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December 29, 2008

Memories of the old Sonar

sonar baltimoreMidnight Sun reader Steven Dashiell sent me this short piece about the old Sonar. It hits upon some great points, and I wanted to share it with you:

About a week ago, one of my close friends was lamenting about Baltimore's sheer lack of bars for the "professional set." This doesn't mean a stodgy cigar bar or obnoxious frou-frou place where the average metrosexual sips an apple-tini.

No, he was talking about a bar where a 30-something could go and hang out, chill, and just be around like minded individuals and not be overrun by the hyper-energized 20 something set and the trolls that seem to leer after them. A place where good music doesn't always mean the newest pop sensation put to a dance beat. Where I can say the name "DJ Shadow" and the average person doesn't say "Who?"
When I first moved to Baltimore (and I wasn't in the professional set then, just some 20 something) there was a bar like this, and it was called Sonar. Not the Sonar of which exists downtown now. It was quietly situated in Canton Square.

It was a small place, with a dancefloor half the size of my living room, and a dim light setting. Plush couches and comfortable chairs were around with bowls filled with wasabi peas. The general sense was relaxed, and the music sounded more like club music that was inventive rather than replicative (I commonly mention XM Chill as the style of music that was played there) ...

sonar baltimoreI mention this place wistfully to my friend, who points out, hey, there's still a Sonar, so we should go there.

Yet, I knew from the warehouse setting that this was NOT the Sonar of my memory. This reminded me more of someone's attempt at Nation than a replication of that which was Sonar. Even the "comfy rooms" seemed out of place. 

It was like losing the love of your life, and staring at the zombie of that loved one as they amble through existence, sharing only the name of your lost love.
I do realize there are many that probably adore the "new" Sonar, but I am sadly not one. I, who don't have an entrepeneureal bone in my body, was seriously thinking of opening a bar that recreated the Sonar feel, just to have someplace the "professional set" can call home. But how long before even that place, a try to recreate Carthage, turns into something alien and unfamiliar? Not long, I suppose. Such would be true if I found another 30-something gem hidden somewhere; it couldn't last forever, and stay the same.
I will age, and join the 40-somethings and find myself content with home parties with wit and stories of days gone by, as my images of the old Sonar become more and more a distant memory. I hope that everyone finds a place like that, where it isn't about the beads of sweat on your brow, or the scribbled drunken numbers in your pocket, but the ability to sit somewhere and feel ... home.

(These two photos are the oldest ones I could find of Sonar. I'm not sure if this is of the old Sonar or not. They're from early 2004, and they were taken by Sun photographer Kenneth K. Lam)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 1:57 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Bars & Clubs, Local music


They had really good desserts too when they first opened.

I visited "that sonar" a couple times. definitely more upscale-clubby than it's current incarnation.

Before it was JD's it was Sonar, and before it was Sonar it was my apartment. Yep, I lived on the second floor overlooking the square until the day the proprietors of Sonar (now known as the Sonar's) bought the building away from the sweet old couple that owned it. They lived just across the street in the first row home next to the laundromat. Before it was my apartment, it was a video store that they operated. Once the Sonar's took control, I believe it was in December, they kicked us right out. We refused and claimed that they had to give us 30 days notice. They yielded and we though all was good...until I came home from work one night and they had removed the entire building's heating system. It was 32 degrees in my living room. They Sonar's are not nice people...they take advantage of smaller people in their way to get what they want. So in closing, I do not miss old Sonar one bit....I miss my apartment.

Went to the "current" Sonar last week for the BBC-hosted Spank Rock show and it seemed oversold. We were crammed into the two smaller rooms while the larger side of the venue went unused. Where's a fire marshal when you need one?

I remember the old Sonar, some good times there. Steven Dashiell is right, there aren't so many places like that anymore, at least that I can think of. I'd throw the old GoodLove and Spy Club in that category too. I guess the latter still exists, but I haven't been in years, so maybe it is different. Red Maple might have filled the void, but I've never felt comfortable with the vibe there. Of course I'm a 30-something now, so I don't go out nearly as much or keep tabs on what ALL the bars are like as I used to.

When I first moved to Baltimore almost a decade ago I used to hang out at Sonar and Goodlove almost every night.
I loved the music and miss having places like that to go to. As a matter of fact every Tuesday night at Mother's I take over the music and host the "Queen's Lounge". I'm not sure how well the 20 something crowd likes it but I LOVE it. L.G. and the old Sonar were like family. I wish Steven Dashiell would open a place!

