Still Music-Less in P.G. County: MSG and Surf Club
For the first time last week, Prince George's County authorities used expanded powers related to dancehall licensing to shutter the Capitol Heights nightclub MSG following a fatal shooting that police said took place outside the venue. Those powers fall under a July 19 bill passed unanimously by the Prince George's County Council that increased license fees, requires dancehalls to provide safety and evacuation plans before receiving a permit for dancing, bars establishments from allowing dancing between 2 and 11 a.m.—and gives police, liquor, and environmental officials wide authority to shut down clubs they consider a threat to public safety. According to Prince George's police, the county has seen seven homicides related to nightclub activity this year. This is up from three such deaths in 2010.
MSG isn't the only P.G. County nightclub that's currently closed—and, apparently, the county didn't even need its new law to keep it that way. On August 4, longtime roots-rock roadhouse the Surf Club (also known as Surf Club Live, and previously Chick Hall's Surf Club), posted this note on its website:
The shows that were scheduled for this weekend at the Surf Club are cancelled and will be rescheduled for a future date. Due to a clerical error on the Surf Club’s liquor license (a box was not checked on the application), the Surf Club is unable to have live band entertainment at the moment. I am happy to be working with the town of Edmonston in an effort to renew the application of our long-standing entertainment license and once again host your favorite Americana roots bands. I am sorry for this inconvenience and the disruption that it causes. I hope to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible.
The club’s problems are more complicated than mere paperwork. Much more.
Back in March on a one-off rap night, a fight broke out at the club, as then reported in The Washington Post and Prince George's Gazette. Security threw the participants out of the club, and later that night, two of the alleged fighters were involved in the shooting death of a third fight participant, Phillip Jared Watson, near the club in the driveway of Kenilworth Auto Tires. The Prince George’s County Police Department’s Homicide Unit has since made two arrests in connection with the homicide. (The club uses Hyattsville in its mailing address, but is actually located in the small town of Edmonston.)
Surf Club was the subject of an Aug. 3 hearing of the county's liquor board, where following testimony from Edmonston officials, the Liquor Board fined the owners James F. Byrum and James D. Byrum $5,000 for disrupting the peace and safety of the town, and not being licensed to host live entertainment. The board concluded that the club, which had five security personnel working that evening, did not call the police promptly when the fight participants were ejected from the building. Town officials earlier had requested the board to revoke the club’s liquor license. As I wrote earlier this year, the club stopped booking live music in 2009, but began trying various live acts and DJs again in August 2010.
As noted in The Gazette, Edmonston officials wrote to the liquor board accusing the Surf Club of numerous illegal activities; however, those accusations were not addressed at the Aug. 3 hearing, where the club owners said the March incident was the first of its kind in their three and a half years owning the venue, and that no incidents have occurred in the five months since.
At an Edmonston town council meeting last Monday, four fans of the club's zydeco, blues, and roots-rock offerings spoke about the venue and its unique role in the area keeping alive traditional music. They also noted how safe they've found it through the years, and suggested that they think it is a small business that Edmonston and Prince George’s County should be working with and not trying to close. (I've been to the club a number of times, and have always felt safe.) The club had booked numerous Americana acts through August, including Chicago bluesman Ronnie Baker Brooks (whose Aug. 25 gig has moved to the Silver Spring American Legion). Now, the owners are hoping the liquor board, in reviewing their appeal, will renew their entertainment license so that events scheduled for the end of this month and in September won't have to be canceled, and so that the venerable building, which has hosted live music for decades, can survive.
As for MSG, police told The Washington Post that they did not have a suspect or motive in last week's shooting, but that there has been underage drinking at the club and "countless acts of violence" at the location. Under its former name Le Pearl, the club was fined by the liquor board in January 2010 for a 2009 shooting outside the club. But the Prince George's police and liquor board never took further action under existing laws against the club until the most recent shooting, after which they used the new law. As Prince George's Police officer George Nader told the Post, “[w]hen we had the zoning-code violation, that’s what we chose to go through on.” MSG owner Eric Pickens says he plans to contest the charges. As noted at TBD, Pickens previously operated Club Neon, a Clinton, Md., teenage club, which he voluntarily closed in 2007 after a fatal shooting outside of that establishment.
Whether the new law will make Prince George's County and its remaining clubs (and streets outside the clubs) safer remains to be seen. Rap, go-go, Latin pop, and dance nights regularly occur in Prince George's County without violent incident, but when nights do attract trouble, they focus increased attention on the venues, attendees, and genres. And security does seem to have increased at some clubs. To get into a recent reggaeton gig in a Hyattsville club, I had to empty my pockets and submit to a pat-down—twice—before entering. But that doesn't guarantee there won't be problems outside, as both the Surf Club and MSG incidents show: The clubs took the blame for violence committed on the street.
One side effect of this is that the Surf Club is hoping to avoid future problems by sticking to genres like roots rock and zydeco that appeal to an older crowd, which it believes are less likely include include troublemakers, in addition to increased security. It's not clear whether that plan will be enough to appease the liquor board and the town of Edmonston. Owing to its history, MSG has an even more difficult road to clearing its name and remaining open.