The big news over the weekend came with the sudden shuttering of the Turf Club, when the venue canceled its Saturday night gig last-minute and hung up mysterious signs saying "Closed for repair." Turns out the "repairs" happening were more metaphorical than literal: The owner closed down the bar so that he could excuse manager Dave Wiegardt, who'd worked at the club for 15 years, and hand over control to new hire Josh James, a longtime bartender at the club.
Though the closing is only temporary -- the bar is slated to re-open on January 11 -- the suddenness of the change did plenty to rattle the local music community over the weekend, especially with the 501 Club's more permanent closure coming up on January 8. To help quell the panic, we caught up with James today to find out what, exactly, he has planned for the iconic St. Paul club.
[jump] Gimme Noise: There was a swell of panic over the weekend as people heard about the Turf Club closing. First things first, what's going on from your side?
Josh James: That feeling of panic is understandable. It was unfortunate that things had to happen that way - sadly, I didn't have a whole lot of say in that. What is happening is hopefully really positive for the club. We will be reopened on the 11th. The nights will change. How the bar runs, in and of itself, will change. I'm viewing this as the opening of a bar, instead of re-opening a bar and nightclub. I've worked here as a bartender for over five years, and I've been a patron for 13, so I understand the history, I understand the culture and the atmosphere - it's the reason I love it, and it's the reason I applied for the job, to be frank with you. I really wanted to see it in hands that would be gentle, and to hopefully re-invigorate and re-instill the sense of community that this place has had for so many years.
What's your first order of business?
The first thing that I did - because the music is such an important part of this bar - was to re-hire Ryan O'Rourke as the main talent buyer. I understand what my capabilities are, and they are not on that end of the bar. I need those people; I need my friends at First Avenue and my friends at the Triple Rock to help re-instate this place as a major, major scene for local music. It's something I don't think it ever lost in the first place, but to re-invigorate that.
When you say the nights are going to be changed, do you mean the regular events and house gigs?
Until I get a full handle on how everything is going to work, on Sundays and Mondays the bar will be closed. Yep. It hasn't shown me that it's making any money on those nights right now, anyway. I would love to re-open every night of the week as soon as possible, but I'm going to have to work with the bookers, trying to figure out a way to make that happen. Honestly, without really big events on those nights, people don't come out to the bar.
Will that impact the Fat Kid Wednesdays residency?
Yeah, those guys are actually coming in to meet with me in five minutes. JT Bates and Mike Lewis are good friends of mine, and I think they are a really, really important part of the culture of the bar, and I want them back. I want them back as soon as possible. But we're going to have to sit down and figure out a way to try to make it work here. And what that means, as of right now, I don't know. Everything is on the table. But I want to see this bar open for another 20 years, so whatever that takes - as of right now, that's what I'm going to be looking forward to.
So you're basically starting from scratch.
It's really my only choice right now, so that's what I'm focusing on.
I'd heard that there were problems keeping the bar fully stocked, do you know anything about that?
Really nothing I can comment on. All I can really talk about is what will happen. As a manager, I have different things to say than I would have as a bartender.
So you don't feel like there's a pressing financial strain on the bar?
Again, I can't comment on it. I have the backing of the owner. That will be a huge part of my job, is to make sure things are here. As a bartender, I know that we need the tools to service the customers that come into the bar. It's not a hard equation; it's quality of service.
What is your relationship with owner Tom Scanlon? How involved is he in the day-to-day operation of the bar?
Tom will be hands-off. I'm the general manager of the bar. I have carte blanche.
You said you've been frequenting the bar since well before Tom was the owner - do you feel like things changed drastically when he bought it?
Honestly, there was a lot of fear in the music community when it changed ownership five years ago, and I think that fear was never really realized. I mean, I know it scared some people away, but it really didn't seem to have too huge of an impact.
I remember there was a huge outcry about the posters coming down - but five years later, there are plenty of posters back on the walls.
Honestly, I've already pulled a bunch of posters down today. It's something that - it's alive. It has to evolve and change. The Turf Club is, in and of itself, an entity, and hopefully it gets to stay that way.
Do you have plans for the basement? Are the decorations coming down?
I can't comment on that one right away. I'm not sure what's going to happen there.
Anything else you want people to know right off the bat?
If you could be so kind as to let people know that the way that I've been treated has been fantastic. It really makes me feel good to have that outpouring of really positive messages and feelings thrown right at me. I was honestly quite worried, and rarely am I worried about anything like this, but I was worried it was going to be a huge upheaval.
People tend to react strongly to change.
It happens. And I do it, too. Change can be really scary. But I'm going forward really positively, and it's been awesome to see that people feel the same way. The former manager, Dave Wiegardt, sent me a beautiful text message yesterday and was just super positive.
Dave's a great guy.
I agree... I've been, honestly, I'm not a very humble person by nature, I'm kind of a bear, I'm fairly aggressive, but the outpouring of really positive and amazing things that people have said to me in the last couple of days and about me, honestly it's really touched me. It wasn't what I expected at all. You can kind of hear it in my voice. It's given me a boost in the long, sleepless nights that I've had, and that I'm sure I'm going to have to push through as we get ready to re-open.
- Fat Kid Wednesdays have officially ended their 12-year residency in the basement of the Turf Club. "Thank you to every single human that ever played or listened to a Monday jazz night," JT Bates wrote on his Facebook page.
- The MC/VL farewell show with Pink Mink and Slapping Purses, slated for this Saturday, January 8 at the Turf, has been moved to the 501 Club. The show will dovetail with the Curtiss A Elvis Presley tribute show that was already planned that night. Looks like the 501 Club will have a packed house for its final night.