When he bought the most famous bar in Minneapolis’ fabled West Bank district in May, Tony Zaccardi didn’t fully realize he was also getting one of the area’s most revered musicians as part of the package. And he’s thrilled about it.
“My whole game plan was to keep this place the same as much as I can,” said Zaccardi, saddling up on a corner bar stool next to Spider John Koerner at Palmer’s Bar on Monday. “He’s one of the things that makes this place what it is.”
Koerner has been frequenting Palmer’s since the early 1960s, when he performed in neighboring watering holes with the blues/folk trio Koerner, Ray & Glover, one of Minnesota’s most influential music acts of all time.
KR&G died with Dave “Snaker” Ray in 2002, and the other West Bank bars of their era have faded into the sunset, too. But both Palmer’s and Koerner himself are holding on, and at least for one day the 112-year-old bar with the newbie owner is bringing the 79-year-old music legend out of retirement.
A daily customer at Palmer’s — they keep an electric mug warmer behind the bar for his coffee and brandy — Koerner is the main attraction Saturday at Palmfest. The annual two-day live music marathon takes advantage of the patio behind Palmer’s and the cauldron of musicians who frequently hang out there, now including its owner.
Well-known as the bassist in three of the best bands in town, Romantica, Eleganza! and Adam Levy’s Coming Collapse, Zaccardi bought Palmer’s after bartending for almost two decades mostly at Grumpy’s Northeast, whose owner Pat Dwyer helped him make the leap.
“I now understand every mood Pat was ever in,” Zaccardi said Monday, ticking off a list of frustrating and/or banal chores, including dealing with Comcast for several days on the bar’s TV package.
“Who’d have thought it’d be so hard to show Twins games in a bar in Minneapolis?”
But Zaccardi’s enthusiasm for Palmer’s still shines through, especially with Palmfest serving as the bar’s first big bash under his watch. Look for more events on the patio in coming months, in addition to the usual weekly gigs on the small stage inside (still including the ever-reliable Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs for happy hour every Friday).
Koerner’s two sets at Palmfest on Saturday (1 and 6 p.m.) come courtesy of former Palmer’s owner Lisa Hammer. She had already talked Koerner into playing at the event, despite his continued insistence that he’s retired.
The caveat was Koerner wouldn’t play this year’s Palmfest without two musicians from Boston who have long served as his backing band for East Coast gigs, fiddler Chip Taylor Smith and bassist Paul Strother. Hammer agreed to pay to fly them in, a commitment she kept even after selling Palmer’s — a parting gift for the bar that she and her late husband, Keith Berg, fostered so well for over a decade.
“I can’t really do a show without them now,” Koerner said of Smith and Strother, who also played with him at his would-be farewell show last year at the Cedar.
“I’m definitely getting close,” Koerner clarified of his retirement. “My hands won’t always do what they used to. Sometimes I say my muscle memory has Alzheimer’s.”
As thin and lanky as always — the arachnid nickname still sticks — Koerner showed plenty of sharpness Monday at Palmer’s as he worked on the Star Tribune crossword puzzle and talked about a puzzling royalty statement from the Nashville-based record company that bought up St. Paul’s Red House Records last year. (Red House issued several of his solo albums and later reissued Koerner, Ray & Glover’s cult-loved LPs for Elektra Records in the early ’60s.)
“The way it read, it looked like I owe them money,” he said, “which is probably what they want me to think.”
He hopes to return to Copenhagen later this year, where his daughter and her family live, but he’s not making his usual summer trek up to Madeline Island or doing much other traveling. So he’s been spending more time than ever at Palmer’s.
In his usual understated way, Koerner offered this endorsement for sticking with his favorite hangout through its latest ownership change: “I don’t know where else I’d go,” he said.
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