God bless you, Palmer's Bar

As a born-and-raised, card-carrying south Minneapolis boy, I've finally come to grips with the fact that my Twin Cities have got to be the most insecure major urban metro in the U.S. We're constantly fishing for validation from the larger cultural hubs around the country to feed our low self-esteem, and no matter how much our friends from around the Midwest tell us how pretty or smart we are, their praise is immediately drowned out at the first mention of local interest on CNN.

So every once in a while, a slickster from some big magazine out East will waltz into town, take advantage of our open-armed hospitality, and decide to chronicle their adventures like an anthropologist wading into the bush. They'll take in some sights, marvel at how much life we've carved out of the tundra, scrawl out a quick missive for their editor, and hop back on the plane.

They'll flatter us, sure. Those fast-talking types always do. They'll tell us that they love our adorable quirks, or admire our hardiness, but the compliments always come with the sting of the back-hand. It's patronizing at best and insulting at worst, but still we find ourselves fawning over their limited praise like Sam mooning about Jake Ryan in 16 Candles.

Last year, Esquire sent one of these types over to the West Bank to honor Palmer's Bar as one of its Best Bars in America for 2014. It was a big deal at the time -- I remember where I was when I got the news, and I bet you do too. All respect for Esquire aside (thanks for the Windsor knot tips, fellas), the list itself was bloated with pretentious cocktail bars and Johnny-come-lately hipster digs. Not a damn one of them could hold a candle to Palmer's.

The business running at 500 Cedar Ave. is nothing less than an institution. It's a gritty, street-level roadhouse dive, and it takes all comers until they've proven themselves unworthy. It's a juke-joint, haunted by some of the most talented players north of Chicago. Depending on the night, and depending on the crowd, it can even get downright scary. And it's been doing all of this for well over a century, with nary a whiff of praise from the gatekeepers, and shows no sign whatsoever of stopping.

A bygone era of Palmer's.
A bygone era of Palmer's.
Courtesy of Palmer's Bar

Palmer's opened for business in 1906. This means that Palmer's has survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, two world wars plus Vietnam, the civil unrests of the '60s, the inflation of the '70s, and the white flight and urban decay caused by Reaganomics. The iconic Riverside Plaza was built right in the bar's backyard and opened in 1973, carrying a utopian vision of mixed-income, multi-use skyscrapers that would revolutionize the neighborhood. As that promise withered in the face of rampant neglect on the part of the building's owners, and the poor conditions forced residents at the margins into crime and addiction, the bar kept its doors open. When a rash of murders in the early 1990s nearly surrounded the bar, Palmer's didn't even blink. It just kept serving doubles -- like it always has.  

Cadillac Kolstad
Cadillac Kolstad

Palmer's was a skid-row fishtank during the dark ages of Cedar Riverside in the 1950s. In the '60s and '70s, it became a hub for the beatnik and hippie movements, drawing in bohemians and ivory-tower wannabes from the nearby universities with a burgeoning folk and blues community. One of Bob Dylan's most important mentors, "Spider" John Koerner, made the bar his stomping grounds and is still playing the annual summer festival, Palmfest, this weekend.

His partner in crime, Dave Ray, showed Bonnie Raitt the ropes around there during the early 1970s with the help of blues legend Willie Murphy. Piano player "Cornbread" Harris (father to Jimmy Jam) has called Palmer's home since he played on "Hi Yo Silver," the first rock 'n' roll single to be recorded in Minnesota, back in 1955.

These days, echoes of those greats can be felt in revivalist acts like Corpse Reviver and Harris's protégé Cadillac Kolstad, who are still climbing onto the bar's miniscule, window-backed stage multiple nights a week. The celebrated dive has become a hangout for bike punks like the Black Label Club, down-and-dirty roots rockers like the Sex Rays and Eleganza, and a wonderful palette of other freaks and characters.

The Goondas shred Palmer's in 2010.
The Goondas shred Palmer's in 2010.

That my friends, in a nutshell, is why Palmer's bar deserves better than a patronizing paragraph from a magazine mostly concerned with $3,000 watches. Palmer's has been there for our city's greatest achievements and our darkest failures, from the 1987 World Series all the way down to Tim Pawlenty. When you're seated at its weathered bar, staring up at the cover band who's doing a mean version of "Green River," you get the sense that Palmer's could be eternal. It'll stay there, cranking out stiff, cheap drinks and happy customers until the end of the world. Because this bar is so much more than a quaint, scummy dive in a flyover town. This bar is a piece of our collective history, so show some backbone, Twin Cities. We've got a lot to be proud of.

This weekend, Palmer's Bar will host the 13th annual Palmfest festival on Saturday, July 26, and Sunday, July 27. Saturday lineup features Palmer's Hippenanny, Palmerceuticals, Corpse Reviver, Spider John Koerner , Matt Arthur & the Bratlanders, Poverty Hash, Eleganza, Breed, Sex Rays, and Cadillac Kolstad. Sunday's lineup will include the Change Ups, the Farm House Band, High Crimes, Sha La, McNasty Brass Band, Southside Desire, the Silver Back Colony, Union Suits, and Mary Allen & the Percolators. Admission is $5.

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