Local Current Blog

The 400 Bar may be gone, but its stories live on

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

 

It’s the bar where Golden Smog, Zuzu’s Petals, and Semisonic all began, and where Dan Wilson first debuted his big hit “Closing Time.” It’s the bar where Bonnie Raitt hung out while in the Twin Cities to record her debut album. It’s where First Ave stage manager Conrad Sverkerson kicked out his first rowdy patron. And it’s where Peter Ostroushko was playing pool when he got the call to go play on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

It’s the 400 Bar—and after decades of hosting live music, the West Bank institution has closed its doors and vacated its ancient two-story building on the corner of Cedar and Riverside Avenues.

For some, it marks the end of an era; the closing of the final chapter of Minneapolis’s storied rock ‘n’ roll heyday, and yet another nail in the coffin of the vibrant folk and blues scene that once dominated the West Bank. But for those familiar with the neighborhood’s rich and vibrant history, it’s yet another example of the reinvention and resilience that sets the area apart from any other in the Twin Cities.

The origins of 400 Cedar Ave.

Like most good stories about Minnesota’s history, this one starts over a century ago in 1882. That’s when Swedish and Norwegian immigrants first migrated to the Minneapolis neighborhood we now know as Cedar-Riverside or the West Bank, and when the building that sits at 400 Cedar Ave. took in its first tenants. In the late 1800s the Cedar-Riverside area was home to a bustling Scandanavian immigrant community that was referred to colloquially as “Snoose Boulevard.”

400 Cedar Ave.’s first occupants were a pair of druggists. Remember when the exterior wall of the 400 Bar crumbled away in 2007, revealing the painted words “Drug Store” underneath? It’s possible that those words were first painted on the wall way back in the 1880s, when the DeVoes Bros. ran their business out of the first floor alongside a family of seamstresses who did alterations and repairs.

Cedar Avenue circa 1890

By 1890, the building’s lower level had been transformed into a saloon, and the publisher of a Norwegian weekly paper, Normanna, rented the apartment upstairs. The saloon changed hands a few times but remained open until 1920, when prohibition shuttered bars across the nation. Public records indicate that 400 Cedar Ave. was registered to a hardware store known as South Side Hardware for the 15 years that prohibition was enforced in Minnesota, but it wasn’t uncommon in those years to find speakeasies in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood; legend has it there was even a secret underground tunnel that connected the speakeasies in Palmer’s Bar and 5 Corners (now the Nomad Pub).

The pub was officially back up in running in 1935 when it reopened as Joe’s Bar, and it was around that time that the 400’s actual bar was installed; that massive piece of lumber and tile remained in the space until this week, when it was auctioned off to the highest bidder on eBay. The building changed hands a few decades later and became the 400 Bar sometime between the 1940s and when new owner George Hnasko purchased it in 1961. It was also around this time that the neighborhood started to evolve into the bohemia that it’s known for today.

The 1960s and the beatnik scene

To fully understand the West Bank’s transformation in the 1960s, one must first cross the river to the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus, otherwise known as Dinkytown, to check out the artistic scene that was blossoming there.

Willie Murphy; photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

“There was a beatnik scene, I’ll call it, in Dinkytown in the early ’60s,” remembers Willie Murphy, who was one of the most active players in the blues scene as it began its slow creep into the West Bank neighborhood. “There was quite a scene of coffee houses; the [10 O’Clock] Scholar was there. We would go play chess and wear berets when I was a young teenager, and the folk music thing was happening, and Bob Dylan played there a lot, a lot of people played there. We hated the folk music, though,” he says, letting out a low, gravelly laugh. “Anyway, that kinda moved. People wanted to drink, so it moved over to the West Bank to a club right on Seven Corners called Mixers, which became a kind of legendary beatnik hippie bar.

“In about the early to middle-60s, the scene from the Mixers moved down a little bit and the Triangle Bar became a big hot youth bar,” Murphy continues. “Most of those bars had been [occupied by] old Scandinavian people from the Snoose Boulevard days, because it was a big Scandinavian community back then. But the Triangle became a hugely popular hippie bar. I mean, it was jammed. And I would play there with Spider John Koerner, we were touring all over all the time. Whenever we’d come back to town we’d play at the Triangle. We’d alternate sets, and between it was so crowded, we’d started going across the street to the Viking to drink. And the Viking was just nine old Scandinavians. And soon other people started going to the Viking. Pretty soon the Viking was a throbbing hippie bar, too. So me and Koerner went up and down the street to relax between sets at the 400 Bar, which was five old Scandinavians drinking, and pretty soon other people went to the 400.”

