By Ron Donoho
With the likes of Belly Up (established in 1974) and The Casbah (opened in 1989) long ruling the roost, it's been tough for rookie venues to break into the local live music scene.
But thanks to veteran talent booker Joe Rinaldi, the new kid on the 1300 block of Morena Boulevard is now playing with the big boys.
"The Griffin has come out of nowhere and taken the city of San Diego by surprise," Rinaldi says.
Rinaldi was busy booking West Hollywood's famed Viper Room when he got the call from San Diego-based West Group (Bar West in Pacific Beach, Gaijin Noodle + Sake House in the Gaslamp) to head-up the concert line-up at The Griffin (formerly an Irish dive bar called O'Connell's), the nightlife group's new project along the Morena shopping district.
In L.A., Rinaldi booked a long list of top acts across a variety of genres: Prince, Katy Perry, Aretha Franklin, Panic at the Disco, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Snoop Dogg. The list goes on. But to book acts of this caliber at The Griffin (of course, Prince will always be a long- shot for the 241-person-capacity room), he realized changes would need to be made.
"Everything was in place to make it a perfect small venue," Rinaldi says. "Booths - check. Sound system, raising the speakers, curtaining the stage, leaving the sound-board in a dominant position - check, check, check. Not inhibiting sightlines from any part of the room - check."
The problem was, as Rinaldi saw it, that The Griffin was a neighborhood bar by day and had live music only on occasion. The formula wasn't working. So, under his experienced eye, the brand-new venue transformed again.
The new, new The Griffin now has a wood- paneled exterior and rougher interior wooden walls. The pool tables are still in place, but karaoke is gone, and now the place is only open when a musical act is booked.
"There aren't that many people around town who can turn a venue into a pure music play," says Rinaldi. "It requires a lot of preexisting relationships with bands, agents and managers, plus the musician community."
Rinaldi is a native who attended University of California, San Diego. He says he inherited a savvy staff and that a feeling of loyalty is mutual. And now The Griffin team is getting on the map by booking the likes of Band of Skulls, British alt. rockers who stopped in between Coachella weekends last year; Shwayze, who's "Buzzin'" collaboration with former Whitestarr frontman, Cisco, climbed the Billboard Hot 100 chart; and Augustana, a band from San Diego whose hit song "Boston" has garnered more than six million YouTube views.
"In the small-club world, everybody's talking about us positively," says Rinaldi. "Bands know, if they're coming to town, this is now a venue they have to consider."
Search upcoming shows at thegriffinsd.com.
1310 Morena Blvd., Morena Shopping District (by Tecolote Canyon)