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Saying goodbye to Big V’s—and, belatedly, to the ‘00s

Big V's

Big V's Keith Harris

It’s Saturday night and this narrow little building in St. Paul’s Midway is packed from bar to stage with people who haven’t hung out there in over a decade.

“It’s like someone threw me in the DeLorean and said, ‘Come on Marty, we’re going back to 2003,’” says Alex McCown, drummer for Malachi Constant. “It’s like a high school reunion. Everybody I’ve asked tonight says they haven’t been here since 2010.”

No one can exactly agree on the dates; chalk it up to too much blackberry brandy. But between roughly 2000 and 2007, Big V’s Saloon, where the stage is tucked off at the end of the room almost as an afterthought, was a hotbed for bands, both local and national, whose traction was both significant and largely unnoticed in the big city next door.

Posters from that time still adorned the walls in the final few weeks of the decades-old bar, located in the heart of St. Paul’s Midway at Snelling and University. But how, exactly, did this little dive—now sold as part of the inexorable move for Midway to cater to the soccer fans expected to flock to the newly built Allianz Field—come to matter so much in the ’00s?

Simple: music scene supply and demand, mixed with the time and effort of bands and bookers who saw a need that other places didn’t fill. An entire generation of bands, covering the spectrum from power-pop to punk to atmospheric indie to ear-bleeding noise, struggled to get booked at established venues. Says Malachi Constant guitarist Ben Hecker, “Bands who couldn’t get shows at [other venues] did what bands have always done—find a place to create their own thing.”

Those local bands—Superhopper, Falcon Crest, Malachi Constant, STNNNG, to name a few—mixed with key national indie bands of the era such as Rye Coalition, Japanther, the Kills, and Deerhoof. Working with bookers at Big V’s as well as the Turf Club, they created a scene so dense that on many occasions the two venues ended up staggering sets so the crowds could walk the roughly 100 yards between the two shows.

Tom Loftus, whose Modern Radio Records roster featured many bands who cut their teeth on Big V’s stage, credits booker Ryan O’Rourke with making things happen. “Ryan created a space for universes to collide and community to build in the same way I saw in DIY spaces,” he says. “Booking touring artists requires risk and a level of paying attention to music at a macro level. Ryan picked up the mantle of booking noisy punk rock music and experimented in a way that I was already connected to but struggled to find a home in the Twin Cities.”

Meanwhile, less-heralded acts also remained entrenched and connected, a fundamental part of the Big V’s freewheeling, take-all-comers style. You may never have heard costumed rockers 25 Cent Tacos or twisted oddball hip-hopper St. Pauli Grla, but you certainly saw their names on plenty of Big V’s flyers. Appropriate, then, that V’s closing night on Wednesday featured both acts, smack in the middle of a bill also featuring the Stonedest, Borrachoz Inc., the Sex Rays, and Backyard Robbers.

Among those who lived and played at V’s in this era, the sense of nostalgia seems less about closing the bar and more about that specific time period. After all, there are venues, and there are bars that happen to have live music. While V’s straddled that line in its heyday, there was always a certain degree of tension between V’s as a hangout and V’s as the only option for bands that wanted to play out—a sort of devil who lets you do what you want vs. the devils who wouldn’t return your calls.

“What’s it like to play our last Big V’s show?” says Brandon Rouse of Falcon Crest with a laugh. “Man, I said every show we played here was going to be the last one.”

Rapper St. Pauli Grla, who lives in the Midway, has a different take. “One of my first three shows was here,” he says. “In its heyday it was a mom-and-pop place that was supported by people who loved the music and loved the neighborhood. [The sale] is good for the neighborhood, but it’s still disappointing.”

Credit for the long-running dive’s attraction to an entirely different crowd falls squarely on bookers O’Rourke, Brian Herb, and Kermit Carter—and, in turn, a core group of employees invested in the music, relieving owners Vic and Jeanne Mazanz behind the bar. To their credit, the owners knew they had a good thing going, and seemed to trust their staff to hold the reins on show nights, even if it meant some improvising.

“I showed up early for a Lightning Bolt show, and Ryan asked, ‘How’d you like to drink for free all night and get paid to be here?’” says John Justen, owner of Eclipse Music, an instrument store in West St. Paul, and a West St. Paul City Council member. “I said, ‘I like all of those ideas but I don’t know what’s going on,’ and Ryan said, ‘The guy who’s supposed to be doing sound tonight is too drunk to get here.’ That was my first shift doing sound.”

Former bartender B.J. Thorkelson recalls one particular shift where a band completely usurped a show. “I was working and there were four really shitty bands playing, and I saw Adam and Cody [Marx and Weigel, from noise rock act Seawhores] pushing gear up against the bar. I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ and they said, ‘We’re here to play a show for you.’” Using pre-recorded video drums they’d made with the Melvins’ Dale Crover, the pair set up by the pool table, and as soon as the band on stage finished, amps pointed straight at Thorkelson, plowed through an impromptu set for him and whoever he'd managed to reach on the phone.

This sort of anarchic vibe, meshing with cheap drinks, started pulling patrons in even on non-show nights. “I celebrated my 21st birthday here,” says Lauren Gaffney, viola player for Blood Folke. “My first legal drink. I ordered a martini and Vic gave me a lowball of vodka and another of olives. Just like, ‘Here.’”

Once O’Rourke and Carter left for the Turf Club and Triple Rock, respectively, it meant the end of that very distinct era. To their credit, the later bookers (Joe Holland, then Ron Rudlong) never tried to recreate that exact thing, doing different kinds of shows. But the more St. Paul-specific bands invested in the Midway started breaking up or getting more traction at other venues, O’Rourke’s tenure at the Turf meant more touring bands playing there, and a number of other bars started doing shows. The mixture of contrarian attitude and investment in noisy but musical indie rock and punk rock that defined V’s the concert destination was the stuff of nostalgia.

Maybe that’s why the reaction to the sale among those who had once been so invested was so pronounced. In addition to the final show, Herb, who booked V’s prior to O’Rourke, put together a mid-Februrary Saturday featuring a mix of noisy locals (Herb’s long-running Outstanding Achievements in the Field Of Excellence, Brown, Hardcore Crayons) and one legitimate Twin Cities legend: Kentucky Gag Order. O’Rourke, meanwhile, booked a final Saturday that brought full nostalgia for the era to which he’s inextricably tied: reunions for both atmospheric indie rockers Malachi Constant, who haven’t played a show in roughly a decade, and brutally loud noise punks Falcon Crest, who have played one show in the past eight years. Rounding out the bill: Arctic Universe, with sole member Adam Marx, trading in the Seawhores' noise vibe for his twisted take on R&B crooners, standing on the bar serenading the crowd, and local power-poppers Saint Small, featuring the Current’s program director Jim McGuinn and, to complete the whole class reunion vibe, former Superhopper bassist Bill Muller. The crowd that night—the biggest of the three farewell shows—had an equally nostalgic vibe, doling out hugs and occasional shots to old friends. It was not only a farewell to the bar, but to an era that never truly got its own sense of closure.