“This is really true,” he says, a smile stretching across his face. “We were pioneers.”

One by one, each bar on the West Bank became inundated with young hippies, artists, writers, and musicians, creating a bustling and heady scene that spread all along Cedar Ave. It was in this era that venues like the Triangle Bar, the Joint, and eventually the Cabooze began hosting full-band gigs by rollicking blues and boogie bands like Murphy’s Willie and the Bees, while smaller spaces like the New Riverside Cafe and Cafe Extemporé showcased respected folk acts like Peter Ostroushko and Dakota Dave Hull, Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson, and the nationally recognized trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. It was also around this time that Bonnie Raitt would frequent West Bank bars like Palmer’s and the 400 while taking breaks between recording sessions for her debut album, which was helmed by Murphy and tracked at an empty summer camp on Lake Minnetonka.

“[Bonnie Raitt] would hang out in the mornings and read the New York Times and chat with her friends Spider John Koerner, Willie Murphy and such,” says author Cyn Collins, who published a book about the history of the Cedar-Riverside area, West Bank Boogie, in 2006. “Everybody just really enjoyed her intelligent, vibrant, funny spirit.”

Music was pouring out of every corner of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and shortly after it would begin pouring out of the 400 Bar as well.

“The 400 was pretty funky. Back then the bar was only half as big as it is now,” Murphy says. “The two old people that ran it, George and Ann, were wonderful. They had had it for years. They didn’t know what to think of all the young people all of a sudden. But they were nice, they put out potato salad and ham and buns out on Christmas, stuff like that. Then this guy named Ted May bought it. He was a lawyer. And he saw there was a gold mine there. And he was thinking about having music, so they added an old piano and one night I played the piano. It was down on the floor by the pool table. I played and sang as a performance, and it was great. Everybody loved it. Tony Glover, I think, played with me. It was jammed! As I’ve often said, I’ve built the 400 Bar, as far as music goes.”

Murphy estimates that the first shows at the 400 happened around 1978. He began playing at the bar every Wednesday night, and then added a regular Saturday night gig as well; the music nights were so successful that the 400 quickly added more regular performers like Koerner, Ray & Glover, Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson, and Paul Metsa, who vividly remembers setting foot in the bar for the first time.

“It was the fall of 1978,” Metsa remembers. “I was going to night school at the University of Minnesota taking a music class at Scott Hall. I knew, from my studies outside of class that the 400 was a very popular with musicians. It was kind of a magnet—not only for musicians, but for a lot of the artists and dancers in the neighborhood. The Mixed Blood Theater, which is still there, is right up the street, so you’d run into a lot of the actors, and directors that were working there. A lot of writers as well. Jim Klobuchar, from the Star Tribune—whose daughter, Amy, of course is now our senator from Minnesota—would finish columns there. In fact I remember, one afternoon, helping him find his wallet after working on a ferocious deadline.

Paul Metsa; photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

“When I started to play there with my band, Cats Under The Stars, in 1980, there was a gentleman that we saw there quite frequently. He was an African-American who smoked Camel straights, one right after the other. He always had a tweed coat on, tie was loose at the neck, and he was always writing in a little spiral notebook. Years later, I saw a picture of him and realized that that was August Wilson. I found out later when I saw a lot of his plays, that he said he loved writing in noisy, smoky bars. And I saw it dozens of times. So it was a very active, artistic place.”

In those earliest music days, the 400 didn’t even have a stage yet; Metsa remembers seeing musicians playing right on the floor of the small bar. “They’d set up the musician between the pool table and the jukebox,” he says, chuckling. “I remember seeing Jeff Cahill there playing, and if someone wanted to do a corner shot of that side of the [pool] table, Jeff would have to interrupt his set.”

A stage was built shortly after that, but things were far from smooth sailing. In the summer of 1979 a fire broke out in a restaurant, known as the Basement, that had been operating above the bar, and the entire building closed for several months to assess the damages and make repairs. “Everything’s been a lot harder than it should have been,” bar manager George Traugott told the Minnesota Daily in 1980, a theme that would be echoed again in the following decades.

