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New brass at the Brass Rail
New owners promise same feel, more music
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
John Commorato Jr. a spoken word and multimedia artist, doesn’t shy away from challenging or difficult subject matter in his work. Working under the moniker Art Attack, Commorato has created two films — "------: Prelude to a Bad Tattoo" and "Valentine" — that had their debuts at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. He’s curated underground art shows and lent a hand to countless projects, and has been a tireless promoter of Fort Wayne’s underground arts scene.
Now you can add “business owner” to that list.
Commorato Jr. and a silent partner have purchased the venerable Brass Rail on Broadway. And they want to turn it into a rock n’ roll bar.
Actually, the Brass Rail is sort of a rock n’ roll bar already. In the last few years, the Brass Rail has developed a split personality. During the afternoons and early evening, it seems a pretty low key-drinking hole for many longtime neighborhood regulars, probably not much different than what it’s been for the last 80 or so years. But the clientele changes as 10 p.m. approaches. “The way it’s kind of evolved, you get down there at 10 or 11, and all of a sudden there’s the punk rockers, there’s the art school people, there’s the hip-hop people,” says Commorato. “At night, it’s a rock n’ roll bar.”
The Brass Rail has grown into a prime venue for local bands to play, and even a few national touring groups have put in an appearance. Matt Cotton, former bartender at the Brass Rail, is widely credited with giving the place the flavor of a rock n’ roll bar. In 2004, he was able to bring one of his favorite groups, the Seattle band Dead Moon, in for a gig.
“I’d like to continue the direction in which I feel Matt got it going,” Commorato says. But as far as making major changes to the bar, Commorato wouldn’t think of it. “I like the old guys,” Commorato says of the Brass Rail’s long-time customers. “We have an awesome day manager. She could run the place by herself. The old-timers like her. I don’t want to lose that, because those are the kind of bars I like. Hell, I’ve been drinking there for 14 years. So that’s not going to change.”
The only thing that will change is the music — there’s going to be more of it, not only local acts, but more national touring bands like Undersea Explosion out of New York, who came through a couple of weeks ago. That show, like many of the others Commorato is working on, happened through networking, someone who knew someone who knew someone, who passed on a phone number or an e-mail address. It’s a lot like how Commorato managed to get Okerville River on the soundtrack to his film Valentine last year. And it helps that many of the bands Commorato is interested in booking don’t come from major labels with a phalanx of managers to carve through. “I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” Commorato explains. “A lot of local bands have brought their friends in, who have connections with other touring bands. Good turnout at the door, that creates good word of mouth. There’s a whole network of us.”
“Say your band has got a Saturday night gig in Chicago, and a Monday night gig in Columbus,” he adds. “You can play our bar, or you can sit around the hotel and drink up your touring budget. A good road manager will try to find something for you to do, something to make a little money or at least not lose any.”
Commorato and his business partner (who didn’t wish to be interviewed for this article) had been tossing around the idea of a bar for some time, but the financing for a start-up was out of the question. When the opportunity to pick up the Brass Rail came about by happy accident, they figured out how to make it work. “His background is in computer technology. I work on cardboard. We don’t duplicate skill sets,” Commorato laughs. “He’s the CFO. He’s knows how to read a spread sheet. Yet he’s still interested in the rock n’ roll side of things. I’m the night manager, the booking agent, the front-of-house guy.”
And the truth is, organizing art shows and concerts and running a movie set — all of which Commorato has done — requires a skill set that’s not all that far removed from a shift manager in the service industry.
Commorato says they took inspiration and encouragement from friends who have started their own businesses: tattoo shops, galleries, bike and skateboard shops, studios, graphic design companies… “I see people, all of us within 10 years of each other, all with similar interests,” he says. “They all had to make some capitol investments. They knew what they knew and tried to learn what was new to them, and so far so good. Any small businessman has to deal with things out of their field just to get stuff done, and if the focus is strong, the final result will work out.”
And there’s another aspect to ownership that wasn’t lost on Commorato or his business partner. Commorato’s home and workspace are on Ewing Street, and are slated to be knocked down to make room for the proposed ballpark. “Those who have lived down here forever because we like it, or it’s cheap working space, or whatever, have thought if we could get a chunk of ground that was ours, then we can have a stake in the community as opposed to being itinerant,” Commorato says. “Why should some out of town consortium come in and buy the closest three-way liquor license to this Harrison Square? Why shouldn’t it be people from the community? If a Fuddruckers took over that place (the Brass Rail) just for the liquor license and turned it into a sports bar, a lot of us would want to kill ourselves.”
“I hope the city will realize the face of young entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily have to be clean shaven in a knock-off Brooks Brothers suit.”
A student and devotee of punk rock, it’s not lost on Commorato that he’s trying to start a rock n’ roll bar the same year New York’s famous C.B.G.B.’s closed. The launching ground for an entire generation of New York punk and “new wave” bands in the late 70s and early 80s, C.B.G.B.’s closed in 2007 to make room for condos. The club’s owner never bought the building, and didn’t pay his back taxes, so now it’s going to wind up in the Hard Rock Café in Vegas. “I learned something from that,” Commorato says. “As historic as that place is, (the owner) didn’t protect himself, and now it’s being shipped parcel-by-parcel out to Vegas. Do I think my little bar in Fort Wayne can ever be something like that? No, my head’s not that far up my ass. But can we do something? Yeah, we can.”
For Art Attack Projects or Brass Rail Booking, call (260) 424-8213 or visit www.brassrailfw.com