Hardly the likeliest of hosts for high-powered GOP gatherings, the staff at First Avenue and other Minneapolis rock clubs might be biting their pierced tongues as they welcome the Republican National Convention with open arms.
Coming off a sluggish summer when gas prices kept many bands off the road and customers at home, several music venues will be flush with private RNC gigs and some much-appreciated business.
"Anybody who's been in the club business knows you have to be willing to do just about anything to make money," said Dario Anselmo, owner of the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis, which once hosted fundraisers for Bill Clinton and the late Paul Wellstone. Come Sept. 1-4, the Fine Line will cater to Republican partiers with performers such as Big Head Todd and Robert Earl Keen.
Other private RNC gigs in downtown Minneapolis include country singer Gretchen Wilson at Trocaderos, "American Idol" rocker Chris Daughtry at Epic and "All Star" band Smash Mouth at Aqua.
At First Avenue -- typically the home to left-leaning punk, indie-rock and hip-hop acts -- classic-rocker Sammy Hagar kicks off three nights of RNC-related events Aug. 31 with the Southern Delegation Party.
"It might not be a great fit, but it's better than being closed for four days," said Nate Kranz, the club's talent booker. Business there "pretty much fell as the temperature rose" this summer, Kranz said, which is often the case at midsize clubs in college towns but was especially true this year.
Business at the Fine Line also has been off, Anselmo said. What's more, the days surrounding Labor Day -- with the Minnesota State Fair and back-to-school whir -- are always a dead time for venues.
"If you just look at the timing of it, we're lucky to be getting the Republican convention instead of the Democratic," said Lowell Pickett, co-owner of the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant. "What is normally one of the slowest weeks of the year will probably now be one of the busiest weeks of all time for many of us."
By day, the Dakota will serve as a set for CNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," then each night it will hold receptions for groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Pickett said he was happy "we mostly have apolitical events."
"We're always equal opportunity, though," he added with a laugh.
Many venues started hearing from event planners right after St. Paul was selected as the convention site in September 2006. First Ave more or less turned over its booking duties to one guy, Rob Jennings from Washington, D.C., who calls himself a political fundraiser planner.
"As soon as they announced where the RNC is going to be, I was probably on the phone with First Avenue 30 seconds later," said Jennings, who also booked events in Denver for the Democratic convention Aug. 25-28.
In addition to the Southern party with Hagar (curiously, a California native), Jennings put together a post-Hurricane Katrina fundraiser at First Ave Sept. 1 with renowned Louisiana musicians such as Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball and members of the Meters. He pointed to that show as proof that plenty of GOP convention-goers appreciate good music and will feel at home in the less-than-regal rock club.
"I have tattoos, too," Jennings joked, but added, "I'm interested in real-deal venues like First Avenue instead of some cheesy hotel ballroom somewhere, and so are plenty of [Republicans]. You wait and see."
Jennings promised packed houses and "plenty of money being spent at the bar." The events are funded through corporate sponsors, he said, and tickets are given out for free to invite-only guests.
From First Ave's standpoint, these RNC-related gigs might have been the only option for business that week. Said Kranz, "There's going to be so much traffic and congestion, none of our regular customers would've wanted to come to shows, and no touring bands could've found hotel rooms."
Others aim for 'anti' crowd
Of course, not every club in town was courted by the Republicans. Four of the best-known rock venues in the Twin Cities do not have any RNC events planned. In fact, three of those are throwing anti-GOP events, which could also be good for business, they say.
"Twin Cities music fans have to have somewhere to hide out with all those Republicans freely roaming our streets," said James (Taco) Martin, booker at the Cabooze, site of a Sept. 2 protest party dubbed "End of an Era."
Epic nightclub booker Beecher Vaillancourt, who admitted he leans to the left politically, nonetheless called the convention "a savior."
"A lot of clubs are hurting right now because of the economy, and so are restaurants and a lot of other businesses in downtown Minneapolis," he said. "Some places will probably make more money over five days than they have all year.
"I'm sure plenty of people in clubs wish the Democratic Convention was here instead, but it's way more important that we do a good job accommodating everyone and making them feel welcome. This thing is being publicized around the world, and we don't want anyone going away saying they didn't have a good time in Minneapolis."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658