As he pressed up against the back bar under the bright, 1981-dated stained-glass ceiling — equal parts Palau de la Música Catalana and Godfather’s Pizza — first-time customer Jimmy Heaslip let bartender Lyall Stearns know why he came to Mortimer’s Pub last week.
“I hear you’re trying to replace the Triple Rock,” Heaslip said.
“No,” Stearns quickly replied, “but we’re happy to take their customers.”
Actually, of all the rock clubs the Twin Cities has lost in recent years, Mortimer’s hews closest aesthetically and geographically to the late, lamented Uptown Bar.
Closed in 2009 to make room for a ... which chain store was it again? ... the Uptown hosted a young Nirvana and birthed Golden Smog, but its absence was somehow never filled by a comparable music venue in the hipster/bohemian-laden area just south of downtown Minneapolis.
The newly updated Mortimer’s is a clear vestige of the old Uptown aesthetic, even if it’s just a little north of that neighborhood, at the corner of Lyndale Avenue and Franklin. Since the closing last month of neighboring mainstay Rudolph’s Bar-B-Que, there’s a heightened significance and sense of urgency to this divey-but-not-dumpy, 40-year-old supper club and its new music stage.
“It’s nice to have somewhere that still feels like it’s our place among all these condos,” said Mortimer’s manager Alex Walsh, who grew up in the area.
Walsh and fellow manager/talent-booker Brian McDonough came to Mortimer’s with ample music experience and a strong itch to make another go at it: The former managed Cause nightclub, another music-savvy Lyn-Lake area venue that closed in 2014, while the latter was the Uptown Bar’s final booker.
“We’ve literally been looking for a place like this for years,” Walsh said.
Sort of a cross between a CC Club-like watering hole and a Matt’s-style greasy, retro grub hub, the property was sold last year to the owners of nearby Nightingale restaurant. Carrie McCabe-Johnston and Jasha Johnston, who met at Mortimer’s while working there in their early 20s, updated the menu and cleaned up the place but otherwise left it mostly as-is, save for the 250-capacity music room that opened just before New Year’s Eve.
In the eight months since Uptown Bar regulars Likehell and Trim Reaper christened the new stage — the singer in the latter band broke his shoulder diving into the crowd during the first song, a fitting forecast of the mayhem to come — Mortimer’s has already become a vital space for up-and-coming and none-of-the-above Twin Cities bands who’ve felt rather lost of late.
“It’s a good-sized club with a good attitude and great sound,” said Patrick “Paddy” Costello of Dillinger Four, a music-scene vet and Triple Rock regular whose new band, Butcher’s Union, returns to Mortimer’s on Sept. 28.
“It’s the kind of venue where you can talk to the promoter at your show about the next show you’re going to play, because they’re there hanging out and having a beer just like everybody else.”
Happy to mess around
Mortimer’s is celebrating its quickly cemented status with a low-frills, high-adrenaline parking lot party Saturday, featuring some of the bands who have already made an impression there, including young newcomers Murf, Lunch Duchess and Beasthead and older noisemakers Blaha, the Stress of Her Regard and Tramps Like Us.
The club is also ramping up for some busy back-to-school weekends with shows including the Deleter release party on Aug. 24, a Me & My Arrow reunion Aug. 25, German noise-rock band Heads on Sept. 1 and Iowa punks Closet Witch on Sept. 2.
“[Mortimer’s] came at such a clutch time, when we were left with the feeling of a scene closing in on itself due to venues getting knocked off,” said Dan Hoffstrom, singer for Saturday’s headlining band, Murf.
An earsplitting noise-rock sextet known for thematic, prop-filled live shows — messy affairs that other venues might shun — Murf dared to muck up the new space with confetti and assorted liquids but still won favor from the venue’s staff: “Even before they asked about getting paid, they asked for a mop,” Walsh fondly recalled.
There was a similarly communal vibe on a fairly regular weeknight last week in the backroom at Mortimer’s, where the cover charge and tap beers are usually about $5. Three electronics-heavy rock acts yet to garner much press or 89.3 the Current airplay, Elle PF, YYY and Duluth’s Ingeborg von Assiz played to about 50 people.
Most of the crowd paid attention to the performers but also mingled among four wraparound booths opposite the stage and a separate area off to the side of the bar, which boasts a couch, chairs and a nook dubbed “the breakup booth.” Patrons can also bounce from the music side back through a doorway to the larger Mortimer’s dining room, where you’ll find pinball and foosball tables, more booths and a larger bar.
Lauren Peper, a regular customer at Monday night’s AutoTune Karaoke parties — “You get to sing like T-Pain!” she enthused — came to Mortimer’s that night after a bartending shift at a posher Uptown establishment.
“This place feels homey, more like the kind of place people in the service industry like to hang out at,” Peper said. “You see people come here and just sit in the corner to listen to the music, and people who come more to hang out with friends. It’s great for either of those.”
Before she took the stage for the first time, Elle PF leader Ranelle LaBiche echoed Costello’s comment about the size of the venue.
“It’s nice to have a place that’s this open to new bands and that’s not so big you have to worry about drawing a huge crowd,” said LaBiche, who used to perform at Cause under the moniker Bae Tiger. “It was needed.”
A musician himself, McDonough said the music-booking philosophy has been a little bit of “see what sticks” and a lot of “what we already know works.”
“We’re doing things we already did well at Cause and Uptown,” he said, “and some of what the Triple Rock had, too. People sort of got it right away where we’re coming from.”
He conceded they could increase their support of local hip-hop acts but proudly noted, “We’ve developed a really cool, popping scene of young women’s bands in our short time,” citing Gully Boys, Scrunchies and the Katharine Seggerman-fronted Lunch Duchess, among other favorites there.
Wearing his Gully Boys T-shirt as he served drinks from behind the bar, Stearns said the new music room suits the long history at Mortimer’s. His 23-year stint as a bartender there has found him serving lots of musicians, stage hands from the old Guthrie Theater and “broke-ass people from around here who still want to have a little fun, and don’t want to go downtown.”
“It feels like a real, unpretentious rock bar,” he said. “Nothing too fancy or trendy, just somewhere easy and welcoming to hang out at.”
Those seasoned bartenders always seem to know the right things to say.
Mortimer’s Parking Lot Party
With: Murf, Blaha, Beasthead, Trappistines, Tramps Like Us, Stress of Her Regard, more.
When: 3-10 p.m. Sat.
Where: 2001 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.