By Randy Rodda | Photos by Beau Manley
John Green likes to think of his new 140-seat concert hall at 2900 Franklin Blvd. in Curtis Park as his very own Branson, Mo., showplace.
Since late April, this venue -- dubbed The Side Door @ The Fifth String -- has been the setting for semi-regular gigs featuring top-notch local, national and international musicians. Green’s so-called “listening room” resonates unencumbered amid intoxicating sounds of bluegrass, folk, country, rock and more.
Got a spare $20? Treat yourself to a solid three hours of sweet sounds free of the clatter, clank and chatter of bar venues.
The Side Door -- a cheeky reference to the Fourth Avenue entrance to the concert hall -- came about quite unexpectedly.
Green, a fifth-generation Sacramento resident with considerable guitar chops as a performer and teacher, is the owner of The Fifth String, longtime guitar store/music studio that ended its retail operations with the sudden decline of brick-and-mortar, then moved last October from N Street in the Alhambra Boulevard business corridor to the less congested spot on Franklin, a Spanish-design building that was a Safeway back before rock-and-roll hit the scene.
This latest version of the business was initially set up as the Fifth String School of Music -- focusing solely on guitar, dobro, violin, mandolin, ukulele and voice instruction to young and old.
But shortly after the move, a spacious artists space just a partition away at the same address became available to lease. Green seized on the opportunity and the newly named studio underwent yet another name change -- becoming The Side Door @ The Fifth String.
It took months of toil and skinned knuckles before Green’s vision became reality.
“There was a lot of work that went into all of this,” said Green, who works the showtime room as both ambassador of good will and emcee.
Converting the art space to a concert hall was a labor of love, in-kind labor, technical knowhow and donations, involving students, ex-students and longtime friends. The revamp features new carpeting, a stage and lighting, state-of-the art sound equipment, a new bathroom, and the addition of 140 seats. And yes, the namesake side door had to be jerry-rigged to open in the proper direction.
But fans and musicians are smitten with the subdued ambience of this showplace -- a huge nod to the overriding importance of the music filling the room with ample character and clarity.
Rows of padded folding chairs face the stage, with a lone ceiling-level window filtering in the day’s remaining sunlight as showtime draws near, typically, about 7 p.m. Fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling are activated with a tug of cords -- often with audience assistance -- as the show gets underway. The off-white walls are mostly bare -- the lone exception, a framed photo of country music legend Hank Williams. Two ceiling fans keep the air circulating. A counter toward the back of the room serves as concession stand and ticket counter, often staffed by Green’s wife and Fifth String voice teacher, Vivian Llamas Green.
Green, who also works as a CPA, is clearly motivated by the new challenge.
Filling the seats with customers is another matter. However, Green knows a thing or two about putting on shows. He and his brother, Skip, booked shows at the nearby 24th Street Theatre in the early 1980s. Headliners then included country luminaries the Seldom Scene, David Grisman and Vince Gill.
On Friday April 27, Eric Andersen & Band opened The Side Door @ The Fifth String, billed on its own website as “Sacramento’s newest, intimate listening room.”
Andersen, a contemporary of Bob Dylan and the Greenwich Village folk scene way back in the 1960s, fit Green’s immediate business model for his brand-new showplace.
“My focus -- without being discriminatory -- is (baby) boomers,” he said.
A white-hair census of the opening-day crowd confirmed the showman’s acumen for sizing up a customer base. Many on hand for the show no doubt remembered Andersen from the day, when he penned songs including "Thirsty Boots” and “Violets of Dawn,” even if unfamiliar with his respected work as a songwriter/recording artist still plugging away just shy of 2020.
Though Green’s music of preference is “straight California Valley country music” -- the variety that nurtured Buck Owens and Rose and the Maddox brothers, from Bakersfield to Marysville and beyond -- he mines many veins of the acoustic motherlode for the Side Door stage, working with local booking agent Swell Productions.
He also promotes the venue through Facebook and mailing lists, with an occasional print ad placement. The flat-price $20 ticket can be purchased at the door or through www.thesidedoor.net, where upcoming marquee attractions are posted.
Headliners have included Bay-area bluegrass standouts High Country; Iain Matthews, of Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort; Austin Americana songwriting standout Adam Carroll; jazz chanteuse Shelley Burns and Avalon Swing; and Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who wowed a packed room with his breadth of musical history and jaw-dropping musicianship.
Green’s showplace offers some beverages, but brews, wine and a great wood-fired pizza and more are available next-door at the Hop Gardens.
And just a short walk down the street from Fourth and Franklin are the flying neon scoops of Gunther’s storied ice cream shop and a burger of renown at Pangea Cafe.
The Side Door's report card after more than six months in the groove?
“It’s going OK -- as my word gets out,” said Green, who is working hard at making more inroads into Sacramento’s burgeoning musical scene.
To this end, the showman relies on a whimsical take on his ethnic heritage -- “too Irish to run and too Scottish to forget” -- as grounds for optimism that The Side Door @The Fifth String is on the path to success as a Sacramento cultural mainstay.
“In six to seven months,” Green predicts, “the shows will become more and more difficult to get into.”
Listen up, Sacramento.