Bury my heart at the Driftwood Char Bar

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March 26, 2014
By: Jim Walsh
A huge heart hangs on the wall and beats nightly at the Driftwood.
Photo by Jim Walsh
Jim Walsh

The other day a writer for another publication asked for my opinion on the ongoing gentrification of Uptown and the fast-rising condos there that cater to young moneyed men with mad mating skills, aka the douchebag demographic catch-all, “bros.” I dutifully played the part of the nostalgic crank and told him,

“I think when they demolished the Uptown Bar, they tore the heart out of Uptown. It was a gathering place in the mornings for breakfast and Bloody Mary’s, and at night, for a couple of decades, you could hear literally legendary performances by great bands — for free.

“You walked there, from your apartment or house, and it was a community hub. I loved living in Uptown, but whenever I go there now – for Magers & Quinn, mostly, it feels like I’m at the The Shops at West End; a shopping destination for suburbanites who could be at the MOA for all they care. I’ve been in condos like those, and I am a bro, and I can’t think of a more stultifying way to spend my 20s–30s. They’re like compounds, prisons. They’ve been sold a message of metro manliness based on flashy bullshit, not the joys of belonging to a funky neighborhood.”

What I know about bars and people is to appreciate them as much as possible while they’re here. The good news is that the heart of the Uptown Bar has been transplanted in the one-year-old magic soil of Morrissey’s Irish Pub on Lake Street, where neighborhood regulars gather to hear live music, eat, drink, and be rowdy, and at the seven-year-old Driftwood Char Bar on 44th and Nicollet, upon whose walls hangs a giant tie-dyed heart, a symbol to the good energy and lifeblood that pulses through the joint every night of the week.

Still news to some, but since 2007, the Driftwood (or the “old Westrum’s,” to anyone who hasn’t been off the couch after 8 p.m. in the last seven years) has been offering up a food, drink, and music scene that most nights approximates something of a New Orleans-by-way-of-Big Sur vibe. I’ve written about it before, in the Star Tribune about Malamanya’s unforgettable Tuesday night residencies a few years ago, and last year in a MinnPost a feature that extolled the Driftwood’s many rough charms, but the goings-on of a great neighborhood bar belong in a great neighborhood newspaper.

At the moment, the Driftwood’s Friday and Saturday night early shows (7–8:30 p.m.) are gaining word-of-mouth steam, and for good reason. Booker Larry Sahagian started the series in September of last year with the jazz outfit The Kronick Quintet, whose older crowd dug the early start. Sahagian followed that up with a string of successful nights with the likes of The Melvilles, The Fabulous Hackmasters, The C-Notes, Down River Road, Crooked Dice, Joe Fahey & The Bottom 40, Lee Rude, Chasin’ Colors, and more homegrown songwriter-oriented bands.

“Most of these groups were around in the ’80s and ’90s, college days, and some broke up and had kids and families, etc., and then they decided they needed to play again,” said Sahagian, former leader of ’80s punk-funk rockers the Urban Guerillas who these days occasionally performs under the moniker The Unknown Musician. “So we’re giving them a change to have a second childhood with rock ‘n’ roll, and they are giving us a packed house on early evening weekend nights. The early shows are kid-friendly, and lots of folks bring young ‘uns and we do have a great home-cooked menu being served during the shows.”

To be sure, a neighborhood bar can be a fleeting thing, as the recent shuttering of Champions on West Lake Street attests. But the Driftwood keeps on keeping on with theme nights, touring bands, singer/songwriter showcases, and the Shotgun Ragtime Band’s Grateful Dead tribute, which has unfurled every Sunday (4:20 p.m.-11 p.m.) for 144 consecutive weeks and counting. Behind it all is Sahagian’s tireless enthusiasm and vision for growing an organic scene that draws from and caters to the neighborhood.

“Larry loves music and people and bringing the two together,” said Jeff Mueller, leader of the Melvilles. “Most of the people who come see us appreciate the early time slot. We used to wonder where everybody was when we’d play an 11:30 set at a different bar. Now we know the answer: They’re asleep in bed.

“We’ve started bringing in guest stars that we open the night with by backing them for five songs and then finish out the night full-on Melvilles. It’s been cool. Next month’s guest is Shawn Gibbons, and it don’t get much better than her. Plus, the Driftwood has Bell’s Two Hearted Ale on tap.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net or www.jimwalshmpls.com