I am a 20 something (26) and I can tell you that there really isn't a good place for professionals to go period in Baltimore, maybe except Red Maple. Pretty much everything in Baltimore caters to the "I am in college and wanna get stupid drunk and puke on you crowd."

I am somewhat of a newbie to Baltimore, but I often complain about the lack of bars/dance places for professionals, 30-somethings, whatever you want to call the demographic I belong to. I have a few beloved bars that offer that vibe, but nowhere for dancing, which makes me sad. I have to drive to my special places in D.C. and Virginia if I want that. *sigh*

As one of the former owners of the old Sonar -- I don't remember us putting anyone out on the street or cutting off the heat. Now I was not handling the transactions of the building purchase (those were handled by Lonnie and the investors), so I am not saying it did not happen, and if it did, I am sorry that it went down like that. I actually moved into that upstairs apartment, but not until late Feb or early March -- and I didn't have heat then (I used space heaters). We didn't cut the heat off to be [mean] -- it was cut off due to renovations (hvac was a major one) and deadlines.

I miss the old Sonar -- wish we would have never moved to Saratoga -- but I was out voted by the other invested parties.

I love the music/vibe at Idle Hour in Federal Hill. It's not a place for dancing, but it does offer an alternative to the meathead scene.

Just curious because I've never been there but for dinner, but couldn't Pazo be considered a place to hang out for the 30-something set? Also, a few other places come to mind:

Junior's Wine Bar
The Wine Market
Red Star

Now what I've been lobbying for a long, long time is a bar that truly treats its cocktails like an art as they do in NYC at places like Little Branch and Pegu Club.

Wow - color me shocked. Thanks for putting up my blurb. And thanks for all of the comments. I REALLY miss the old Sonar, especially now. If it were open, it would *so* be where I would spend NYE.

LoveGrove - Thanks for the explanation...and I'm sorry that you had no idea how Lonnie and the investors were handling it. It's clear you are not the one at fault and meant no harm. They brought in the space heaters when we were there, but they didn't really do the trick in the dead of winter. I know they were on a deadline, however we just wanted to be treated civil...not like something in their way. Renters have rights, and at that point we were still renters. It just wasn't a good situation. It left a real sour taste in my, and all of my friend's, mouth which caused us to never hang out there because of it. Seems like we missed out on a nice place.

I do remember meeting you guys when you rented -- I remember a large amount of pizza boxes in the apartment. :-)

Sorry this situation happened the way it did -- I wish you and your friends could have experienced the old Sonar -- it was great.

I racked my brain last night trying to remember the circumstances surrounding your lease and us taking over, but years of drinking and being a professional DJ has left my memory crap -- and this was 9 years ago. I know things were moving pretty fast for us and we were all very inexperienced as business owners. I am sure we mishandled some situations. Again accept my apologies on behalf of the "Sonar's".

Thanks to Sam for bringing up this great time in my life. While Joe lost an apartment, I lost quite a bit of $$ and a dream I had -- though I would trade it for nothing.

Some things to note -- Sonar was named "best new club" (though it was more of a lounge) by URB Magazine (national hip-hop / club culture rag) in 2000, and "Best New Bar - Canton" in City Paper that year too.

Sonar moving looks to be have been a solid business move, as the club is still open and doing well -- but the O'Donnell Street local holds a special place in Baltimore nightlife history.

Those of you "30 and over" looking for a good NYE -- I will be spinning deep house at RED MAPLE, with Naked Music vocalist LISA SHAW doing 2 live vocal performances -- 12A - 4A. No cheese, no commercial crap, just the deep, sexy, and funky house sound (like we played at the old Sonar).

I used to live near Sonar back then and went a number of times. It was awesome. Don't know if its right to say this, but I used to experiement with ecstacy back then and go there and had the craziest fun times...I truly do miss it. I wasn't big into the music but when I got there for the next couple of hours I became a huge fan.

Thanks for bringing back the memories. You are right, there is no bar that has been able to replicate the feel of the place and I'm not it can be done.

For a professional vibe outside yuppie enclaves, look into the Windup Space in Station North (yeah, North Ave, whatever). Cool, artsy, sophisticated surroundings, without the grunge that "artsy" tends to mean in B-more.

fizzy - Good call. I really like that spot plus they always have good bands/djs playing there.

Shameless plug: I am dj'ing a new night there on January 29th called "VAPID" with lots of italo-disco, post-punk, new wave, house and funk music.

21+ and FREE, naturally.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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