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Righteous Babe goes to Church Ani DiFranco's record label moves into new home, continuing evolution of ex-house of worship

It has been a slow start for the Delaware Avenue church that musician Ani DiFranco and her manager, Scot Fisher, saved from the wrecking ball and reopened a year ago.

But today marks a significant step toward making the space a premier event site, as Righteous Babe Records completes its move into offices in the former Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church at Delaware Avenue and Tupper Street -- now known as simply The Church.

When the building opened last January, the beautiful -- and, as DiFranco put it, "vibe-y" and "cool" -- sanctuary-turned-performance space inside the Gothic Revival building was touted as the possible site of many concerts and an artistic catalyst for the downtown neighborhood.

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center is running well in the building's lower level, but big-name concerts are still few and far between in Asbury Hall, which can hold up to 1,200 people. Some problems with acoustics in the building had forced DiFranco and Fisher to forgo amplified concerts, but that problem has been solved. At the same time, the room has become a go-to event site for community groups and non-profits.

Fifty events were staged there last year, ranging from a live Al Franken broadcast on Air America Radio and a Buffalo Public Schools Select Chorus annual concert to a celebration of the late poet Robert Creeley, a benefit reading by Alec Baldwin and a corporate dinner for Fisher-Price's national sales force.

In addition, The Church has been the site of an opera performance and several dance events, as well as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.

Fisher, who doubles as president of DiFranco's Buffalo indie record label, said there are no plans to promote concerts in-house. Instead, he wants to begin working with local and national promoters who would book and rent the hall.

"I hope in the near future that we regularly have concerts in here without me being a promoter, but that's a market that is a little bit beyond our control right now," Fisher said.

"We're just at the point where we feel we can start putting the word out that the hall is available."

Tellingly, changes that might have been expected a year ago continue to roll out. A classic purple stage curtain, picked out by DiFranco, is expected to be installed in March; on Sunday, she chose the colors for the lounge, dressing rooms and basement.

The move Monday and today -- with 10 employees in tow -- was originally expected last spring.

And the prospect of a Righteous Babe gift shop off the lobby, carrying DiFranco recordings and merchandise otherwise available on the label's Web site, remains an idea whose time may -- or may not -- come.

"It's not so much a delay as the careful, slow approach we have always taken with everything we have done, whether it was starting the record company or our approach to saving the Asbury Church," Fisher said.

He acknowledges they were not fully prepared to operate the venue one year ago and that, at the time, they didn't have a solid grasp on how it would be used.

"I was so focused on the process of saving this building that we only had a very vague outline of how to use it," Fisher said.

One concern has been the building's sound -- Fisher called it an "echoey mush" at its worst -- evident at some early events.

DiFranco and Fisher had rejected permanently marring Asbury Hall's appearance by hanging speakers from the ceiling to improve the acoustics, choosing instead to preserve the integrity of the historic space. But while the sound was fine for some forms of presentation -- opera, for instance, Fisher said -- it has created problems for others, including speech.

In response, DiFranco put a halt to amplified concerts, Fisher said, and two acoustic engineering firms were brought in to solve the problem. The result is new production plans to guide how sound systems should be installed for different types of events.

With the new production designs, Fisher said, "We're at the point where we are able to have any kind of event in there and know what the limitations and needs are."

Forty events are booked for this year, including the world premiere of a music theater piece by musician Bobby Previte and playwright Andrea Kleine on Feb. 7 and 8. The concerts are co-produced by Hallwalls, which opened its gallery, cinema and office space in The Church in January 2006, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Last year, the multidisciplinary Hallwalls and its six-member staff brought myriad events to downtown, from performance and visual art to video and film, along with 13 exhibitions. They also presented seven jazz concerts in Asbury Hall.

"We like the attention that's been on this building, the amount of activity, the architectural and building awards it's received," said Edmund Cardoni, Hallwalls executive director. "It's a place where things are happening all the time."

The 1876 building was on the brink of demolition when Fisher read a newspaper article on how the city was seeking an emergency demolition permit to raze the distressed building. He led a successful effort to stop the demolition.

That began a lengthy and difficult process that culminated with DiFranco's taking ownership of the building in 2005. She has sunk close to $3 million of her own money into what evolved into a $10 million restoration effort, Fisher said. Preservation and Empire Zone tax credits helped make the complicated transaction possible.

"I think Ani, Scot and their team have done a great job in attracting a variety of different events to The Church, including ones that have brought national prominence to the city," said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who appeared on a special edition of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" that was filmed in The Church in December.

"It's made a great contribution to the city and to downtown."

DiFranco, 36, currently has more pressing matters to focus on. She gave birth Jan. 20 to 7-pound, 8-ounce Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano in her Buffalo home. The father is New Orleans music engineer Michael Napolitano.

Fisher said mother and baby are doing great.

"[Righteous Babe] has received all these presents from fans. I would say we've had half a dozen Onesies or knit hats from women who have their own little companies who say they have been inspired by her," Fisher said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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