After the Scene Dies: Remembering the 400 Bar

(“Somali Children’s Center is Likely to Replace 400 Bar” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 29, 2012)

If you weren’t aware of its place in Twin Cities musical history, you would not likely give a second glance at the nondescript 2-story red and black building on the SW corner of Cedar & Riverside in Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood. Walking through the side entrance (the front door was walled off long ago) was an equally underwhelming experience, revealing a long bar along the wall by the entryway, a few shabby booths and ripped up stools with uneven legs, and red, red walls throughout. But, oh, if these walls could talk, what a story they’d tell!

The news that the Sullivan brothers, Tom and Bill, were calling it quits after 17 years of running the 400 Bar was greeted with a mix of emotions by the Twin Cities’ music community: dismay at the loss of another live music venue; nostalgic reminiscing over memorable past shows; and acknowledgement that the sale of the bar is simply further evidence of the changing character of the neighborhood, as the largest Somali community outside of Somalia becomes more settled in its new surroundings. For this writer, it’s an opportunity to reflect upon the bar’s role in shaping one man’s musical tastes.

Before the Sullivans took over, the 400 Bar was part of a network of bars and clubs that made the Cedar-Riverside area a magnet for folks looking for the heart of a Saturday night. Drawing initially on the convenient patronage of students from the nearby University of Minnesota and Augsburg College, the West Bank became a destination point for young people throughout the metropolitan area, as well as out-of-towners who got the word that The Scene was here. Folk and blues artists like Spider John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray and Tony Glover; Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson; Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn kept things lively at The Coffeehouse Extempore. Willie Murphy and The Bumblebees, The West Bank Trackers, Doug Maynard et al. were regulars at places like the Triangle Bar, the Viking Bar, and the Seven Corners Saloon. Pioneering local reggae/calypso stalwarts Shangoya put on many a memorable show upstairs at the old Dania Hall. Sadly, most of those venues no longer exist, falling victim to changing times, tastes, demographics and economics. (The whole scene is chronicled much better than space permits here, in Cyn Collins’ excellent 2006 book, “West Bank Boogie.”)

The 400 Bar certainly had a piece of that West Bank action. Before the bar doubled in size, to its current dimensions, the cramped stage was located right up front, behind the big window overlooking Cedar Avenue that drew in passersby wondering “Who’s playing?” Willie and the Bees could barely squeeze their 6 or 7 members onto the stage. Koerner, Ray & Glover played there often, individually or in various combinations. The West Bank was a supportive environment for Twin Cities musicians in the 70’s and 80’s and the 400 Bar played a vital role in nurturing the creative local talent base.

The character of the bar began changing when the Sullivans took over approximately in 1995. They expanded the bar into the space next door and moved the stage away from the front window and into the new space. Bill Sullivan had been the tour manager for popular local bands Soul Asylum and The Replacements, as they rose to national prominence. He and his brother, Tom, widened their search for talent and began booking lesser known but up and coming bands and artists. Bands that went on to national prominence, such as Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst), Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, The Heartless Bastards, Elvis Perkins and Justin Townes Earle, all made their Twin Cities debuts at the 400. The Missus and I recall young Mr. Earle OPENING for The Felice Brothers at the bar – roles that would certainly be reversed today.

We were privileged to see many a fine show at the 400. Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers made his only two solo Twin Cities appearances there (these were true solo shows, unlike his recent appearance with The Downtown Rumblers, reviewed earlier on this site). Split Lip Rayfield chose the 400 for their Minneapolis return engagement following the death of founding member Kirk Rundstrom. The first of several times we saw Marah there ranks as one of the best bar shows ever, as we marveled at Serge Bielanko duck-walking atop the half wall separating the front and back bar area, all the while blowing a furious harp solo. The Heartless Bastards, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Baseball Project, Southern Culture on the Skids, James McMurtry, The Bottle Rockets, The Deadstring Brothers, Centro-Matic – we can thank the 400 Bar for giving us our first look at these bands, among many, many others. And, we never tired of seeing iconic local musicians Willie Murphy, Spider John, or Tony Glover perform there.

Although no longer as densely packed with music venues as it was in its heyday, the West Bank remains well-populated with places to see live music. The Nomad World Pub, Triple Rock Social Club, Acadia Cafe, Red Sea, and Palmer’s Bar all cater to various musical genres. The Cedar Cultural Center books a wide variety of folk, rock, blues and world music acts, and at the Southern terminus of the West Bank, past the I-94 underpass, Whiskey Junction, The Joint and the venerable Cabooze all do brisk business every weekend. Still, it will be interesting to see who picks up the slack left behind by the 400’s closing. The challenge, in this Twitter/Facebook/Myspace age will be sifting through the plethora of information out there, to cull out the artists deserving of wider exposure. At this, the 400 Bar excelled, and for this, it will be missed.

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