Easton venue betting on bands to attract fickle nightlife crowds

The band, Mushroomhead, performs at One Centre Square (photo courtesy of One Centre Square by Matt Bishop)

Yesterday, when I was young – let’s call it the early- to mid-90s, the Lehigh Valley had a pretty hot live music scene.

I remember going to see local and up-and-coming bands at places such as the Zodiac Club, Lupo’s, the Acorn, The Sterling Hotel and so many more. Even some of the small bars would have acoustic bands a few nights a week. I remember going to Cannon’s on Liberty Street to listen to the occasional duo or trio.

And as I watched crews  tear down the once popular Crocodile Rock nightclub on Hamilton Street, I couldn’t help but reminisce about some of those good old days of cool bands and cheap beer.

And it took me aback, slightly, when I realized that most of those places my friends and I enjoyed so much in our 20s are no longer in business.

It’s not hard to see why.

The nightlife scene is a very fickle business.

No one knows this better than Billy Cornish, who has run an Easton nightclub and restaurant – and a couple of different iterations of that combination – with his business partner Gregory Melhem for more than 13 years.

Cornish knows to stay on top, a venue has to change with the times, and this time he’s betting on live bands.

He started the Centre Square business as Drinky McDrinkerson’s. Before that, it was known under a number of different owners and names such as Short’s Pub and Jabberwocky’s.

I believe it even had a brief stint as a country music and billiards bar for a time.

And it’s continued to change names and themes under his and Melhem’s ownership with several major remodeling jobs to try to create the kind of scene that today’s club-goers want.

When Cornish took over the nightspot, he recalled that live music, which had until that point dominated the scene, was starting to die out.

There were fewer bands that people were willing to pay to see live, and many young people were more interested in dancing. Having a DJ spin the tunes versus a live band was cheaper and easier.

The partners remodeled the space into more of a nightclub versus bar atmosphere and changed the name to Drinky’s.

A couple of changes over the years included adding space for The Standard restaurant, which then became Drinky’s Pub, and then the Standard again.

Now, seeing a return to favor of live music entertainment, Cornish once again reinvented the space and is now running the venue as One Centre Square, a club that has regular live performances from a diverse style of bands from pop-rap to jam bands, country, alternative and even classic tribute bands.

This revamp was a significant one.

The partners secured a $1.5 million Small Business Administration loan through Unity Bank to revamp the space, even tearing a hole in the ceiling to create a second floor balcony for live performances, and adding a 24-by-20-foot stage.

He said the bet on live bands seems to be paying off, and people are turning out for the performances.

“People want to get more of a bang for their buck these days. They don’t want to pay somebody else to play [recorded] music that they can play themselves at home. They want to see live bands,” Cornish said.

He said the simple truth about nightlife is that trends come and go. He said it’s just like the chain restaurants such as Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s that have been struggling to reinvent themselves as millennials trend away from chain dining to more local, independent restaurants.

Bars and nightclubs are the same. He said young people don’t want to hang out and do the same things their parents did.

He’s seen many trends come and go. Live bands, DJ dancing, billiard halls, happy hour specials and cigar bars all have experienced times when they were either draws or detractors from an establishment.

But for now, Cornish said he thinks the region has a strong-enough demand and quality of musical offerings to sustain a strong live-music scene.

He points to established venues such as the Gin Mill in Northampton and The Main Gate in Allentown as venues that have been boosting their live performances. He also cites newer venues such as the Sands Events Center and ArtsQuest’s SteelStacks in Bethlehem that have been successful with live music and entertainment.

“We feel that live music is coming back,” Cornish said, add that One Centre Square should have the diversity and quality in entertainment to keep the crowds coming back.

And maybe sometime down the road, he and his partner will have to rethink this reinvention and come up with the next incarnation – but that’s likely many years away.

And, after all, it’s all part of the circle of nightlife.

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