masquerade is starting a new chapter. But not before one final blowout puts a fine point on the club’s 27-year run at 695 North Avenue.
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The Wrecking Ball ATL takes over the Masquerade and the adjacent Historic Fourth Ward Park Aug. 13-14 for two days of performances by nearly 70 punk, hardcore, emo, and alternative rock bands, including Dinosaur Jr., the Julie Ruin, Quicksand, L7, Deerhunter, American Nightmare, Drive Like Jehu, Gorilla Biscuits, and Diet Cig.
“This is our going-away present to the neighborhood,” Green says. “It’s the last big party we’re putting on here at our current location.”
Green and fellow Wrecking Ball talent buyer Elena de Soto partnered with Masquerade Inc. President Brian McNamara and co-founder Robert Oaks to found the festival. This is the second installment of the Wrecking Ball ATL. It’s a strong return for a two-day festival that drew 4,000 attendees per day when it was hatched in 2015 to celebrate the Masquerade’s 25th anniversary. This year, they expect to see between 5,500 and 6,000 people descend upon the Masquerade each day.
The name, the Wrecking Ball ATL, and this year’s unofficial mascot, a cartoon drawing of the grim reaper throwing devil horns in the air, seem tailor-made as ironic nods to the changes that are displacing the Masquerade. But the underlying symbolism is purely coincidental.
“When we started batting around ideas for what to call this thing, we didn’t want to use the word ‘festival,’” Green says. “We were playing around with other words that could mean the same thing, like ‘ball.’ Somehow Miley Cyrus’ song came into the conversation ... .”
“It just came at us like a wrecking ball,” de Soto says.
In an office underneath the club’s box office, white walls are lined with boxes, show fliers, and posters from throughout the years. A quick glance at the room’s memorabilia sparks a revelation: The Masquerade doesn’t receive the credit it deserves for the diversity of musical voices it has hosted over nearly 30 years. A long list of influential acts including Nirvana, Buddy Guy, Radiohead, Björk, Method Man, the Smashing Pumpkins, Flying Lotus, the Ramones, Fugazi, Goodie Mob, Waylon Jennings, Lydia Lunch, Run the Jewels, Bad Brains, Fela Kuti, and countless others have played the Masquerade’s three rooms.
“If you look around, it can be difficult to find an artist or a group that hasn’t played the Masquerade on their way up — or sometimes on their way down,” Green says.
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The Masquerade’s image as a gritty rock club precedes it. Any club in operation as long as the Masquerade will develop a reputation as storied as its legacy. There’s also a long-running perception that the venue’s staff is rude, the security roughs up patrons without provocation, and the club harbors a seedy element.
“A lot of the reputation is unfounded,” Green says. “What you’re describing hasn’t existed for a long time. It goes back more than 10 years ago to a time when things were much different.”
Much of the reputation is a side effect of booking all-ages shows, which facilitates youthful indiscretion, romanticized excess, and exaggerated stories. Local musician Russell Owens recalls “the time the manager spoke to me, as a child, and threatened me with arrest for sneaking a bottle of wine into the green room, then said he would just take the bottle and not call the cops.”
Atlanta native Matt Monroe remembers seeing “an ungodly amount of punk and metal shows there in the ’90s. ... When it was packed and the crowd was bumping, the floor BOUNCED. It felt like a trampoline. One of the first times I was there, to see Fugazi, I was terrified, thinking that we were going to break through and fall from Heaven into Hell below. I quickly decided that if that happened, I would die happy. I shook it off and gave my buddy a lift up to crowd surf.”
Standing in Heaven and fearing that the club’s grimy hardwood floor might collapse under the weight of a moshing frenzy is a rite of passage for Atlanta’s live music lovers. There are many more stories like these of people recalling incredible shows they’ve seen there — each bearing the hallmark of a premier performance venue on a national touring circuit. But the club remains the stuff of gritty legend.
The Masquerade building was never designed to be a music venue. One 1999 show featuring Fugazi embodied how the challenges of playing in such an old building, where the sound from adjacent shows tended to blend together, came to define its character. In December 1999, the Washington, D.C., post-hardcore icons took the stage. The group eased into the spacious guitar interplay of the song “Closed Captioned.” A sweat-soaked capacity crowd swayed to the music. But between the song’s quiet, austere moments and subtle textures, the overpowering throb of techno bass rose from Hell below. It was comedic and impossible to ignore, so much so that Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty jokingly began playing along to the pulsating rhythm of the rave music. It was a singular dilemma, unique to Atlanta that most locals laughed off or bitterly complained about. But people still came back to the venue, time and time again.
