The lights are finally back on at the Viking Bar.
At the end of May, the venerable West Bank watering hole and live music venue came back to life after a decade of dormancy (its exterior sign cheekily read “GONE FISHIN’” for years). While the neighborhood’s musical landscape has evolved over the past 10 years, the corner bar near Cedar and Riverside Avenues is having no problem reclaiming its musical niche.
Heading the Viking Bar revitalization efforts are owners Amy Britt, Aaron Britt, and Patrick Johnston, longtime friends and music lovers who moved from Los Angeles to Minneapolis with their eye on buying a bar.
“Aaron and I have been buddies for more than 20 years, and spent a lot of time in dive bars listening to great music in Los Angeles,” Johnston says. “When he and his wife moved to Minneapolis [in 2014], we were still on the hunt for a place we could open on our own. The Viking Bar spoke to us and we knew — based on its history and its potential — that we had finally found exactly what we were looking for.”
The Viking, which served as a blues and folk hotspot in the ’60s and ’70s, required some sprucing up. Among the improvements: adding a kitchen, removing the drop ceiling to expose the corrugated tin tiles underneath, modernizing the restrooms and entryway, adding a small outdoor patio, and renewing the long-expired liquor license.
But the independent spirit and dive-bar charm of the historic brick building at 1829 Riverside Ave. thankfully remain intact. The new ownership trio was especially intent on maintaining the rich musical tradition of the place.
“It’s part of the DNA of the Viking Bar, and one of its greatest assets,” Johnston says. “The ability to showcase excellent and eclectic musicians in an intimate environment is what makes this place a sought-after destination for musicians and fans alike. Music brings people together.”
Even though the room is warm and intimate, with capacity hovering around 120 for live shows, the bar’s sound and lighting systems desperately needed 21st-century upgrades. The Walker Art Center’s Doug Livesay was enlisted to help modernize the stage setup for the long, wood-paneled space.
“[Livesay] worked with us to go get a sound system that would be not only effective for the room, but responsible for the room,” Aaron explains. “So it’s not something that the crowd would be overpowered by, but something that’s as a crisp and clean as possible, taking the long room into account.”
That new sound system has been put to great use so far, as the bar has already hosted a wide array of artists from diverse genres. KFAI's Jackson Buck and promoters Chris Mozena and Jesse Brodd head up that task as part of promotions company Nobool Presents. Their expertly curated bookings give affectionate nods to the bluesy, roots-rock tradition of the Viking, which originally opened in 1904.
In addition to longtime West Bank veterans like Willie Murphy, Curtiss A, and Cornbread Harris, the bar has hosted contemporary locals like Americana ace Erik Koskinen, electronic wizard Dosh, rapper RP Hooks, and rockers Eleganza. Even with national acts like the Two Tens and Dead Soldiers set to roll through this week, cover charges rarely creep north of $5.
Charlie Parr counts himself among the Viking Bar regulars from years past. The celebrated Minnesota bluesman performed there regularly back in the day.
“I played there every Tuesday with Mikkel [Beckmen], and hung out there anytime Spider John [Koerner] played, or the Fat Chance Jug Band, or whenever,” Parr recalls. “I lived about a block away. I loved the little community the place attracted.”
Parr will have a chance to check out the upgraded digs during his show at the Viking on Friday. He says he’s happy the venue will again help enliven a West Bank music scene that lost the 400 Bar in 2012.
“It’ll be important for the Viking to be a true part of that neighborhood again,” Parr says. “It’s good to have it back.”
That responsibility of entertaining and enhancing the community is something the new owners fully embrace. It played a crucial role in their decision to buy the Viking Bar in the first place.
“Everybody in this area is offering a variation on a theme. What we do here is not what they do,” Aaron says of a neighborhood that boasts live-music venues like Triple Rock Social Club, Palmer’s, Nomad World Pub, and Acadia.
He says the Viking Bar is tapped into a symbiotic relationship with other West Bank establishments, and that success for any individual business stands to benefit the whole area.
“With the reappearing of the Viking Bar, if we get any press, it’s press for the West Bank as well,” Aaron says. “We want to give people another reason to come down here. It’s an exciting place to be, around here, and that cemented the notion that we’d really love to be a part of it.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, we incorrectly identified Steve Kaul as one of the venue’s music bookers. The booking team consists of Jackson Buck, Chris Mozena, and Jesse Brodd of Nobool Presents. We regret the error.