And yet the 400 Bar persevered, taking the opportunity to expand the room slightly and transform the upstairs into a business office. By the next year, it had more than solidified its reputation as a hotbed for West Bank blues and folk music, and the shows hosted in its 75-person capacity room were often packed end-to-end. Decades later, the early ‘80s would be remembered as the 400 Bar’s first musical heyday, and they served as a precursor for the rock ‘n’ roll boom that would soon follow.

The Jayhawks and the rise of the Uptown scene

While a wide array of talented blues, folk, and boogie acts kept the hippie tradition alive in bars across the West Bank, there were other Minneapolis scenes sprouting up in the 1980s. Prince obviously got the lion’s share of press in the early ‘80s for his rise to fame in downtown Minneapolis at First Avenue, while bands like Husker Du, The Suburbs, and The Replacements were performing at rock clubs like the Uptown Bar and the 7th St. Entry. It was rare for any of these communities to overlap, however, until The Jayhawks decided to bring their live act from the Uptown Bar scene over to the West Bank to try out a show at the 400.

“We were a bit of pioneers in breaking the West Bank barrier,” remembers Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. “At the time I can’t think of another band that was playing both the Uptown and the West Bank, so we had to go through a little bit of a rite of passage to be accepted into the scene on the West Bank. But those people were very nice and the 400 was our home base. Why we started going over there—I think it had a lot to do with the kind of music we were playing, which was kind of in between rock and roots, rock and traditional. The old stage used to just be plywood, it ran along the front of the bar, and invariably I would, since I was stage right, be standing on the bar, and the mixing board was just kind of mounted on the wall behind me, and if I needed something different I would just turn around and adjust the knobs, and if I needed a drink I’d just kind of bend down and the bartender would hand it to me.

“It was convenient,” he says, laughing.

Jayhawks Bunkhouse back cover_crop

The Jayhawks became so intertwined with the 400 Bar that their debut album, 1986’s The Jayhawks, included a photo of the four founding members coming down off that tiny stage. Before long, more bands from the rock world started lining up gigs.

“We were kind of the first to start that transition, for better or for worse,” Louris notes. “I think it was coming anyway. Because at the time there was really only a couple places to play in Minneapolis, and we had—Goofy’s had gone away, Longhorn was long gone. There was the Uptown Bar and the Entry, and if you were lucky you’d make it up to First Avenue, but there wasn’t much else. So the West Bank was kind of new-old territory.”

By 1987, a new scene was starting to develop at the 400. Bands like Run Westy Run, Trip Shakespeare, and the Widgets were regulars at the bar along with blues/R&B powerhouses the Butanes. As Curt Obeda of the Butanes remembers it, it was around this time that the blues and folk traditionalists that started up music at the 400 began to butt heads with the younger, louder generation of artists.

“When the Butanes trio showed up fully amplified, standing up and ready to go, the regulars reacted like we were Dylan at Newport in 1965,” Obeda recalls. “400 Bar manager Billy Sverkerson found some packing blankets to place over the amps and drum kit, but the first few Thursdays still were an uncomfortable mix of the old guard shouting ‘turn it down’ and our fans yelling ‘turn it up.’”

“[Spider John] Koerner would go into into these places that had drums and electric guitar and they no longer wanted to hire his music because one guy wasn’t loud enough,” Tony Glover told Cyn Collins in West Bank Boogie. “John, one night said, ‘It’s weird. I started music in all these bars, and now none of them will hire me.’”

Cats Under the Stars on the 400 Bar's old stageIt was around this time that Golden Smog had their first official gig, which Gary Louris estimates took place sometime in 1987. “Kraig Johnson from Run Westy Run, he got called up to fill in for somebody who canceled, so he called me and Danny Murphy up, and we pulled together this band called Golden Smog and got up there and played this show, and people went crazy,” he remembers. “And we were playing the goofiest stuff, like Jim Croce songs, and there were people like Kat from Babes in Toyland singing along to these really cheesy songs. We were all over the place and it was just so much fun, it was just incredible. And that was kind of the beginning. We didn’t have bass and drums back then. That was my magical night. It was back when it was a tight little bar and a great time.”

The next year Zuzu’s Petals also played their first gig at the 400. It’s a night frontwoman Laurie Lindeen retells passionately in her memoir, Petal Pusher.

The 400 Bar is a long thin alley… The stage is a particleboard triangle attached to the end of the bar. Its dimensions are approximately four by four by six feet; one of the four-foot slices holds Willie Murphy’s weathered honky-tonk piano that he pounds every Saturday night for the former hipsters. Neon beer signs provide light.

