At Essex, vibes matter just as much as music 

click to enlarge From left, Essex partners Zack Mikida, Dave Drago, Mack Hartman, and Josh Miles.

JACOB WALSH.

From left, Essex partners Zack Mikida, Dave Drago, Mack Hartman, and Josh Miles.

Dave Drago has opened plenty of music venues, but none of them had a former hot yoga studio where the stage ended up. That’s a first for him at Essex, Rochester’s newest music hall which opened on Friday, Oct. 6.

Essex is located at 1048 University Ave. in the former space occupied by M/Body fitness studio. A century ago, it contained a car dealership that sold the Essex Coach, which inspired the venue’s name. Now, Drago and his partners have transformed it once again. Hometown soul powerhouse Danielle Ponder opened Essex with back-to-back performances on both Oct. 6 and 7.

click to enlarge Danielle Ponder performed two shows during opening weekend of Essex in October. - FRED MCCOY.
  • FRED MCCOY.
  • Danielle Ponder performed two shows during opening weekend of Essex in October.
Drago, who also operates and records music at 1809 Studios in Macedon, is used to making the most of the space he has. “I don't like to go to concerts and I don't like to go to festivals,” he said. The idea for Essex? “Let's make a venue I'd want to go to.”
That idea began with his partners at SCN Hospitality, the group behind local restaurants The Revelry, Branca Midtown, Bitter Honey, Velvet Belly, Nocino, and Ziggy’s. They brought in Drago on March 28, just over six months before opening — construction on the actual venue didn’t begin until August 1.

With hospitality at the fore, the Essex team aims to create good vibes just as much as a great-sounding room with top-tier talent. Outside, there’s an ample parking lot, an aspect Drago believes will help sell the venue.

Inside, meanwhile, Drago and co-owners Zack Mikida, Josh Miles, and Mack Hartman found inspiration in certain “swanky” music halls in New York City, like City Winery, that avoid what Drago labeled the “cattle call” — herd ‘em in, stage the show, and herd ‘em out.

click to enlarge From left, Essex partners Zack Mikida, Dave Drago, Mack Hartman, and Josh Miles. - JACOB WALSH.
  • JACOB WALSH.
  • From left, Essex partners Zack Mikida, Dave Drago, Mack Hartman, and Josh Miles.
“It doesn't have to be, ‘I love this band so much, I'll suffer whatever this venue has to throw at me,’” Drago said. Instead, they’re chasing a more elemental guest interaction: “What do they have? That's good enough. I like that place.”

To that end, there are many personal touches. Lighting elements wrap around support pillars so that, in Drago’s words, “the room will have a glow to it even when the lights are down.” Two small bars punctuate the back corners, maybe even a few familiar faces pouring drinks.

click to enlarge Chi The Realist performed during opening weekend at Essex in October. - FRED MCCOY.
  • FRED MCCOY.
  • Chi The Realist performed during opening weekend at Essex in October.
“We have such a wonderful pool of consummate professionals that are running other bars,” Mikida said. “There's all these favorites we can pull from. People can come in and be like, ‘Oh wow, what are you doing here?’”

With a capacity of about 800, the goal is drawing in national touring acts, not necessarily local groups. “We don't want to shut Photo City [Music Hall] down. We love Photo City!” Drago said. “We don't want to take artists away from the great stages that already exist in this town.”

Drago, Mikida, and Hartman handle the talent buying in-house. They’re currently having logistical conversations with bookers and promoters about future headliners, their teams, and the local acts who would ideally offer support. “Hospitality is multi-faceted in this space,” Mikida said. “It’s not only the guest-facing side of things. It's also the person who's playing that night, or their crew.”

Next up, local favorites Joywave are set for a two-night stand Nov. 16-17. Mikaela Davis will hit the stage on Dec. 9. Between those, tickets are on sale for shows from Marty O'Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra, Lucero, Led Zeppelin tribute act Mothership, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and more.

Patrick Hosken is a contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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