These days, the Twin Cities club scene is so diverse and vivacious that it’s hard to believe there was a time when local bands had a hard time finding a place to play. But back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there were only a handful of active rock clubs in town, and they were shielded by impenetrable and shrewd bookers who acted as gatekeepers to the scene.
Rob Rule remembers that time well.
“Anyone could get into the new band night at the Entry, but it was a long waiting list,” he says. “Nobody could get into the Uptown, nobody could get into the 400 Bar, it was hard to get into O’Gara’s. Nobody could get into the Mainroom, of course.”
Back then Rule had just moved up to the Twin Cities from his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and he and his band the Mammy Nuns were on the lookout for places to play. When the band couldn’t get their feet in the door at any of the clubs, Rule improvised. “We started meeting other musicians and like-minded people, and meeting people out and about, and started putting together these little gatherings. We were all friends and we were all in bands, and we started doing things together because at least we could all support each other.”
What started out as house shows eventually became successful enough that Rule talked the 400 Bar into giving him one gig. Rule brought his friends along for the ride and crammed 10 bands onto the bill, branding the night the “St. Paul Music Club Talent Show.” That name stuck, and soon after he began producing a series of events around town under the St. Paul Music Club (SPMC) name. He eventually caught the attention of the manager of a little country bar in the Midway of St. Paul called the Turf Club, Mark Johnson, and was invited to try booking a month-long residency on Tuesday nights.
“For a month of Tuesdays I’d rent a PA, come down Tuesday afternoon, set it up, the Mammy Nuns would open up the night, we’d have two or three bands play after us, and then we’d close the night,” he says. “At that point there was no payment for the bands but we’d get a couple beers, so the Mammys, we’d just get our whole SPMC crew to come out, and we’d pull $20 out of our pockets and buy pitchers for people just so people would hang out. A month passes and I go to the owner Mark, and he goes, well don’t stop, keep going. That turned into three, four months shy of a 10-year residency.”
Those 10 years Rule spent at the Turf Club ended up completely transforming the space. As the rock ‘n’ roll nights gained momentum and popularity, Rule started edging out the country acts, eventually convincing the owner to invest in a house PA system and build a bigger stage at the back of the room. His childhood friend, Dave Wiegardt, who was drumming for the Magnolias at the time, took over the basement of the club and transformed it into a cozy bar, first calling it the Turf Downs and later the Clown Lounge.
Run by musicians for musicians, the Turf Club became the place where players would hang out after rehearsals, where friendships were formed over pints and blaring sets of live music, and where, one fateful evening, Rule fell in love with his wife-to-be, an avid rock ‘n’ roll fan named Leah.
Wiegardt still remembers the evening of Rob and Leah’s first date vividly. “[Leah] called me when I was living with Rob on Iglehart in St. Paul, she called and I picked up the phone, and she’s like Davey, can I talk to Rob? And I was like, ‘Why do you want to talk to Rob?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know, I think I’m going to ask him out on a date.’ Rob never came down to the [Clown Lounge’s Monday night] jazz nights, and he shows up with Leah to the Turf. They had a four or five hour date, and it was immediate that they were — it was the most immediate connection that I recall with a lot of my friends. I don’t want to say it was love at first sight, but they had one date and they were inseparable.”
Before long, Rob and Leah Rule were running the club together, continuing to weave in a network of friends and musicians who would bartend, waitress, and work the door. “We were really just music fans and fans of people,” Wiegardt says. “Rob always loved the quote — he’s a big Frank Zappa fan, and he’d always say, ‘It’s about people and music.’”
“It’s just people and music,” Rule echoes. “The two ingredients that are most special to us are people and music. Put them together and magic can happen. It’s really simple.”
A lot of those people and a lot of that music will be on display at the Amsterdam on Saturday night as the St. Paul Music Club reunites to rally behind one of its own. Last year, Leah Rule — who now lives with Rob in rural Wisconsin — found out she has cancer. Her disease has reared its ugly head once again this month, and she and Rob are traveling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic for help diagnosing her illness. When word got out that Leah was sick, bands from throughout the history of the SPMC rushed to help, and tomorrow night the community will celebrate the inspirational couple with a whopping nine-band Rock for the Rules show.
“She just needs to be surrounded by people that have her back,” Wiegardt says, while musician Eric Kassel agrees. “Let’s just get some friends together to celebrate life and people and music in a room together and have some fun.”
Many of the bands on the bill also contributed tracks to a Rock for the Rules compilation, which is available digitally at a pay-what-you-can rate via Bandcamp. One act, Slim Dunlap, says he will be debuting a brand new song written for Leah at the show. At the Rules request there will be no cover, but friends will be accepting donations on their behalf. And despite her illness, Leah plans to attend to soak up the love from her friends and even play bass with Rob in the Mammy Nuns.
“I think one thing that really came out of the Turf Club, and Rob and Leah were certainly instrumental in this, was they were great at making the Turf Club feel like home to anyone who stepped foot in there,” reflects Kassel. “And I think that community is something that — it’s probably always existed in the scene, but it was really, really visible at the Turf Club.”
Rock for the Rules takes place Saturday, January 21, at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall with Little Man, the Crossing Guards, Molly Maher, and more. Free, with donations suggested. Full lineup and set times here.