After nearly a decade of trying to woo more music fans, downtown St. Paul finally might have found a permanent excuse for them to go there.
Three excuses, actually.
Bound to be the Twin Cities' most talked about new music venue since the last place its owners opened, Amsterdam Bar & Hall lights up this week with a lot of buzz and a little bit of St. Paul vs. Minneapolis nose-thumbing behind it. Adding to the hoopla, the nightclub/restaurant at 6th and Wabasha has two other music-centric businesses opening right next door: the twice-relocated Eclipse Records and the new poster-art shop/workplace Big Table Studio.
Housed in the former Pop! and Fhima's restaurant space -- both splashy eateries went out with a thud after ample city support -- Amsterdam is a more understated but no less ambitious corner joint helmed by father-son team Jon and Jarrett Oulman, who also run the popular northeast Minneapolis music hangout the 331 Club.
The Oulmans tried to bring their cool/not-too-cool blend of neighborhood pub and eclectic rock 'n' art space to downtown Minneapolis in 2009 in the form of the 501 Club, but they closed it a year later in frustration. Now, they can't help but point out how much "friendlier" the circumstances are in St. Paul, from the street parking (free after 4:30 p.m.) and the hastier safety and licensing inspectors to the treatment from their landlord -- which happens to be the city itself.
"St. Paul said it wanted a cool music saloon, and it's showing how much it really did want it," Jon Oulman said Monday afternoon at the new space.
To signal his support, Mayor Chris Coleman held his annual budget address in the Amsterdam space two weeks ago. The mayor planned to return Thursday to mark another wince-inducing numerical occasion, his 50th birthday, when Red Pens and BNLX were the scheduled opening-night bands.
Music continues through this so-called "preview weekend" with the Goondas and Ghostmouth on Friday and the Bitter Spills on Saturday. The official grand-opening weekend isn't until Sept. 23-25 with bands including Communist Daughter, the Twilight Hours and Zoo Animal.
One especially valid reason for the mayor's and Oulman's optimism is the synergy that could be created by the trifecta of businesses, a music hub of sorts in a downtown that already boasts the Artists' Quarter jazz club, McNally Smith College of Music and the Minnesota Public Radio studios.
Sort of a second wrong possibly being righted, the new Eclipse site is the third location for the beloved but beleaguered record store. Its first incarnation, on Grand Avenue near Macalester College, met with protests from local residents over live music in the mid-'00s. The city then helped move it to a supposedly rebounding stretch of University Avenue, which unfortunately has yet to rebound.
"I kept hoping for the perfect neighbors to move in next door on University, but no one came," said Eclipse owner Joe Furth, who closed up shop again last summer. "Now, we already have the perfect neighbors here."
All three businesses have what could be a perfect rent situation for any young, arty start-up business (outside of no rent): They pay a minimal base sum each month, and then the city will take a percentage of their profits if and when they start packing in music lovers.
More than anyone, credit for the three-storefront package goes to the so-called cultural liaison in the mayor's office, Joe Spencer, who also has been instrumental in the Music in Mears series and other cool Lowertown events. He was wooing the Oulmans even before they decided to close the 501 Club (a decision thus made easier, Jon Oulman now admits). Furth said Spencer has been "thoroughly dedicated" in helping Eclipse stay open -- this from a guy who actually ran for City Council because he was dissatisfied with the way Eclipse was initially treated.
Spencer believes it's a win-win (win-win-win-win?) for all four parties involved, including the city.
"The city could potentially make out well if these businesses hit their mark, but in the meantime we fill empty storefronts with businesses that add greatly to downtown life," he said, sounding like a true city staffer. He sounded more like a music fan, though, when he gushed, "I can't wait to finally see bands onstage there."
There are actually two stages: a smaller one near the main bar that can be used on nights when the venue is partitioned into a cozier space, between the size of the 331 Club and Cause; and a much bigger and fancier stage that can be used to accommodate up to 500 fans, between the size of the Triple Rock and Varsity Theater. Cover charge will be based on the stage being used: no cover on small-stage nights, $5 or so on big-stage nights, and more if and when touring bands come to play.
Eventually, Amsterdam will share a doorway with Eclipse where fans can walk between the two spaces (yet to be built). Already, it shares one employee: St. Paul-reared singer/songwriter Martin Devaney, who will co-manage Eclipse and who is booking most of the bands at Amsterdam. Zoo Animal singer Holly Newsom and former Turf Club manager Dave Wiegardt are also involved in the new club.
Sorting through the Eclipse shelves on Monday (the store probably won't open until next week), Devaney gave what sounded like the perfectly humble St. Paulite assessment of the new ventures' chances of success.
"You think of all the venues and record shops around Minneapolis," he said. "Surely the time must come for downtown St. Paul to sustain at least one of each."
Link in parking lot
Two weeks after the West Bank Music Festival, the Nomad Pub is hosting another big outdoor show on Saturday that's actually for a cause pertinent to a block party: homeless youths living on the streets where the parties take place. Rock the Link! is the 20th anniversary celebration for local nonprofit the Link (www.TheLinkMN.org). The headliners are Solid Gold, who are starting to break in new material at shows, along with ever-expanding chamber-rock band Me & My Arrow, a standout at last month's Pizza Lucè party. M&MA guitarist Brian McDonough is the event's chief organizer.
Howler, Desdamona and Kanser round out the outdoor lineup (4-10 p.m.) and then the party moves inside the Nomad with the Japhies, Fort Wilson Riot and Demographics. This one's not actually for youths to attend, though: It's entirely a 21-and-over show, and while there's no cover charge, drink wristbands will cost $5 (plus the cost of the drinks). Don't tell anyone, but booze sales are how this music scene actually makes money.
Mason Jennings will kick off the promotion of his new album, "Minnesota," with an assortment of intimate, free gigs around its namesake state starting Thursday with a show at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, followed by trips to Duluth and Mankato. The only show with tickets still available at press time was a Sept. 11 after-hours in-store at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, which can be had with pre-order of the album there. ...
The Jayhawks are doing their own spin around the state to tout their new one, including shows in St. Cloud (Sept. 15-16) and Mankato (Sept. 17), plus a concert at the Fitzgerald Theater on Sept. 13 that will be broadcast live on the Current (89.3 FM). Tickets to that are being given away via the Current. ... The Fitzgerald also just put on sale tickets for Dessa's album-release show (Oct. 28) and the New Standards' popular holiday shows (Dec. 2-3). ...
Not the kind of guy you often see at the Turf Club, acoustic guitar maestro Peter Lang will be a regular there all this month as the resident Tuesday night act (10 p.m., $8). ... Pennyroyal is the host band all this month in the Nomad Pub's free Thursday night Minneseries (10 p.m.). ... After a successful early-evening (7 p.m.) Sunday show last month at Cause aimed at fans who have to get up in the morning, the Rockford Mules are doing a whole month of them in September.