Tuned In

Tuned In
(Image: © Don Naman)

Consider a typical weekend for Iron City, a 1,300-person venue in Birmingham, AL: On Friday night, the thrash metal of Slayer brings in the headbangers, followed by a traditional wedding on Saturday, then colorful rocker Marilyn Manson on Sunday. All that while its adjacent restaurant, The Grill, serves up tuna tartare and grilled sirloin steaks, with diners happily enjoying meals while never hearing the ripping chords of “Raining Blood” spilling through the walls.

“We literally had that one weekend, three in a row,” said Jason Westbrook, Iron City’s production manager. “It was pretty fun.”

What wasn’t always fun, however, was the venue’s sound system. When owner Steve DeMedicis initially renovated the space, which was originally built in 1929 and served the city’s automotive needs in different capacities over the years, he pictured a smaller venue with a capacity of around 400 people, and, in turn, planned for an audiovisual system to match. When the resulting space proved to be so much vaster and welcoming to larger acts, it was clear the PA wasn’t going to be enough for the likes of Tom Jones, B.B. King, and Gregg Allman. Which is where Westbrook came in. After Iron City rented a board from the local production company he was working with at the time, he then started working on the venue’s crew, moved up from there, and hasn’t looked back. One of the first things he proposed was improving the PA, and was impressed to find DeMedicis supported the idea.

“We pretty much upgraded the system times 10—it’s very happening now,” Westbrook said. “Bands come in and feel like they have an off day, because it’s so easy here. ‘Oh wow, they’ve got everything that we need, okay cool,’ they say.”

The first step, he says, was to call up Ivan Beaver, chief engineer at Danley Sound Labs, to discuss the system’s needs. “He brought in some more speakers, more than tripled our subwoofers, doubled up on amplifiers and processing,” Westbrook said. The system now features a pair of Danley Sound Labs Jericho J1s, plus two SH95HO underhangs, two each of the SH64 and SH69, plus several SHMicros and SHMinis. Subwoofers include the TH-118 and TH-412, and Danley SM80M monitors also help round out the audio.

“Since we put the Jericho system in, we haven’t blown a single speaker, had a single issue. It’s running in the green the whole time,” he said. “And we’ve had tons of acts in here that really have put the PA to the test.”

For acts that don’t bring in their own consoles, a 72-channel Yamaha CL5 is at front-of-house, and a 48-channel Yamaha CL1 is the monitor console.

They’ve also made improvements to their lighting system—up to more than 24 moving heads at the moment—which includes Martin MAC 700s, Clay Paky Sharpys, and more. And, since they’re always trying to stay current, the lighting package continue to evolve, which includes the recent addition of a grandMA2 console from MA Lighting.

With a solid lineup of touring artists, it’s no wonder Iron City won the 2018 Nightclub & Bar Award for Live Music Venue of the Year.
(Image: © Don Naman)

Considering all these upgrades, when combined with future plans to open a patio and outdoor stage, as well, it’s no wonder Iron City has become such a force in the area since its opening in 2013. With regularly sold-out shows, it was recently named Best Music Venue in the 2017 Best of Birmingham by AL.com, and it also just won the 2018 Nightclub & Bar Award for Live Music Venue of the Year. In a city where other venues are either smaller and not attracting the same kinds of acts, or an enormous outdoor amphitheater, Iron City provides a welcoming space for more popular acts, while retaining that feeling of intimacy.

“It’s a really great spot to see a band, because our stage is only four feet tall, so people can get really close to the artist,” Westbrook said. “You can literally touch them.”

For Westbrook, who grew up in the area but moved around as a touring engineer before settling in Los Angeles for a time, the appeal of a venue of this size makes a lot of sense, for his birth city and for him personally. Prior to Iron City’s opening, he’d worked at venues in L.A. like the Viper Room, the Key Club, and the Roxy, enjoying the vibrant music scene that city had fostered.

“My dad was always asking me to come back to Birmingham,” he said. “And if there was a venue in Birmingham, I would have come back here to work. But until this was built, you had to tour if you lived in town and wanted to make money in this profession. There was just nothing in town that was large enough to sustain a job.”

And now that they’ve upgraded the system, Iron City has become one of the fully self-contained venues to hold so many people in the area—a draw not just for music professionals like Westbrook, but for touring musicians, and for anyone else who may be renting the space.

“It’s funny because wedding DJs will call me and go, ‘Do I need to bring my PA, because I like to really rock it,’” Westbrook said. “And I always say, ‘Dude, we had Slayer in here on our PA. Are you going to rock it more than Slayer? I think we can handle you.’”