Standing on the small smoking patio behind Cat's Cradle, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro institution he has owned for a quarter-century, Frank Heath talks about what the surrounding landscape might look like in a few years.
To the left, where a decaying shack stands, there are tentative plans for a condo-like residential structure. A narrow alley strewn with chain-link fencing and construction debris will soon become a walkway to the parking garage next door, behind a new Hampton Inn. The Libba Cotten Bikeway, which passes within a few feet of the Cradle's southwest corner, could become another access point to this side of the building. In essence, the Cradle's back would become its front.
"It's a dream," says Heath, before finding a word that better fits the scene. "It's a vision."
Over the summer, Heath and his Cradle cohorts have worked on a big step in realizing this vision: an as-yet unnamed bar currently referred to as simply the Cat's Cradle Back Room. Planning and construction have been in the works for the better part of a year. The space takes a big step forward this Saturday when two Merge Records artists, Fiery Furnaces singer Eleanor Friedberger and The Love Language's Stuart McLamb, play the first show there.
Back in March, publicist Steve Balcom described the new space as a place for Cradle patrons to go "if you want to chill out in between bands, if you want to talk to somebody." Unlike the Cradle, the Back Room will serve liquor.
Initially, live music wasn't part of the plan, but Saturday's show is the first of six dates booked in the Back Room over the next couple of months. "When we actually saw the space, we realized it would work as a club," Heath says.
Even if you've been to shows at the Cradle recently, you might not know exactly where the space is. It isn't visible from anywhere inside the Cradle proper; if you step out onto the smoking patio, the Back Room is a few steps to the left, just past a small garden. It's directly behind the Fleet Feet Sports store (formerly VisArt Video), which has its entrance on the Main Street side. Naturally, the Back Room is accessible only from the back of the building.
Last weekend, the place was abuzz with activity. Most of its main structures—bar, stage, stairs to a balcony—were in place, but a dozen or so Cradle employees and construction workers painted and added other finishing touches. "It's not as done as I'd like it to be," Heath said, explaining that Saturday's public debut provides a kind of self-imposed deadline.
The 160-capacity room has an ambiance reminiscent of the late Go! Studios, a modest Brewer Lane venue that closed in 2004. "We kind of had that blueprint in our heads," Heath acknowledges, specifically in regard to the small but room-defining balcony above the bar area.
Given that capacity, the Back Room would appear to be a direct competitor to similarly sized Triangle venues, including Chapel Hill's Local 506 and Raleigh's Kings Barcade. In recent years, Heath often has promoted shows too small for the Cradle in such rooms. He says he plans to continue doing so, though he'll likely keep some of those shows in-house with this new venue.
Kings co-owner Paul Siler says that such a room might hinder what his venue is able to book, but he thinks that, spread across such a large geography, similarly sized locations are sustainable. "It's always a concern, but it'll be fine. I sure as heck don't blame [Heath] for doing this; it's just a natural progression."
Ideally, Heath says he'd like to get booking agents on board with the notion of playing both the east and west ends of the Triangle. "I think it totally makes sense," he says. "There's a half-million people here and there. But it's going to take time to make it work in terms of people on the other end of the equation understanding it."
Whether or not booking bands in two Triangle cities becomes more viable, Heath affirms that booking agents increasingly want options for more specialized rooms. As such, the new space represents a chance to give more acts what they want—and more reasons to stop in the Triangle as opposed to elsewhere. Heath hopes to increase opportunities for local acts as well, possibly with "closing" shows after a touring act finishes in the main club. Cradle shows often start around 9 p.m. and end before midnight; a late show in the Back Room could provide a built-in audience for hometown acts after a Cradle gig finishes. He's clearly not averse to having acts in both rooms on the same night, given that this Saturday's Back Room debut happens with Jason Boland playing the Cradle's main stage.
Crews have installed additional soundproofing to prevent noise bleed between the spaces, though Heath admits that they won't know for sure how well it works until they've done a few shows. When he talks about the room, he uses words and phrases such as "work-in-progress," "flexible," "experimenting" and "We'll see how it goes." Many of the decisions will be based on finding out what works and what doesn't work once the venue is open.
That was true for the Cat's Cradle, too: At the very first show this location of the Cradle presented—a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion gig almost exactly 20 years ago after moving from 206 W. Franklin St.—the entrance was in this same back-patio spot.
Consider this a detour through the past, then, on the way back to the future.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of the Cradle."