Arts & Entertainment

Culture Watch: The Rise of Small Venues in Southwest Florida

The Ranch in Fort Myers and similar venues are becoming popular for live concerts

BY May 16, 2016


On a Saturday night in late spring, I debated with a friend what time I should arrive at The Ranch—a country dancehall and concert venue in Fort Myers that opened in late 2015—for that night’s concert. I was headed to see Hotel California, a nationally touring Eagles tribute band.

“The website says the show starts at 9 and runs until midnight,” I told him, “but concerts never start on time.”

My friend nodded. “Get there at 10:30 and you’ll be just in time for the opening act.”

Taking his advice, I pulled into the parking lot at exactly 10:23 p.m. But when the bouncer opened the door to the hall, a distinctively Eagles-sounding guitar riff drifted out.

“Are they already on?” I asked him, surprised.

He looked at me with his brows drawn together. “They’re on their second set.”

“What time did they start?”

“They started at 9.”

At 9? I thought. What kind of concert venue starts on time?

The answer: This one.

Truth be told, I’m not much one for live concerts. Ever since the mayhem of a Grateful Dead show in 1993, I’ve avoided the big stadium spectacles. The crowds can be overwhelming, and I’m always too far away to see more than a speck on stage. Plus, they never—never—start on time. By the time the main act is ready to go, my feet hurt from standing and I’ve had a gallon of beer spilled on me. Why, I’m always left wondering, is this better than listening to an album at home?

From the moment the bouncer let me into The Ranch, I knew this would be a different experience. The atmosphere inside the hall was unlike any other concert I’d seen. What exactly set this place apart? I searched for the right term until I found it: It was civilized.

The space is large, dominated by a wooden dance floor in the middle of the room that fronts the stage. High-top tables and bar stools are placed throughout the rest of the hall. For the Hotel California performance—what Jim Heckler, one of The Ranch’s owners, calls “more of a sit and listen show”—a dozen VIP tables with chairs sat directly in front of the stage. While the band played, some people got down on the dance floor, some sipped beers from the high-top tables and some stared raptly from the up-close VIP seating. I walked the space and sampled the energy from each of these angles. No matter where I stood or sat, I felt intimately connected to the music in a way I’ve never experienced.

“This seems to happen at most shows,” Heckler told me. “With a sold-out show, we can hold 1,800 people. But it still feels like you’re listening in your living room.”

The atmosphere inside the hall was unlike any other concert I’d seen. What exactly set this place apart? I searched for the right term until I found it: It was civilized.

This intimate connection between the audience and the music, he says, is palpable. “Even the artist comes off stage and goes, ‘Oh, my.’”

The favorable response from the musicians is part of what brings big-name acts to The Ranch. Artists talk among themselves about the best venues, and The Ranch has gained a reputation as a place to play.

“We get the artists that shouldn’t be playing here but they do,” Heckler says.

Take a look at The Ranch’s lineup, and you’ll see that he’s right. Many of the acts could be onstage at Germain Arena, but instead they’ve opted for the closeness and intimacy of the smaller venue.

This approach to live music seems to be gaining traction locally. 7th Avenue Social in Naples, the upscale eatery, is bringing in live music Wednesday through Sunday. With mostly local acts, it offers a mix of jazz, classic rock, folk singers and banjo players in an intimate setting. In Lee County, the Fort Myers Brewing Company has been showcasing live music since it opened in 2013. Jennifer Gratz, who owns the brewing company with her husband, says the smaller space creates a unique experience.

“If it’s a nice day, we have the band outside with the large roll-up doors open,” she says. “It’s a pretty cool feel.”

Even Harley-Davidson is getting in on the trend. In February, the Fort Myers dealership hosted an Ozzy Osborne tribute band that drew in more than 1,500 people. (To be fair, the Budweiser Clydesdales were also on hand.)

Which begs the question: With all these small local venues to see quality live music, is there enough interest to go around?

Jim Heckler says absolutely. The Ranch has run 60 shows since it opened—16 in just two months. “We’ve gotten a great response.”

He’s not worried about competing venues cannibalizing ticket sales?

“With all the different genres of music out there,” Heckler says, “there’s definitely enough demand. Interest in the arts and music is strong in this town.”

And that interest, he says, is only increasing.

In the future, The Ranch plans to expand its offering beyond country to include known rock and alternative bands like Sister Hazel and Warrant. If they’re anything like the Hotel California show, I’ll be first in line to buy my ticket.


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