As The Weekender is led down several flights of stairs into the basement of The Factory in downtown Wilkes-Barre, it doesn’t seem like a venue that could share its space with apartments and offices just a few floors above. With neon lights illuminating paintings of miners toiling across the corridors, it’s tough to predict what’s coming next, but we were relived to find that it wasn’t some cramped, dank little basement.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite, with a beautiful open floor and sizable stage lit by moving colored lights across the high ceiling, held up by solid wood beams surrounded by several bars above the main floor that can accommodate patrons as they take in the band of their choice. James O’Rourke finds it hard to believe that this was once used as a dance club called The Mines.
“I was never down here when it was The Mines. It’s wasn’t my cup of tea, so I never knew what the place even looked like as a dance club until I came down here to work. The minute I walked into the place, I took a look at the place and it screamed to me ‘live music venue,’” O’Rourke recalled.
The 33-year-old Wilkes-Barre native should know – he’s toured across the country with bands like Slipknot, Bloodhound Gang, Insane Clown Posse, and Twiztid with Wolfpac, a rap/heavy metal crossover group he performed in from 2001 through 2009. After being “entrenched” in the local music scene for years, the vocalist, bassist, and programmer is just as eager to work behind the stage as he is on it, recently becoming the promoter and assistant manager for The Factory.
“I almost feel that it’s my duty to give it back to the music scene. All the bands that are out there trying their damnedest to play in a club like this haven’t had some of the opportunities that I had being in Wolfpac to play with a professional sound system with professional lighting on a stage that’s not two inches up off the floor,” he explained.
“It seems like in this area, all the places that were venues for bands to play in a professional setting seemed to have gone the way of the landline – they’re very few and far between. Most places for bands to play now are bars that happen to have a small stage for a band. Rather than be a bar that happens to feature bands, we’re a venue for the bands that happens to have a bar.”
After about a year of planning with booking manager Greg Schaffer and beverage manager Mary Bogert, they launched The Factory: Underground, a live music series that features a new lineup of local bands every Friday night.
“The ‘Underground’ was added to differentiate the fact that we are doing local, original music,” O’Rourke noted.
“As long as you’re original, there is a place for you here. I love to go out sometimes and hear cover bands, tribute bands, so even that’s not something I’d ever turn my nose up at, but right now, we focus on the original music.”
Attendance has steadily increased throughout its first seven weeks, and starting tonight, they will host acoustic shows every Wednesday as well. Most of the bands that have performed so far are punk and metal acts, but they’re open to country, hip-hop, and other genres as the shows catch on.
“The bands that we’re getting down here are nothing but professional, excellent-sounding. They’re about as tight as a lot of the bands I’ve toured with,” O’Rourke said.
“They’re all bands that, in my opinion, could be on a national tour.”
With local rock venues like Cafe Metropolis and The Staircase long gone, he believes they’re filling a void that corner bars just aren’t equipped to handle.
“I know (the lack of small local venues is) not due to a lack of public interest. I know I never stopped being interested, and the musicians that I grew up with that are now still playing… are playing out more than ever before, but it’s all in these smaller bars. Bless them for what they do, but in most cases, bands have to bring their own PA systems,” he said.
“At least here, we can do hip-hop shows just as easy as we can do heavy metal shows. We can do country just as easy as we can do industrial. That definitely is what our goal is, to one day be doing five days, six days out of the week, something different for different people around here.”
“(Musicians) walk in and they see how wide open it is, the room that we have, and it keeps getting referred back to, ‘Wow, this is a venue that you would see down in Philly or up in New York,’ just because of our capacity and our layout and the way that our house system is,” Schaffer, who also plays with O’Rourke in industrial trip-hop duo Dub City Scum, added.
“It’s like that big city experience but without having to drive two hours to indulgence in that environment.”
Eventually, they hope to pull in some national acts using O’Rourke’s contacts, but for now, they’re just thrilled to finally be living their collective dream.
“I keep in touch with a lot of friends that I made on the road, and they’re nothing but excited about what I’m doing down here,” O’Rourke said.
“I take great pride in it. It’s such a fulfillment after all the planning and work that we’ve done to get to this point, to finally see your dream come alive. It’s great,” Bogert enthused.
“To take me away from this now, you’ll have to pull me kicking and screaming,” O’Rourke emphasized with a laugh. “I’m in this for the long haul.”