In 2007, promoter Tim Sweetwood took a job at the Masquerade and saw an opportunity to improve the club’s profile. “Part of what helped me step up the shows there was that Brian McNamara allowed me to put some passion into the job and go the extra mile, rather than just doing a few tasks that were laid out for me,” Sweetwood says.
Between 2007 and 2013, Sweetwood helped recharge the Masquerade in an attempt to return it to its ’90s heyday.
“It was about embracing what the music scene was in Atlanta and looking at what had worked, getting younger blood in there, booking more standard shows, and some bigger events.”
Sweetwood now works for C3 Presents as a talent buyer and festival director. He’s also founder of the annual Shaky Knees Festival — a festival he describes as “the music you’d hear on my iPod.” Likewise, de Soto describes the Wrecking Ball’s lineup as “the kind of music we like listening to.”
By focusing on punk and hardcore, the Wrecking Ball ATL stands apart from Shaky Knees, Music Midtown, One Musicfest, and the glut of other music festivals the city sees every year. Last year, they booked the Descendents to play their first Atlanta show in 18 years. That Wrecking Ball appearance led to a resurgence in the group’s career. Since then, the Descendents recorded a new album and began touring again. Yet their decision to play the first festival came as randomly as the name. “What got them was that we had photoshopped Milo, the Descendents’ logo, onto Miley Cyrus’ body on the wrecking ball,” de Soto says. “They said, ‘That’s it. We’re playing!’”
This year, Green and de Soto have assembled a cast of punk, hardcore, ’90s alt rock, and emo bands, and paired them with the modern counterparts of their respective genres. The Bouncing Souls play alongside Bully, Diarrhea Planet plays alongside Dinosaur Jr. The dynamic illustrates how the music evolves with each new generation.
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In the meantime, the Masquerade’s own evolution continues. The North Avenue location that the Masquerade has called home since 1989 hasn’t always been prime real estate. Green, who joined the company around 1990, recalls how, in the early days, there weren’t even street lights along most of the block.
“A gigantic gravel and dirt parking lot covered what is now Historic Fourth Ward Park,” he says. “A trucking company was at the end of the road, and the Sears building was vacant. Then it became partially used for city offices. Now it’s the shining, new Ponce City Market. In the early days this was a rough, dangerous neighborhood. We’ve been here through all the change.”
The Masquerade’s website has a seamless calendar of shows booked throughout August, September, and beyond. The build-out is underway for the venue’s new home. An 80,000-square-foot, one-story warehouse facility at 1421 Fairmont Ave. is poised to take over as the new home for Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. The capacity for each one will be relatively the same: Heaven currently holds 1,000 people, Hell holds 550, and Purgatory holds 250.
The three-room dynamic is a formula that works as an incubator for the Masquerade. The club has traditionally been able to book acts that grow in popularity — playing the small, medium, and large rooms — as their careers progress.
No value assignedOver the weeks leading up to the Wrecking Ball, the new facility has remained fenced off while the build-out continues inside. The area has more of an industrial feel to it than North Avenue. It’s also undeveloped, save for a nearby tire recycling facility, trucking yards, and rail yards. But it fits all of the criteria the club set out to find: easy access from the interstate (through the Howell Mill corridor) and not too remote for anyone living in town.
Sweetwood, who visited the space earlier this year, says the location matches the Masquerade’s original depleted-warehouse vibe, only cleaner. Some of the industrial debris from the original location will be repurposed at the new location, including wheels, belts, and pulleys that once littered the Masquerade Music Park. The club is preserving some of its original charm while sculpting a new environment.
“We want to hang on to the rustic essence of Masquerade, but it will be shiny and new,” Green says. “The amenities we can offer to artists will be much greater.”
The ceilings in the new Heaven are 19-feet tall, allowing for expanded productions and lighting displays. Heaven also features a wraparound mezzanine, and the one-story layout means no more loading in and out by way of the club’s antiquated freight elevator.
Like the Masquerade’s long-standing North Avenue location, the new venue seems poised to face a new cycle of redevelopment on the Westside. A 36-home development called West Town has already sprouted up near the club’s new digs. But Green remains focused on the move.
“People who are moving into town from the suburbs want easy access to entertainment and nightlife,” he says. “We’re going to a place that’s relatively undeveloped now. I’m sure we’ll see development there, but over decades.”
For Green, the move creates an opportunity to shake off the Masquerade’s sordid reputation, while carving out a new place amid the city’s respected, midsize concert venues such as Terminal West and the Variety Playhouse. The move is also bittersweet.
“I’m sad to leave this place where I’ve spent so much of my adult life working and experiencing music,” he says. “But it’s exciting to have something to create from scratch.”