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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Common Grounds to play swan song in June

Demand brought them here. Demand for a new place to play shows. Demand to see the next big band Gainesville had to offer. Demand for a new place to meet old friends.

But some say that the tide of enthusiasm for local music has ebbed. Somewhere along the 15 years where Common Grounds acted as a veritable barometer for Gainesville music, the peak shifted and the crowds have thinned like the hair of diehard Gainesville musicians.

The last show brought out a crowd of about 50 to the cinder block tin-roofed warehouse that was once a feed store and several other night clubs at 210 SW Second Ave., but then again it was a Sunday.

Four bands   -Ancient River, Only Thieves, The Gris Gris Boys and Lindsey Mills and the Predators-took to the set up on the floor in front of the stage between two huge speakers sitting on steel drums. All were from Gainesville, save Only Thieves, who were on the last night of their tour before heading home to Tallahassee. That's the standard place setting for smaller shows, said Jason Rockhill, Common Grounds owner since 2004.

The crowd stood in a semi-circle at a 15-foot radius from the band. Some nursed PBR Tall Boys as they watched. A duo of young 20-somethings broke from the crowd to twirl to the heavy-hitting guitar of Only Thieves. Golden beer sloshed in their plastic cups at they swayed.

But this wasn't always the norm.

Rockhill said he's seen nights when close to 200 sweaty bodies jammed between the walls and churned up mosh pits for bands like Against Me! and Less Than Jake - both of Gainesville fame. He's seen them pack in for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band and Black Keys. He's seen nights when the whole crowd sat on the floor to watch one man and his acoustic guitar. He's seen calm nights and bar fights.

For the rest of the month, he said he plans to rekindle those shows by inviting back old favorites. Against Me! has already confirmed a gig on May 24. Rockhill said there will be more, but none that he can confirm yet.

"You hold the place together with spit and duct tape and whatever and whatever and, you know, you hope it all works out," he said of his time here.

But at the end of next month, those nights will end, and Gainesville's music scene will have to play another tune.

Asked why he was shutting the doors, Rockhill couldn't point to any one reason. On the venue's website, commongroundslive.com, he wrote that it was time to move on.

But smaller turnouts in recent years might have played a part.

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"Obviously if this place was a gold mine, we wouldn't be closing," he said.

While Ancient River went through sound checks, Chris Wollard, who made his name in Gainesville punk band Hot Water Music, slouched on a bar stool on the outdoor bar known only as "the porch" while he thought about the countless times he's taken the stage.

He's been coming since Common Grounds was just a coffee shop at 919 W. University Ave. in 1995. In 2004, when the venue moved to the warehouse on Second Avenue, he made his mark on the place.

He ran his arm along the length of the forest green fence around the outdoor seating area. "I painted that." He slapped the wood of the bar he was leaning on. "I painted this, too." He pointed to a Miller High Life bar mirror a few feet above his head. "See that? I hung that there."

Inside is a hodgepodge of odds and ends Rockhill found to decorate the place. Most of the lighting comes from strings of Christmas lights hanging on the walls year round. Tables are made with 40-gallon steel drums. Deer heads and stuffed fish hang on the walls.

In the men's bathroom, illegible graffiti written in silver sharpie covers a "right lane must turn right" street sign. Band names are drunkenly etched into corners. Torn posters promoting the last few shows hang above urinals.

Dianya Markovits, 33, a regular for the past six years, said she'll remember those as the cleanest bathrooms of any Gainesville venue.

She remembers her first time getting coffee when she was in college in 1998 when it was still on University Avenue. She saw Against Me! for the first time there in 2000.

Every week, she checked the website for show listings, usually finding something she liked.

"When I went out, I wanted to come here," she said. "This was my spot."

As the Gris Gris Boys, a Southern punk band, took the last spot for the night, hoots from friends in the audience welcomed them on.

Rob MgGregor, 44, pounded out chords on his Gibson SG. From the neck up, with short hair and glasses, he looked like someone you might find in a cubicle on a weekday. But his brown T-shirt, skinny black jeans and sneakers said otherwise. As a member of 11 Gainesville bands that he can name off the top of his head over 25 years, he reckons he's played around 70 shows at Common Grounds. He even played in the same room when it was under the name The Covered Dish, a name only Gainesville locals fondly look back on.

This would be one of the last.

For McGregor, the close means more than finding another place to play. It's a sign of dwindling support for live music in his town.

"When [people] talk about Gainesville, they talk about the Gainesville murderer, the Gators and the Gainesville music scene," he said.

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