The energized music scene centralized around the Short Vine district near the University of Cincinnati from the early ’90s through the early ’00s was fostered by its live-music clubs. There was the big neighborhood veteran Bogart’s hosting larger shows. Across the street was the dingy but vibrant Sudsy Malone’s, which developed a reputation for showcasing the cutting edge of music, featuring local acts big and small alongside touring groups, some of whom would go on to much bigger things. (You could also do your laundry there, making it a memorable and anticipated stop for those national acts.)
Completing the Short Vine live-music triumvirate was Top Cat’s, just a couple of blocks down the street. The venue was more in the vein of Sudsy’s in terms of booking, offering local musicians who wrote their own songs a home and hosting well-known and up-and-coming touring acts. It also shared a similar dive-y griminess — the Sudsy’s bathrooms were frighteningly rank, but Top Cat’s could often be worse, if only because they were slightly bigger and the men’s room had one of those barn-stall troughs that didn’t always seem to work properly. But besides the music, it did have other appealing attributes — the outdoor patio offered a nice reprieve from the raucous performance room, as did the subterranean bar downstairs called Fat Cat’s.
It was the music that created a sense of community at Top Cat’s, though. With Brian Andersen at the helm in the early ’90s, the club presented original acts several times a week, from Jam bands to Reggae groups to a lot of the city’s best Alternative and Indie bands. That Alt scene’s biggest band, The Afghan Whigs, played secret warm-up shows at Top Cat’s at the height of their popularity.
After Andersen left, Top Cat’s (under the guidance of Short Vine power couple Bobby Nicholas and Vicki Cunningham, who’ve both sadly passed away since then) continued to book a lot of those same kinds of local bands and like-minded national acts, but it also welcomed in the local Hip Hop community. Anchored by acclaimed local DJ collective The Animal Crackers, Wednesdays at Top Cat’s would grow to become an important piece of Cincinnati Hip Hop history. Attracting the cream of the MC, DJ and dancer crop each week to perform, battle or just hang out, the events were a huge Wednesday night draw in the area. (Check out some recorded highlights on The Animal Crackers Soundcloud page.)
Post 9/11, Short Vine gradually began losing its luster, and while Bogart’s has held steady, there was a lot of business turnover in the area. Sudsy’s closed in 2005 and Top Cat’s followed suit two years later.
At the start of the ’10s, the owners of the The 86 Club cleaned up the Top Cat’s space and ran it until recently, mostly as a coffeeshop, but also hosting live music (fairly big Christian artists like Five Iron Frenzy and House of Heroes played there). The venue had different names before Top Cat’s, including Shipley’s in the ’80s (where Cincy legends The Raisins were regulars), but live local music seems to have always been a key component.
The word “blighted” has been used a lot in the past couple of decades to describe the neighborhood, but there has been a lot of development around U.C. and stories about a mass influx of investments indicates the Short Vine area is attempting a comeback.
This weekend sees a new step in Short Vine’s evolution, and it’s one that, unlike the one around Calhoun and McMicken streets, does nod to the neighborhood’s storied, funky past. Pretty heavily, actually.
Top Cats (minus the apostrophe) is back, under new management, with this weekend marking its grand opening.
On Friday, Top Cats' first official night will feature the return of The Animal Crackers, as well as local Hip Hop icon Mr. Dibbs. Saturday is more Hip Hop, this time with some of the best newer acts in Cincinnati, including Triiibe, Sons of Silverton and Raised X Wolves. Music starts at 8 p.m. each night and tickets are $10 (advanced tickets for Friday are here).
Future shows scheduled include a slew of original local acts — AltRock group One Day Steady plays a farewell show on Sept. 28 — and there are also several touring artists lined up. It’s an impressive lineup so far, similar to what Top Cat's would have had on the schedule in the ’90s and ’00s, but with current performers. The club will also have DJ Fat Cat spinning every Thursday through year’s end; Tuesdays are the “Decoded” open mic night.