The background chatter and jukebox dims as I mount the three steps that lead to the world’s smallest stage. I place my snap-front alligator skin purse on Willie’s piano with irreverence, light a cigarette with trembling hands, and tune my guitar… Now’s a good a time as any to rip into this instrument that I hardly know and let them have it.

“I was first kicked out of the bar in 1987 by Conrad Sverkerson, legendary First Ave stage manager, when he was a bouncer there,” remembers the Glenrustles and Ol’ Yeller’s Rich Mattson, while Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic’s John Munson says that he’s played the stage at the 400 “so many times it’s a bit of a blur. I have to admit that among my favorite memories of the place are sitting up late late after the bar closed and hanging out with Bill Binenstock, the old manager and booker of the place, and Noah Levy and Judy Levy. It was Bill’s vision that expanded the bar to the size that it is now, and I recall him hashing out the broad strokes of what the place would be while sitting in the old pint sized, charming joint that the place started out as.”

The expansion

Bill Binenstock started bartending at the 400 Bar in the early ‘80s and eventually took over managing the place from Billy Sverkerson (who, to complete the Minneapolis rock scene flow chart, is the brother of First Ave stage manager—and onetime 400 Bar doorman—Conrad). Binenstock, who is now a Vice President at CBS Interactive, remembers watching the bands and clientele evolve over the late ‘80s and presiding over the 400 Bar’s expansion into the neighboring clothing store.

“I’ll take the blame for that,” he laughs, speaking about the bar’s expansion over the phone from San Francisco. “We had the desire to bring in bigger acts yet again, but the constraints of the bar itself was so small. It was less than half the size of what you see now. We would cram maybe 100, 150 people in that place, which is just crazy. That was people squeaking out the doors to accommodate that. I kind of pressed [former owner] Ted [May] to buy the building when the opportunity came up, and the building included the business that was next door to the 400, which was a business called Global Village.

“It was pretty controversial, it changed the dynamic of the place,” Binenstock continues. “But at the time, a lot of businesses were sort of ‘grow or die.’ At the time there were so many new clubs coming out that were competing for these bands, and to get the better bands, you needed to have decent facilities to be able to accommodate them and the ability for them to earn enough money to make it worth their while.”

The expansion into the second room actually tripled the size of the 400 Bar, which jumped from a legal capacity of 75 people up to 275. Remodeling began in late 1992 and was finished in the summer of ‘93.

“At one point in the transition we hadn’t gone to the new stage yet but we opened up the wall, and Walt Mink was playing,” remembers Binenstock. “Walt Mink, at the time they were a pop band that was sort of generating a lot of attention, and we didn’t have enough space to hold them, and then when we expanded and kind of blew the wall open, suddenly we did. So they played on the old stage in the new combined unit. And it was so raucous that there were people crowd surfing and kicking the lights, and I was getting really pissed off that they were getting out of hand, because for the first time we had this relatively big space in which to work.”

Dan Wilson recalls this era vividly, as it coincides with the period when his popular act Trip Shakespeare began to wind down and he started looking for a new outlet for his songs.

“When Semisonic was just a nascent idea, when Semisonic was not even Semisonic yet but just me and John Munson and Jake Slichter, we decided to be the entertainment at John’s girlfriend Heather’s birthday party at the 400,” remembers Wilson. “So we learned a whole bunch of songs for this birthday party, a bunch of covers and a few songs that Jake and I had written, and really just for the fun of it did kind of a trio gig at the 400 for this party. This was while Trip Shakespeare was still going. And when John and Jake and I started writing more songs and deciding we wanted to, you know, play some gigs and try to start this new band, our first thought was to do gigs at the 400, to try out new material and see how we could figure out how to sound. And that was our choice for a place to workshop in a way, I guess.”

The three members of Semisonic were such regulars at the 400 that the bar ended up providing some inspiration for Wilson—even supplying him with a few of the lines in their most popular hit, 1998’s “Closing Time.”

“I remember the first time we did ‘Closing Time’ was at the 400 and I forgot all the words and we had to start over. But it was very appropriate because I had first heard that phrase ‘You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here’ bellowed by a bouncer at the 400,” Wilson says. “And when I was writing ‘Closing Time,’ I was definitely in my mind picturing—you know when it says ‘Open all the doors and let you out into the world’? I was definitely imagining leaving the 400 Bar, you know, to that intersection, to those streets late at night. So it was appropriate that we debuted that song [there].

