A union of rock clubs: First Avenue to buy Turf Club

First Avenue owners are preparing to buy St. Paul’s Turf Club.

Minneapolis’ most legendary music venue is taking over St. Paul’s most beloved rock club.

First Avenue’s owners are preparing to buy the Turf Club, a vintage watering hole near the corner of University and Snelling avenues that dates to the 1940s and has been a mainstay of the music scene since the mid-1990s.

First Avenue staff has regularly booked concerts at the Turf for several years. When general manager Nate Kranz heard that the smaller venue might be for sale, he said his team “came to a pretty easy conclusion.”

“We’re going to make some improvements on the place, but not too many,” Kranz said. “We’ve all spent many, many nights there and love it just the way it is.”

First Ave’s team will take over management of the Turf starting Tuesday, with most of the bar’s staff expected to stay put. The final sale is expected within a few months, pending licensing approval and other issues.

The Turf Club’s current owner, Tom Scanlon — who also owns the Dubliner Pub a few blocks away on University — said he has been proud to operate the venue for eight years but is ready to pass it on.

“One bar is enough at my age, and a neighborhood Irish pub is a lot easier to maintain than a rock club,” said Scanlon, whose 2005 purchase was met with trepidation by some musicians and patrons. In the end, he kept the Turf’s musical legacy alive and well, and he kept that heritage in mind with his decision to sell to First Avenue.

“I had lots of people interested in buying the place, but [First Avenue] just made perfect sense,” he said. “They know the place and the business very well. I’m confident the future of the Turf Club is absolutely safe in their hands.”

Under the direction of Kranz and talent booker Sonia Grover, First Avenue has become a powerhouse in the local concert business since an ownership dispute that temporarily shuttered the club in 2004. It’s now owned by First Ave’s longtime accountant, Byron Frank, and his daughter, Dayna Frank, is the hands-on proprietor.

Not only do an impressive number of shows sell out each week at First Ave and its adjoining venue, 7th Street Entry, but the team has increasingly booked concerts at other venues. Besides the Turf, they include the Triple Rock, Cedar Cultural Center, Fine Line and Cabooze.

Having total run of the Turf “makes it a little easier” to book shows there, Kranz said. Its capacity of around 300 people offers a little more room than the Entry (with 250), and its location across the river can attract a partly different customer base — although First Ave staff hopes more Minneapolis residents will frequent the place more when light rail service begins next year on University Avenue, right outside the Turf.

Kranz said the First Ave crew will promote all types of music at the Turf, particularly focusing on the rootsy/twangy rock acts and local bands that are the norm there now. He also said the staff will explore more programming in the Turf’s basement bar, the Clown Lounge.

Among the improvements planned are bathroom renovations and an upgrade to the sound system. There is also talk of putting in a kitchen and serving food, a business that First Ave got into in 2010 when it opened the Depot Tavern next door.

Live rock music at the Turf became a regular thing in the mid-1990s, thanks in part to the St. Paul Music Club, formed by musicians to promote shows there. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman harked back to that era while voicing his confidence in the club’s future.

“I’m really excited to see the next era of the Turf Club with the team coming in from First Avenue,” Coleman said in a statement. “While I am looking forward to some new investment, I’m confident it will carry on the tradition of the Saint Paul Music Club started by Rob and Leah Rule that made it such a treasure.”

In recent years, the Turf’s claims to fame include the night Lady Gaga hung out there after her Xcel Energy Center concerts in 2010; Grammy winner Bon Iver’s first sold-out show in the Twin Cities (in 2008) and local piano rocker Mark Mallman’s nonstop, 78-hour Marathon III concert in 2010.

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  • The Turf Club, near the corner of University and Snelling Avenues, features a mosaic mural on an outside wall.

  • A view from the stage at the Turf Club.

  • Local rocker Mark Mallman put on his nonstop, 78-hour Marathon III concert at the Turf in 2010.

  • Turf Club Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, in St. Paul, MN.] (DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune.com First Avenue nightclub announced plans to buy St. Paul's most beloved rock venue, the Turf Club.

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