ben vandgrift · on living the dream

Buster's Billiards and Backroom / 3B's

Friday marked the opening of Buster's Billiards and Backroom. Among my friends this was a momentous occasion, as we had been Buster's regulars for around a decade. Bereft of our home-away-from-home thanks to the short-sightedness of Lexington's leaders, we'd awaited the grand opening with bated breath for months, awash in a mixture of anticipation and dread.

For us, the news is not good. For the music industry and social scene in Lexington, the results could hardly be better.

The Death of an Institution

Buster's Billiards and Backroom ("New Buster's" or "McBusters'" or "3B's" if you prefer) bears almost no resemblance to Buster's, apart from the neon sign and concrete dog by the front door. It happens every day in America–a well-known and well-respected local brand gets purchased by new, wealthy owners who want to Make It Big. They take a few design cues and tchotchkes from the old place, and 'reimagine' it, only 'better', with 'wider appeal'. They discard all the charm and strip it down to its most surface and superficial elements, then reopen it under the same name, to the astonishment and outrage of its creators and regulars. Douglas Adams might say that 3B's is almost, but not quite entirely unlike Buster's.

In fact, it is in almost every respect diametrically opposite; where Buster's was tight and cozy, 3B's is spacious and impersonal. While Buster's was inexpensive and proletariat, 3B's is ostentatious and pricey. ($8 beer, anyone? Would you like a pass to the VIP room? $10) Buster's was amiable and tolerant, yet 3B's is standoffish and after last call, any member of the numerous, high-strung security staff will scream at you until you leave, starting at 2:30am on the dot. Buster's was peopled by a close-knit group of people who knew each other on sight, 3B's is full of strangers and rubberneckers from every disparate scene in the city. Buster's was bricks, checkerboard floors and hardwood; 3B's is concrete. Buster's was centrally located, an easy walk from any other bar downtown, a simple matter to step next door for a few minutes and look at different scenery, and 3B's is hell and gone from anywhere. How sad is it when one longs for the ease and clarity of downtown parking?

Yes, Buster's–the institution which my crew held as home for many years–is gone, a fact which hit home instantly upon trying to order my first warm, $5 PBR on opening night. I have buried it in the ground next to High on Rose, Lynaugh's Music Club, and all the other places that have died in the toxic cloud emitted by Lexington, the 'Get Off My Lawn' city, whose perennial hatred for its own youth is legendary.

A Rebirth of Music in Lexington

Now that the eulogizing is out of the way, the good news: 3B's is the music venue that Lexington-whose local music scene outstrips that of cities much larger-has deserved for 20 years. It is a dream venue, and will with good booking put this city on the map as a destination worth tripping to.

h3. The Building

The Old Tarr Distillery building had to be a challenge for Jessica and Clark Case. How do you turn what is essentially a barn into a quality music venue? There was no plumbing to speak of, the electric was sketchy, the heating and cooling were more or less non-existent. But here we are, after months of hard work (or at least after a bunch of check signing), with a place that's habitable and just comfortable enough, decorated in a bare-bones industrial style that's consistent, detailed, and appealing. Exposed pipes and wiring, pressed chrome lamps above the pool tables, spools of wire topped with glass as cocktail tables, enough neon but not too much. Posters pasted to flat steel panels hanging from chains. The monster Big Ass Fan ties the whole thing together, like the famed Lebowski rug.

h3. The Sound

3B's manages to be impressive before the amps come on. When the bands start playing, it becomes obvious where the real money went. The grapevine has the total cost of the sound equipment at around $1M, and based on what I've heard the past two nights, I believe it. It shouldn't shouldn't shouldn't be possible to make a place that bare, concrete, and spacious sound that good. It's loud without being unbearable, there's no echo or distortion despite all the concrete. The range of sound is complete, issuing from a sizable stage visible from the entire floor. Last evening I primarily occupied the front corner of the building, and I could still hear everything clearly, and could even see the stage. From the other end of the building.

It's been said by a professional musician friend of mine that between the sound and the nicely furnished green room (very comfortable, even has a shower), and given that Lexington is an easy stopover between gigs in larger cities, bands will beg to play here. Lexington has never had a venue that will support a regional or national show with the kind of style and quality that 3B's can offer.

h3. The Bar

The welded copper bar top is wide enough front and back to keep from being crowded, but just barely. On Friday, it was three deep for drinks, and it was clear that a fair percentage of the bar staff were still training. Plan to spend a few minutes waiting, at least if you're a guy. Best bet is to send the most attractive lady in your group up with cash.

Prices weren't consistent between the front and back rooms, and all were high. The prices on Saturday weren't the same as the prices on Friday, either. I was tempted to ask for a price list, but that's just my usual contrary inclination kicking. Also, the drinks weren't always cold.

A funny: by midnight Saturday, they'd already ran out of PBR.