“And one reason that ‘Closing Time’ took the shape it did, was it was my little tribute to the bar,” he continues. “And I honestly, when I wrote the song, I thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be sweet if they used it at the 400 Bar, wouldn’t that be a closing of the circle?’ You know—the song’s based on being rousted out of the 400 Bar myself, and then to have them use the song to roust everybody else out seemed like a sweet vision. I didn’t really think at the time, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a huge hit and everyone for years on end will know the words.’”

One last remodel and the Sullivans

The 400 Bar went through one last ownership change when Bill Sullivan—who for years had worked as a tour manager for seminal Minneapolis bands like the Replacements and Soul Asylum—purchased the bar from Ted May in the fall of 1996.

“Sullivan seems poised to give the local rock community exactly what it so desperately needs: a high-quality secondary venue for national acts beyond the First Avenue/7th St. Entry duopoly,” City Pages music editor Simon Peter Groebner wrote in November of 1996. “The 400 has always been a player, but it has had weaknesses, such as dodgy sound quality and room design.” Groebner also noted that the fall of 1996 saw a lull in show attendance throughout the Twin Cities, and wrote that he hoped that Sullivan’s experience in the music industry would revitalize the concertgoing audience.

The 400 began its run under Bill and his brother Tom Sullivan’s leadership at the end of that November. They announced their arrival with a pair of shows by Run Westy Run, and then closed for a portion of the winter for more renovations.

“I thought what the Sullivans did aesthetic-wise was really cool and much better than what we had done,” Bill Binenstock notes, recalling a time when he returned to the club in the late ‘90s. “Our renovation was a pretty sterile, it was much more utilitarian. And when the Sullivans took control I think they added a little bit of character.”

A grand re-opening of the bar took place in January of 1997 and was headlined by Joe Henry, who ended the night covering Prince’s “Purple Rain” in front of a capacity crowd. The next year, Mason Jennings played his first gig at the 400, snagging a last-minute gig after recording his debut album in his Uptown apartment and sending a copy to the Sullivans.

masonjenningscover“At that point we would do just a little bio sheet and I had the CD and I’d drop it off places, drop it through the mail slot or under the door,” Jennings says. “And I remember they called us and they wanted us to play a show opening for Dave Pirner’s side project, it was called the O’Jeez. So they were like, do you want to come in and do an opening slot for Dave Pirner? And I was of course freaking out because I was so excited—because up until then I hadn’t played bars.”

As Jennings tells it, that night was a major turning point in his career. “I remember we were on stage doing the sound check, we were all nervous, and there was this guy mopping the floor, and he wasn’t talking to us and he was kind of grumbling, and he walks up to the front of the stage and he’s just like, ‘I asked my wife what a**hole was playing the club tonight, and she said the a**hole whose CD you’ve been listening to the last week in your car.’ So that’s his first interaction. And then he goes ‘I’m Tom, I run this place.’

“And I was like, holy crap. He walked away and I looked at the guys and go, I think that’s a compliment? Who knows what that means, it was funny. And then right before the show is going to go on the O’Jeez canceled, and we were super disappointed. And Tom said, ‘Well, you know, the stage is here, you guys are really excited, why don’t you guys just play a show.’ So we played as hard as we could and we only had a 25-minute set, and a bunch of the writers from the newspapers came down to see Dave Pirner and he wasn’t there so they just all ended up hanging out at the bar and drinking and watching our set. And then Dave Pirner came down, I don’t know why he showed up, but I guess somebody else must have been sick or something, so he shows up and he asks if he can sit in with us, and we’re like, man, this is amazing. He got up and sang three songs with us, I remember we did a Sinead O’Connor song and a TLC song, that song ‘Waterfalls,’ he wanted to sing that. So we did this little set with Dave Pirner and then we finished the show, and then the next day the Pioneer Press had this huge story about it and somebody else from the Star Tribune wrote about it, and I got a call from Tom the next day, like, ‘You should get the newspapers, you’re all over the newspapers.’ It was blowing my mind at this point. And he said, ‘You know what, Slim Dunlap just canceled his Thursday night gigs, would you want to take up the Thursday night gigs at the 400 bar?’ So of course I said yes. And that’s how it started out. It’s kind of a crazy beginning.”

