And a year before he played what would be his final show in Atlanta, Tom Petty and his old band, Mudcrutch, entertained a packed, sweaty house.
It’s been 20 years since the Tabernacle was birthed with a performance by the Dave Matthews Band for MTV’s “Live From the 10 Spot” show. The decades have been fruitful to the majestic brick structure on Luckie Street in downtown Atlanta, which, under the guidance of Dr. Len Broughton, served as a Baptist congregation dating back to 1911.
The building was turned into a House of Blues in 1996 for the Olympics, but by 1997, the company ditched Atlanta. Concert promoter/venue owner Lance Sterling took over in 1998 and renamed it Tabernacle (no “the” as an official title). In 1999, he sold his stake to SFX Entertainment (now Live Nation), and Atlanta mainstay concert promoters Peter Conlon and Alex Cooley moved their Cotton Club into the basement of the building.
On a chilly April day leading up to the venue’s two-decade anniversary, Conlon, now the president of Live Nation Atlanta, and Adam Cohen, vice president of booking for Live Nation Atlanta, met inside the empty, 2,500-capacity, five-level venue to share an oral history about some of the Tabernacle’s highlights and challenges.
Peter Conlon: "Financially, it didn't work for (House of Blues) after the Olympics. You couldn't count on the Olympics to pay off your investment. They put $6 million in here, I believe, and there isn't a way they could pay that off. So instead of developing Atlanta further, they decided to go into Myrtle Beach (S.C.) and let Lance take it over, and he did a pretty good job. … He felt it needed to have some local representation, so Alex (Cooley) and I made a deal with Lance. We never had a 2,500-seater and Alex wanted one and I always wanted one. It's the perfect size for a market, so it filled that void. It was a unique building. We've had some special nights here, with Prince, Dylan, Willie Nelson. People who thought it was a cool room and wanted to play it."
Adam Cohen: "When Ryan Adams played here in 2001, Elton came out and did two songs with him and literally the next day, Peter got a call from his manager, who said Elton wanted to do shows here. We did a DVD for 'Peachtree Road,' and then he came back about a year later and did another two shows here."
The venue is consistently ranked one of the best of its size in the nation from music industry insiders at Billboard and Rolling Stone. Here are some reasons why.
Cohen: "The fans are in your face. When this place goes off, it's so loud on that stage — there's really nothing else like it. I think some of the bigger agents around the country will be the first to tell you this is the best 2,500-capacity venue in the country by far, maybe even the world."
Conlon: "It's the look and feel of it, too. When Stone Temple Pilots was here, I remember Scott Weiland going around filming all of the rooms."
In 2008, a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta. The Tabernacle wasn’t a complete casualty, but suffered extensive damage.
Conlon: "I was home watching the news and they said there's been a tornado and it hit downtown. I saw where it was and I jumped in my car. When I got here, it was like a war zone, all these sirens were going off, trees were down and cars were flipped. I came in here with a flashlight and we went around and found out that the fire sprinkler system was leaking and going down into the basement and we got to it and turned it off that night. If we hadn't, the basement would have been a swimming pool. The roof was (made of lead) and it rolled into balls and shot like cannon balls; one took out Ted Turner's girlfriend's car. The windows all got blown out. I was very afraid it wouldn't be able to be repaired, that there was structural damage. But we had it assessed and we didn't have any structural problems. We've done a lot of look and feel stuff since then."
Cohen: "The renovations took about 3 1/2 months. We replaced the entire ceiling. The windows in the entire building were original. All of those had to be replaced. All the flooring in here was redone. (The coverings) over them now are courtesy of Conan (O'Brien) when he did his (weeklong show) run here during the Final Four (in 2013). He needed to black out the house and we were lucky enough to keep them out of the trash can."
Speaking of Conan …
Cohen: "The architecture in here for TV was totally unique. Conan's team walked in and five minutes later said, 'This is where we're going.' Elton, same thing. He just likes the look from the stage. This setting is unique."
Conlon: "Conan's people had looked at the Fox, but they felt it was too big. I told them to come down and look at this, and they loved it."
Cohen credits the annual Funk Jazz Kafé arts and music festival with helping promote the venue in its early days.
Cohen: "It's had an amazing history here. That event, I think, made the Tabernacle in the early days. The list of 'who's who' who played it — Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Outkast, Goodie Mob — everybody played it. You'd be here at three in the morning and there would be a line down Luckie Street. It was chaos, but it was amazing."
And there are the artists whose careers were influenced by the Tabernacle.
Cohen: "Chris Martin talks about the first time Coldplay played here when 'Yellow' was breaking. I think they were in D.C. the day before and were crunched in the lineup between Limp Bizkit and another heavy band and they were just exhausted and ready to be done with it. And they came out here and did their show, and it totally reinvigorated their interest in being a band and not stopping."
Conlon: "They came here and played to their audience and reconnected, and that kept them together. It was a pivotal moment for them."
One final history lesson.
Cohen: "The original founder of the church was also a doctor (Broughton) and started the Georgia Baptist Medical Center out of a couple of buildings that were on this property — where the Ferris wheel is now — and that turned into a massive hospital in Atlanta until about 15 years ago. I was told he had the first amplified intercom system going to the patients' beds so they could hear the sermons (from the tabernacle).
Conlon: "We've lost a lot of our old buildings in Atlanta. It's good this one has survived."
UPCOMING SHOWS AT TABERNACLE
Young Dolph, 8 p.m. Saturday. may5
Oh Wonder, 8 p.m. May 17.
Dr. Dog, 8 p.m. May 18.
Big Boi, 8 p.m. June 8.
Belle & Sebastian, 8 p.m. June 10.
Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St., Atlanta. 404-659-9022, www.tabernacleatl.com.