All that said, I've never been to an opening event at a venue or restaurant that had all the kinks sorted out. I expect these problems to hash themselves out pretty quickly.

h3. The Crowd

It's impossible at this point to judge the place's crowd. It doesn't have regulars. I'm not sure it will have regulars—a number of factors make this more of an occasional place than somewhere to hang your hat, or where you might leave your pool cue behind the bar.

In the opening weekend, the crowd was all over the map. There were the usual inhabitants of Al's, the Dame, Green Lantern, and Buster's. Along with were a fair number of people who would be at home at Redmon's or McCarthy's. There were a surprising number of guys seemingly fresh from the gym and still in their TapOut gear. A few drift-ins from Manchester's down the street. Mostly, all these folks were tourists who, given the music selection on opening weekend, aren't the target audience. When the novelty of the new venue wears off it'll be easier to judge the crowd if one ever settles.

My prediction is that it will be nearly exclusively the audience for the show, and when there's no band onstage, it'll thin down to nothing save some folks playing pool. This doesn't strike me as the kind of place you just drop by to tie one on with your friends, for a couple of reasons:

It's out of the way. It's the only thing where it is. Nathan Cryder and other Distillery District proponents hope this will change. If it does, it will be largely because of 3B's, and only if some kind of real parking situation develops. Since you can't walk there, you either have to cab it, or pray for parking. That being the case, you're definitely going to settle in for the night; you're not going to start your night there and then look to head somewhere else later. This is likely what killed The Dame off: location. Let's hope it doesn't bite 3B's as well.

It's impersonal at best. A VIP room? Seriously? I can see that for shows, but on nights when no one notable's on stage, this area should just be additional seating, without some clipboard-wielding chimp at the base of the stairs acting snooty. The existence of the VIP room alone divides the clientele into 'haves' and 'have-nots', not something conducive to the kind of cohesion you want in a neighborhood bar or regular hangout. The scowling and pervasive security staff also unsettles the place.

It's not cheap. This won't matter to some, but if you're planning on kicking back for a night, you don't want to have to empty your wallet to do it. And it's not just the drinks: plan on taking a cab there and back to avoid the swarm of police officers and tow-truck drivers waiting to nab your extra funds. One of the reasons Buster's was so successful was their dirt-cheap beer prices, made possible because of the low overhead.

Not enough cute bartenders. Yes, it matters.

Solutions: lower the drink prices on most nights into the basement. Run a shuttle from the annex garage or someplace similar until after last call. Drop the security staff entirely on nights when less than 300 people are going to be in attendance, save perhaps at the door. Lose the VIP room: it loses you more than it gains. Hire better talent; with the Dame closed, I'm sure more is available.

h3. The 'Billiards' Part

The tables are from Buster's. While the slate still has -flaws- character, the bumpers, pockets, and felt have been replaced. The new (black) felt is fast. It took a couple of games before I was able to dial back my shot and not send the cue ball on a 35-lap tour of the table. All new cues, racks, chalk. Four of the tables are too close to the support pillars, making shots from the affected corner impossible, but for the most part, the pool tables have been 'done up right'.

The price is definitely right: $5/hour, and the staff seems to round down. That fact alone makes it tempting to drop by on a week night for a few games of pool. Reasonable tables, cheap prices, I don't have to bring a bunch of quarters.

Of course, with that many people in residence, the wait time is long, and it's clear that not much thought has been given to how to handle the queue. A bartender trying to yell out names just doesn't cut it. The only way to hear your name called is to post up at that corner of the bar, which makes for a nasty jumble of people and adversely affects the traffic through that area. I'm tempted to suggest a buzzer system like a restaurant might use.

These things will be sorted out in time, and as such 3B's instantly became the best pool hall in town.

h3. Parking / Walking

If you're thinking about walking, don't. Not only is it a country mile from downtown, but the neighborhood you'll walk through is somewhat questionable, poorly lit, and not at all pedestrian-friendly. Take a cab. From downtown, that's $6 each way.

If you're driving, the adjoining lot holds 60 or so cars, but is poorly marked. There are lots across the street and on the diagonal but it's unclear if that's real parking or tow-bait. On the upside, you walk half a block and get your car out of impound if you get towed, albeit $185 poorer.

Yes, but No

All in all, once the initial bumps have been smoothed out, 3B's will be a solid destination, and welcome addition to the Lexington landscape. Provided the bands keep rolling in, I have no doubt this new venue will enjoy fantastic success, especially since it has no real competition. 3B's is the brightest light to shine on the music scene since the crater was installed downtown.

While it doesn't seem to have the chops, location, or ambiance to be a regular hangout, it'll serve admirably for a game of pool, or for any of the regional and national acts that will suddenly be beating down 3B's door to add Lexington to their regular circuit. I'll be there those nights, posted up around one of the pool tables, enjoying the company of my friends.

Just don't ask me to call it Buster's.

written: Sep 6 2009