Jennings ended up playing every Thursday night at the 400 for four months, and by the end of his residency each gig would be at capacity. Jennings is quick to credit Sullivan for the bulk of that success; he said that it was at only his second full-band gig ever that Sullivan gave him a stern yet lasting lesson on how to make it in the music business.

“We played that first Thursday night and we were so excited because maybe 40 people came, which for us seemed like a ton of people. Everybody left that night and we’re about to get into our cars to leave, and [Tom] called us all together and just laid into us,” Jennings remembers. “He was like, ‘Are you taking this seriously? What was this?’ He just laid into us so hard. He was like, ‘I expect you to be working every day this week to try to make 100 people come next week, putting posters up and getting the word out there. This is your job, this is your opportunity to do what you love to do, so take it serious.’ It really scared us super bad and we totally kicked into gear. That always stuck with me, too.”

Other local musicians recall similarly brazen interactions with the Sullivans, who seemed to be on the lookout for another Jennings-type success story while booking burgeoning national acts like Elliott Smith, the Shins, Joseph Arthur, and Arcade Fire. From the late ‘90s through the mid-2000s the 400 Bar seemed to be a magnet for the best new talent, and often the Sullivans would focus their attention on only one or two local acts at a time, pairing them with touring acts to maximize their exposure.

Craig Finn says he estimates Lifter Puller played the 400 at least 15 times in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, with the most memorable gig happening in November of 1999 when his band played with Les Savy Fav and Roads to Space Travel. “It was right when Fiestas and Fiascos was coming out,” he remembers. “Joe Strummer was playing at the Quest earlier that evening and he ended up at our show, Billie Joe Armstrong had brought him there. Joe watched most of the show from the side of the stage and then hung out with us afterwards for quite a while backstage. He was a huge hero to us so we were ecstatic. He was super complimentary about the set and for years to follow I met people who told me that Joe had talked about Lifter Puller with them.”

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter also says he’s played the 400 more times than he can count, though he notes that there was ongoing tension between the bar’s management and smaller local acts like his Friends Like These. “Communist Daughter played its first show there before we were a band. Friends Like These played our third show there and then probably the next 40 shows there, because Friends Like These was one of the house local bands for a lot of the national bands for a year or two. We played with Verbena, The Stills, Quasi, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and a bunch more,” he says. “But I stopped going there and booking shows there because of never knowing if they were going to treat us decent. Every club has bad days, just like every band, but the 400 Bar seemed to be generally unhappy to deal with us for reasons we couldn’t understand.”

Haley Bonar at the 400 in 2005; photo by Andrea Swensson

And Haley Bonar offers up the most concise and comical description of her experience with the bar while reacting to its closure: “400 was the first place I played in Minneapolis,” she wrote. “I played there many times and it was pretty cool, despite the lack of clean toilets. Great sound people. One time the Arcade Fire played on the bill with me because their other venue fell through that night. Then one day Tom told me that I couldn’t play other venues in town and pointed to a garbage can in the corner and said that’s where Minneapolis musicians belong! That was the last time I went there, but it will always be something to me I suppose. RIP!”

Regardless of how local musicians felt about the bar and its proprietors, the 400 continued to pull in one influential indie act after another. Bill Sullivan returned to tour managing in the 2000s, working with Cat Power and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and both acts played numerous gigs at the club long after their popularity would allow them to play larger spaces.

“It all started with a beautiful gentleman named Bill Sullivan,” Conor Oberst told Mark Wheat of the Current recently, reflecting back on his early days as a touring artist. “He was one of the first people outside of Omaha that sort of championed our group of friends’ bands. I met him, and he was always real good to me when I would come play his bar, and he would promote other shows for me, and then I guess it was right before Lifted, it got to the point where we just kind of had to be on a bus, we had this 14-piece band, and we could no longer just all pile into the van. We had to get more professional. And he kind of came out of retirement and ended up tour managing Bright Eyes for like the next six or seven years. We went around the world many times together, and he’s saved my life more than I can count. I owe him a lot.”

Some other beginning’s end…

Around 2007 the 400 Bar’s concert scheduled seemed to slow down significantly, and at one point their calendar was so sparse that an incident in which a section of the exterior wall of the building fell apart had scenesters drafting up pre-emptive versions of the bar’s epitaph. In its final years as a music venue, the 400 Bar remained dark for the majority of each week, only opening for occasional shows.

