Photo by Pat Bruener
When James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy closed its doors last November, nearly everyone I talked to seemed to be lamenting its loss. It was a historic hub of local music, home to a wide variety of events, and a cornerstone of the Deutschtown Music Festival. From album release shows to open stage nights, from jazz jam sessions to drag brunches and silent discos, James Street hosted them all, and was a vibrant, much-loved part of our scene.
But as is so often the case, the closing of one door led to the opening of another. Former James Street general manager Kevin Saftner has returned, managing, marketing, and booking for a new venue in a new neighborhood. And this weekend, The Stage at Karma in the South Side will be hosting its official Grand Opening. Starship Mantis headlines on Friday, March 2nd, while Afro Yaqui Music Collective plays on Saturday, March 3rd.
It turns out that The Stage at Karma was made possible by the ghosts of several venues past. The sound system was inherited from former Strip District hotspot Altar Bar, while its space at 1713 East Carson Street used to be the nightclub Devils & Dolls. “I honestly lucked into finding Karma,” Saftner says. “My good friend TJ Harris introduced me to Mike, who is the owner. Mike is a lifelong music lover and wanted to get into the business. He started building a stage, bought the old sound system from Altar Bar, and has been making general improvements to the venue since November.”
The space has two connected rooms—one dominated by a sizable 24-tap bar, with a small performance space in the back; and one with a larger stage, complete with an extensive lighting setup and that aforementioned sound system. The latter room also features an upstairs balcony, suitable for band merch setups or VIP table seating. “When I met [Mike] shortly before Christmas, the room looked amazing,” says Saftner. “I could easily see the potential the location had.”
Though the official grand opening hasn’t happened yet, the venue has been putting on events since January. They’ve now established a regular schedule: an open stage on Tuesdays (with drums provided), karaoke on Mondays, and bass/underground dance music DJ nights on Thursdays, under the moniker “Karma Kvlt.” And they’ve already hosted such diverse acts as The Park Plan (power pop), BBGuns (rap), Scott and Rosanna (folk/acoustic), and 4th Disciple and Killah Priest from the Wu-Tang Clan. This diversity is purposeful, and a trademark of Saftner’s booking approach. “Jazz, blues, edm, rock, burlesque, drag, fundraisers, and all of the great events we had on the North Side will now find a home on East Carson,” he says.
The Stage at Karma will be joining a local music neighborhood that includes The Rex Theater, Club Café, and The Smiling Moose. With a max capacity of 300 and two differently-sized stages, it offers a flexible middle ground in this group, which is perfect for the eclectic vibe Saftner intends to perpetuate. While acknowledging that the South Side is “a different animal” than the North Side, he says, “We will be keeping a lot of the James Street vibe alive here at Karma. Curating a wide variety of events will be just as important for us.”
He concludes, “So far, things have come together quicker and better than we ever could have imagined.”
This endeavor has received considerable buzz thus far, but don’t just take our words for it. If (like me) you’ve had a James-Street-sized hole in your heart, or you’re just looking for a new spot to drink, mingle, and catch nearly any kind of show, The Stage at Karma is definitely worth checking out. Come out and celebrate the official start of a new chapter this weekend.
On Friday, March 2nd, you can catch the incomparable Starship Mantis, with pop-R&B act Merrow opening things up. Saturday, March 3rd, will feature the energetic jazz-funk-indigenous-music fusion group Afro Yaqui Music Collective, with harpist Kento Iwasaki and MC Nejma Nefertiti from New York City. Admission is $8 in advance for Friday (with doors at 8 PM) and $12 in advance for Saturday (with doors at 7 PM.) Both shows are 21+.
Tickets are going fast, so make sure you get yours today. And follow along with The Stage at Karma on Facebook if you don’t already.
Afro Yaqui Music Collective. Photo by Youn Jung Kim.