Through the front window of Big V’s in St. Paul, past the light rail tracks, looms the new soccer stadium on the other side of University Ave. Change is coming, and at the end of the worst February — weather-wise, that is — the Midwest has seen in almost six decades, Vick (a.k.a. Big V) and Jeanne will be closing up shop and retiring from the bar business. In the 40 years Big V’s has been in business, the venue has had many fledgling bands grace its stage, and fortified many patrons with drinks.
Big V’s was quiet last Wednesday afternoon — a week before the venue’s last show under its current name and ownership. Save for Joe the bartender, the bar was empty. When asked about the last shows on the calendar, Joe pulled out the venue’s booking system: a folded calendar with chicken-scratch handwriting noting the bands slated for Saturday and Wednesday nights.
The system, or lack thereof, has worked in the bartender’s favor. He recalled how he got his job pouring drinks. “I was drafted. I was sitting at the bar there, and Vick said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do this Saturday. I’m without a bartender.’ I opened my mouth, and that’s how I got this job. I made a lot of friends here; I’ll miss that. We’ve got a good atmosphere going here.”
In between microwaving up some food and putting away glasses, Joe talked about his favorite performer during his bartending career: Stephanie Nilles. The singer spent the better part of an hour chatting with Joe and Vick before Joe realized she was performing that evening. That same night, the toilet clogged up, so the doorman and Vick pulled the toilet out and worked on it stageside while Nilles played her set.
These walls have seen it all. Joe Hastings and Joe Holland, together currently as Sex Rays and separately in various other projects, have spent many of their formative years at the venue. On Wednesday, the two sat around with drinks and reminisced about the glory days of the dive bar. Hastings played into the lead singer role, with his jet black shoulder-length hair and leather jacket, while Holland, a performer but also a sound man in his day job, was more unassuming with a stocking cap and suit jacket over a t-shirt.
Holland carried the torch after Ryan O’Rourke passed it to him in 1999 when O’Rourke left to go work at the Turf Club just down the street. Holland had already been running sound at Big V’s and was booking one day a week, but when he took the reins, he booked music for seven days a week, allowing for national acts to share the stage since many venues were dark Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.
“Most bars would be closed when these bands would come through on those nights, so we booked them, and I got to meet a lot of cool touring bands,” he says, sitting opposite of Hastings. “I’m pretty nostalgic about Big V’s. It was nice to have a venue immediately available for any stuff I was involved in. We would form bands specifically to play a gig at there. I had my rehearsal space two doors down from it, so I would bring gear over when needed.
“It was a little too comfortable,” Holland continued. “It was convenient for me for a while, then it became inconvenient. I felt a lot of guilt about not being able to get huge shows there. We’d score one or two huge shows every month that made us look good, then the other 28 nights would range from bad to mediocre.”
Booking via e-mail was unheard of back in those days, and Holland would have to cull through bags of demos to find talent. “That was the thing about Big V’s — I could pretty much help any band that would contact us,” he continues. “There were very few I’ve had to turn down, although there’d be some real terrible stuff, too. You’d get a demo CD with a pixelated cover that had the worst recording of the worst songs.”
It was through those demos that Holland met Ron Rudlong, the person who would eventually take over for him as sound guy and also a member of Stonedest, one of the bands performing at the Feb. 27 closing show. “Ron gave me a CD, but the way he recorded the CD was with a VHS camcorder at home. He used the audio mic on there to make his demo. He put it in a piece of orange construction paper, folded it up, stapled the sides, and put his song titles, and contact info — that contact info was the most important part. When I reached into the demo bag to grab it, I accidentally cut my hand on one of the staples, but when I put the CD in, it was one of the coolest CDs I’d heard in months.”
It didn’t really matter to Vick and Jeanne who Holland booked, though. He affectionately described the two owners as enigmatic characters with almost a comedic aspect: Jeanne with her big hair and burly Vick would be behind the bar while crazy punk bands would be doing insane things on stage. Nothing shocked those two — although they did politely ask Joe Hastings to not come back as a performer after he destroyed his drum set, threw his guitar into the ceiling, and played a cover song. (The bar wasn’t licensed for cover songs.)
“They wouldn’t even look at the stage,” Holland recalled. “I would look over when something f—ed up was happening, and they didn’t even notice. They were watching the TV and completely checked out. They did not care, and we’re talking about some very f—ed-up s–t happening, too. There’s a shirtless man onstage jamming a microphone into an amp and making feedback. As a sound guy, you just turn off the PA and go outside at that point — and that’s not even the worst of it. There’s nothing you can do.
“We, the music scene, caught ‘em at a good time, because they’d owned the place since the mid ’70s. We rolled along in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, and by that time they’d seen it all. Vick and Jeanne talk a lot about the glory days when the lines to the bar were three people deep every day and all night in the ‘80s. When they bought the place, that’s what it was like. That’s when bars were still a very viable business. Slowly that faded away when entertainment became more convenient and people would spend more time at home.”
Despite their open-mindedness, Holland admitted that he did have his occasional issues with the couple, and they with him. While they were very fair, they weren’t very generous…but the music scene was hit-or-miss, so the money wasn’t there to be generous, Holland clarifies. If you wanted to make something happen, he said, you would have to ask Vick ten different times in ten different ways before it was a go. Like the time Holland took it upon himself to do a fundraiser in 2004 to get a new PA system for the venue, since all they had up to that point was a system that was pieced together using the cheapest parts that were available.
He booked 12 shows with multiple bands, he said, raising $4,000 to buy new gear that is still in place to this day. That was a big leap forward for the venue, as it provided better sound for touring acts and allowed for hip-hop shows since it had subwoofers. Since the owners didn’t have money to purchase that gear, Holland acknowledges that it actually belongs to the bands that played those fundraiser shows. He kept records with the intention of one day making a plaque to credit them, but that never came to fruition.
Joe Hastings looks back on his time at Big V’s with nostalgia. “I’m sorry to see it go, because it is independently owned,” he said. “It has to do with freedom. It has to do with the fact where no one’s paying me the big money to do the art I need to do. The venues that are independently owned have the freedom to do what they want to do. That’s a very important thing, especially for cultivating young up-and-coming artists who can’t get a gig anywhere else. They need a place to sort it out. You gotta play with people watching you. Music is all about interaction.”
“Performing is a very intimate interaction,” Holland added. “I had a lot of depressing nights. At the same time it was all worth it, because I did learn a lot. I did meet a lot of people that are doing much bigger things now. They trust me, because they know me from there, and I trust them.”
Although the Big V’s sign will come down, the bar, which dates back to the late 19th century, won’t close. New owner David Tolchiner plans to rebrand it as the Midway Saloon “literally overnight,” reports the Pioneer Press. Tolchiner plans to expand the cocktail options and ultimately add a kitchen, and he’s in negotiations to possibly purchase the former Hot Rod’s Bar and Grill next door; Hot Rod’s could become an arcade bar, sharing the vacant lot between the two properties as shared outdoor seating with Big V’s.
“It’s actually perfect that Wednesday, the last night of live music, is such a chaotic night,” said Holland, “because it’s true to form for Big V’s. There were a lot of very well-organized things there, but most of it was pure chaos. No load-in time, no sound checks, no set times. It’s one last chance for total mediocrity — and it’s gotta be on a Wednesday night.”