Live music has been hit hard during the pandemic.
Here in Santa Cruz, several venues have stayed open by operating as restaurants and throwing socially distant outdoor shows. But that hasn’t been an option for spots that run primarily as bars and nightclubs.
Take Moe’s Alley, a legacy venue, one that has meant a lot to many people in this community and the countless touring bands that play the stage every year. Since last March, owner Bill Welch has had to keep the bills paid with zero revenue. But now some of his stress is lifting. Just after the first of the year, he sold it to Lisa Norelli, 41, and Brian Ziel, 53, who have talked about owning a venue since they became friends 12 years ago.
“This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time,” says Ziel. “What Bill was going through over the last 10 months was trying to keep Moe’s from closing forever. Literally, it was survival. I feel like we’re at a place now where Lisa and I are focused on, ‘How are we going to reopen?’”
The pandemic’s effects aside, Welch had actually been in talks with Norelli and Ziel for years about buying the club. Ziel has been involved in various aspects of music for the past 30 years. His career has primarily been in the tech PR industry. Norelli has worked at Moe’s for 15 years, first as a bartender. For the past 11 years, she’s been the club’s general manager.
“He [Welch] has always wanted to groom me to do this. I always wanted to do it with Brian. We’ve been working toward this for a long time. I’m thrilled that it’s finally happening,” Norelli says. “We’re not just two yahoos walking off the street that are going to change Moe’s. The soul of Moe’s will remain as it always has been, we just want to grow it.”
“I couldn’t think of two better people to pass the torch to than Brian and Lisa,” says Welch, who opened the club in 1992. “They’re both music lovers. I’ve been working with Lisa for 15 years.”
The two point out that once upon a time, Moe’s was strictly a blues club. Over the years, Welch broadened the acts he booked to include funk, reggae, Americana, and country.
Ziel and Norelli want to do the same thing: Keep those same genres, and book the same local and national acts that people have come to associate with Moe’s over the years, but to broaden the boundaries a bit, with an eye toward drawing a younger audience.
“I think there’s some indie rock, there’s some EDM, that would definitely bring in younger fans,” says Norelli. “There are a lot of people that still don’t know about us. We’re going to change that.”
Buying a nightclub with no revenue during a global pandemic is a risky move, but Norelli and Ziel are cautiously optimistic. For now, they have some remodel work they want to take on. They plan to expand Moe’s patio area and turn it into a space that can have outdoor acoustic socially distant shows. They say there will be food trucks and other fun stuff.
As soon as they feel it’s safe, they’ll throw outdoor, socially distant concerts. They are hoping it’ll be in the spring or early summer, but are not making any commitments. As for when they’ll be reopening the inside space, that will be further down the road when the Covid-19 situation has drastically improved.
“It’s a matter of when, not if. There is pent up demand for audiences and bands. The big question is, how comfortable are people gonna feel? Lisa and I are making safety our top priority at Moe’s,” Ziel says. “We don’t have a date. But we have a ton of energy. I’ve been to hundreds of shows at Moe’s. It’s a special place. We want to keep the legacy that Bill built.”
“I know that Moe’s is going to be in good hands,” says Welch. “They’ve got diverse music tastes, and they’re from the community.”