400_Bar_Piano“Those Sullivan brothers kinda turned it into more like just a club that was open whenever they had a show that they could make money off of,” notes Willie Murphy, who stopped playing there regularly around the time the Sullivans purchased the building. “Before that it had been really a community asset and a community bar, with great regulars in the daytime.”

Fittingly, the 400 Bar’s final show was a duo performance by Spider John Koerner and Tony Glover, two of the musicians who first helped breathe life into 400 Cedar Ave.

As of January 1, 2013, the building now belongs to Abdighani M. Ali, who plans to overhaul the space and turn it into a community gathering place for the large Somali immigrant population in the Cedar-Riverside area. Though 400 Cedar Ave. will no longer be a drinking establishment, it will still remain a fundamental meeting place for the residents of that area, a role that hearkens back to Snoose Boulevard’s origins as a safe haven for incoming immigrants.

The 400 Bar’s final proprietors plan to pursue other options, and say that the bar will live on in some way. As for that piano that Willie Murphy first played back in 1978, it was recently auctioned off to engineer Paul Brekke, who plans to keep it in his new Dalek Sound Studios in Northeast Minneapolis, which is set to open this spring. And Willie Murphy himself still plays a monthly gig down the street at Palmer’s. In other words, despite the fact that the bar has been closed since the end of November, the spirit of the 400 Bar is guaranteed to live on and on.

A one-hour audio special about the history of the 400 Bar will air this Sunday night, January 13 at 9 p.m. on 89.3 The Current.

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  • MNjoe

    I saw a few shows there in the early years but the one that sticks with me was a show in the late-80s by The Clams. They were awesome!

  • Gwen

    Boiled in Lead in the ’80’s is a favorite memory, dancing in front of that tiny stage

  • EricB

    Alex Chilton playing a loose set of R&B covers (Oogum Boogum and You’ve Got a Booger Bear) around the turn of the century, and the Supersuckers touring behind Must’ve Been Live. The Evil Powers of Rock ‘n’ Roll!

  • http://twitter.com/NanceLeeM Nance Lee

    The Jayhawks and the BoDeans in the 80s. There are a lot of great local bands/music now, but what was it about the 80s? Was it just that I was young enough to see all the shows and dance all night? Sigh.

  • http://twitter.com/kbenson Kyle Benson

    I remember seeing Jack Johnson open for Mason Jennings here. Good times.

  • http://twitter.com/PeyoteUgly pitpat

    good riddance. this place sux.

  • Corinne
  • Corinne
  • Russ Brown

    ah man…memories – I saw Alejandro Escovindo, Peter Case, and Freedy Johnson as part of their Tres Amigos tour there – Alejandro came down and tried to play acoustic to the crowd, and Gary Louris and Dave Pirner were there – they tried to drag Gary up for a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” only to find that Gary didn’t actually know the words once he was on the stage – LOL

    I say Hayden there, which is probably my favorite gig – Matthew Ryan was my 2nd favorite, and I saw the Stereophonics acoustic there at a time when they could still probably sell out Wembley Stadium in England –

    and I was introduced to one of my favorite musicians, Bill Mallonee (as was known at that time as the frontman for the Vigilantes of Love) there – good times, great memories

    also played a couple shows there myself and with other bands, and it seemed tough to fill the place when no one could just walk in off the street without paying a stiff cover – but I am glad to have been a small part of it’s history

  • Anthony

    In 1983 I lived on the West Bank and would see Greg Brown sitting in there drinking with his friends and that was cool. Koerner on stage – lived in the same boarding house on 7th Street (now a parking lot); paid $150 a month for a room with a bathroom and kitchen down the wall. The way it was isn’t anymore. Anthony

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.scoggin.5 Bob Scoggin

    I used to play there with Doug Maynard and my old friends Mike Rivard and Tim Moeller. Tony Glover was in the band too. Doug took a break for a little while so we changed the name for a minute from ” Doug Maynard” To ” Doggone” LOL

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.scoggin.5 Bob Scoggin

    I used to play there in ’83(I think) w/Doug Maynard. Glover was in the band too. Last time I was there I think I went with fiddler Jim Price to hear our
    old band mate Ed Michaels ( we had a band in ’74 called
    the Klondikes w/ Chris Gage from Jimmy Gilmore &
    Roy Clark) play with Alvin “Youngblood” Hart . The joint was larger
    then. Later I would sub for either Willie or John Beach @ the Viking
    when either of them took a break. It was then I played w/John’s old
    friend, Doug Sahm. Memories…