• Feature

Top Cats - A Chat with Rob Thomas

Top Cat’s was a Cincinnati live music staple for years, and has been a part of the vibrant, varied, and at times, worrisome history of Short Vine since the 1920’s. Throughout the 90’s into the early aughts, it was a hotspot for indie bands of all stripes. I remember catching punk ska revivalists Buck-O-Nine there, along with mod-pop upstarts The Gadjits. Later, I’d catch Hopesfall and Engine Down. 

The venue closed its doors in 2007, the space then occupied afterwards by at least one other tenant. Now, Top Cat’s is back, having been resurrected this past August. And they’re off to a hell of a restart. 

I caught up with Rob Thomas, who leads the team putting together shows and events at Top Cat’s. He talks a bit about his personal history in the area, how he got into booking shows, and what it’s like to bring a venue back to life. 

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an events person, and how you came to be involved with Top Cat’s?

Like many of us I started out by playing in bands through high school. I was always the guy handling business for the band. The business side always got me off more than playing my instrument. I started putting local shows together at a YMCA Teen Center in Dayton, KY around 2004. A few years later I started doing local shows at Mad Hatter in Covington, KY. From there I started promoting regional and national touring shows for the owners Frank, Kevin and Chris until I started buying regional and national talent on my own. I owe a lot to the three owners at Mad Hatter. I booked the opening of Thompson House from 2012 – 2015 until I ended up at Live Nation as the Talent Buyer for Bogart’s from 2015-2018. I met the owners of Top Cats who also owned another bar on short vine during my time at Bogart’s. I left Bogart’s in June of 2018 and got the call from Top Cat’s shortly after.

It looks like you have a wide variety of shows that you’ve put together at the new Top Cat’s - can you talk about what it’s been like to bring this venue back to life and what the philosophy has been in putting together the lineup of events?

I’ve been honored and privileged to book a few of the many iconic rooms that we have here in Cincinnati. Going in to a space with as much history as Top Cat’s the main focus has been to uphold the integrity of the room. The philosophy is to bring as many regional and national touring bands to the room, giving local bands the opportunity to open the show, putting them in front of as many new faces as possible.

Speaking of bringing Top Cat’s back to life - how involved have you been in putting it all back together and presenting it to Cincinnati concert goers? What’s that process been like?

I think the music community was a little skeptical when it was announced that the room was going to be reopening as Top Cat’s. Thankfully the owners acknowledged the history, knew that I had strong ties to the community, and believed in my vision for the room. I was fortunate enough to already have a solid business partner and marketer on my team in Garrett Zimmerman, who shared my vision for the room and helped build out the team at Top Cat’s

We brought on Kaylah Bozman to our digital marketing team and Michelle Schwab as a marketing and box office intern. We also acquired Jake Richter, a well-known engineer in the local music community. He has done a great job of building out and maintaining the sound system and production in the room, and has also hired a great staff of sound engineers. Most recently we added Claire Munchen as marketing coordinator and Logan Radlove as a booker. I can’t say enough about the owners at Top Cat’s, Tony Engel, and the GM Josh Reinhardt. They’ve really been great to us through the whole process and genuinely care.

There’s definitely a need for a space the size/capacity of Top Cat’s in Cincinnati, even more so an All-Ages space. What’s been the most exciting part of working with a venue like Top Cats? Are you consciously working on filling that void, or is it more about just presenting the best shows for that space, regardless?

What’s most exciting is getting to be a part of the rich history of the room. Booking bands like Less Than Jake and hearing fans talk about “old times” is definitely something that keeps me going. Our first show with The Animal Crackers and Mr. Dibbs meant so much. Watching those guys perform was definitely something special. For me It’s 110% about booking good shows, creating a fun atmosphere, and taking care of bands. I try not to put too much stock in to what other people are doing.

What’s on the horizon for Top Cat’s? Anything cool that you’re working on that you can tell us about?

If anyone is familiar with the old movie theaters in the back of the building, we’re brainstorming ways to open those up, adding another 500-600 cap room to the space. Too many good shows in the works to talk about, but stay tuned!

Thanks to Rob for taking the time to answer my questions and giving us a new perspective on what’s quickly become one of my favorite spaces for live music in the city. Be sure to check out their calendar of events, and hey, maybe I’ll see you there.