331, Unplugged

Northeast bar teams with city of Minneapolis to throw unexpected acoustic music festival

You must respect the inspector. This is a truth familiar to workers at any restaurant, construction site, or horse abattoir. Standards, rules, and regulations may be written down and collected in ugly, utilitarian municipal codes, but you don't need to be afraid of a boring codebook. You do, however, need to be afraid of the man carrying that codebook under his arm. If you have a business vulnerable to the prying eye of an inspector, you gotta keep things between the two of you copacetic. For live-music lovers, the inspector's knock at the door recently brought some very bad news to northeast Minneapolis. Saturday, October 28, larger-than-license ambitions and bawdy burlesque humor brought an end to "amplified music" at the 331 Club.

If I were an inspector, the 331 Club would be at the heart of my territory. I live within cat-swinging distance of the place (although if I had my choice, I would measure the distance in dog swings, because I own a dog and she frequently annoys me). It's a bold gold brick of a building at the corner of University and 13th avenues, where the recently reopened Ritz Theater, the Modern Cafe, Erté Restaurant, Rogue Buddha Gallery, and ArTrujillo form a hopeful little stretch of economy-boosting cultural destinations. The 331 Club had a rough reputation until a few years ago, when local hairstylist Jon Oulman bought the building. His son Jarret proceeded to turn the 331 Club into a busy local music venue, with acts playing every night of the week, all free of cover charge. But despite the success of the scene-nurturing music program, "our zoning doesn't allow for the type of entertainment we have," explains Jarret Oulman, the mellow, relaxed man behind the 331 Club's transformation.

Oulman claims that, until recently, he'd had little problem with the liquor-licensing department. "When I had the big events, the outside events, I'd go down, apply for my permit, and then totally separately, I'd write to Diane [Hofstede, Third Ward councilwoman]. She'd tell me what her concerns were, things that were useful and insightful, and I'd address those with her." But then he started working with a new inspector, Dan Niziolek. "We didn't have individual territories until September 1; before that, inspectors were city-wide," explains licensing inspector Niziolek, whose newly assigned beat includes the 331 Club. "Another inspector passed me a complaint that burlesque was being presented, and I went to investigate it on September 16. There was burlesque and amplified music, both."

Cabaret and burlesque show Le Cirque Rouge de Gus performs twice a month at the 331 Club. Le Cirque is an ever-changing variety act that includes stripteases in which dancers disrobe down to panties and pasties. Frontwoman Amy Buchanan asserts, "Everything in our act is silly-sexy. It's not erotic, and 80 percent of the show is music and dance, not striptease." But, as all parties agree, the 331 Club's liquor license doesn't allow for stage shows with amplified instruments, let alone "adult entertainment." Niziolek didn't issue any citations to the club that night. But, Oulman recounts, "he brought up some ambiguous stuff on our license that needed clarification, and also brought up us doing Le Cirque Rouge. The burlesque stuff, he said, we weren't allowed to do."

The night of the 331's Halloween party, held the last Saturday in October, the inspector dropped by for another visit. Oulman had planned a large party at the club, with a DJ on the second floor of the building, a tent containing a freak show in the parking lot, and live entertainment, including Le Cirque Rouge, in the main barroom. "I had restricted the [Le Cirque Rouge] dancers from doing their striptease, and they were mad about it," Oulman says. "They made a statement onstage about the city. It was a disaster." "His impression," Oulman says of Niziolek, "was that I wasn't taking him seriously. So he gave me a big stack of citations." Le Cirques's Buchanan admits, "I'm a comedian. I had made some jokes about the city not allowing us to do burlesque. I don't remember what I said, but somehow, to him, that was offensive."

But inspector Niziolek demurs, "I did point out to Jarret a comment that was made, but I was already going to issue the citations." The inspector ended up issuing four citations, but the most damning document was the cease-and-desist order, compelling the 331 Club to discontinue its use of electrical amplification come November 14. "We can have a vocalist going through our PA system, and three instruments onstage without electric amplification," Oulman says, explaining the limits of the club's current license.

Officials in the zoning department have encouraged Oulman to file for a nonconforming use variance, but the earliest hearing date available would be the week of Christmas—which means the 331 Club is looking at two months of energy-conserving quiet time. "I'm trying to find people who can testify that there was live music in this building 40 years ago, before the city started regulating it, so we can be grandfathered in," says a determined Oulman.

Meanwhile, the club will try to bend the scheduled acts around the new restrictions. Even bands that don't use amplification are finding that compliance presents difficulties. The Roe Family Singers have had a long-standing gig as the 331's Monday-night act. "We're an all-acoustic band, but we have six people in our lineup. Am I supposed to let three guys go?" wonders Quillan Roe. "My wife and I harmonize, but it seems like now only one of us can sing through the PA." Roe, who also does some of the 331 Club's booking, says that many of the acts scheduled to play during the next few months have declared their intention to stay. "Jackson's Juke Joint are going to keep working with us; the Brass Kings said, 'We'll keep our date'; Dan Newton said, 'No problem.'"

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