The Beatdown

Damn right, Brendan's has got the blues.

The cautiously optimistic look on Kevin Geraghty's face as he surveyed the sparse but bedazzled crowd last Saturday night was telling: Over the past year, he'd poured his heart and soul into his new club, and now he hoped that folks hadn't forgotten him. But consumers -- especially bar-hop-ping consumers -- can be fickle, and in this lousy economy, to borrow a phrase from Ms. Jackson, it's all about "What have you done for me lately?"

In the spring of 2002, Geraghty's original club, Brendan's Pub, closed its doors at 1624 Market Street with very little warning. The rent had tripled, then "the toilet at Croc's, the bar upstairs, overflowed for the umpteenth time," he remembers, and he was tired of fighting with the landlord. But for nearly a decade, Brendan's was where the blues resided in Denver. Over the years, innumerable bars have billed themselves as a home to the blues -- one company has even trademarked the title -- but if you ask any local aficionado, he'll tell you that Brendan's Pub was the true house of blues.

After years of working in the ski industry and then helping a friend in Michigan with his blues bar, Geraghty says he was captivated by the music of Albert Collins and Matt "Guitar" Murphy and decided to open his own blues club in Denver. (It was either that or move to southwest Utah to run yet another resort, an option vetoed by his wife: "No way I'm moving there," she said simply.) And so he started looking for a space. At first he was interested in the building on 14th Street that had once been Soapy Smith's. But then he saw the Market Street spot occupied by Johnny's Pub & Grille, and fell in love with the room's ambience.

"It reminded me of an old Chicago blues club," Geraghty says. And in September 1993, it became Brendan's, named for Geraghty's late golden retriever and for "the best bartender" he's ever met.

The tiny, dank, below-ground club hosted everyone from Lonnie Brooks (who played until four in the morning with his son when the club first opened) to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (whom Brendan's staffers mistook for Jimmy Rogers when the blues legend walked in unannounced and sat in with W.C. Clark), and just about every living blues legend in between. "We would have booked Muddy Waters had we been around during his heyday," says Geraghty.

Outside of Colorado, Brendan's reputation merited four W.C. Handy Award nominations for best blues club in the country. And the musicians just kept coming. After Brooks's first show at Brendan's, he was booked to play another now-defunct Denver venue, but he insisted on playing Brendan's as well. "He played a Monday night for us for next to nothing," Geraghty recalls. Brooks couldn't pass up the money at the other club, he says, but he still complained that they made him "pay half price for my drinks."

After briefly entertaining the thought of other theme nights, Brendan's introduced its legendary Monday-night jam sessions. "We thought about having a Monday Night Football night, but decided fuck that, we're a blues club, let's stick to our guns," says Geraghty. At the club's peak, luminaries such as Metallica's James Hetfield, members of Los Lobos, and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers all sat in on those sessions at one time or another.

But that was then, and this is now. And from the looks of the new Brendan's Pub at 2009 Larimer -- the former home of the Hub Loan Office pawnshop -- Geraghty has nothing to worry about. This place could truly become the benchmark for live-music joints in Denver.

As I handed my five bucks to Gene the door guy (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Louis Gossett Jr.), the first thing I noticed was how good the club smelled. The old place stunk like fifty years of deep-fried ass; imagine taking a walk down any random alley in LoDo, breathing in grease and urine, and you're in the right neighborhood. My feet didn't stick to the floor -- always a great sign -- and the pool table now resided in the foyer, rather than the main room, so that loud games wouldn't interrupt the music.

Lining the corridor to that main room were a dozen framed photos -- Clark, Brooks, Stevie Ray Vaughan -- carryovers from the old joint. And while anyone can frame a publicity shot and throw it on the wall to buy credibility, what made these photos different were the hand-scrawled inscriptions on each one:

"To Kevin, my best friend." -- Mighty Joe Young

"To Brendan's, had a ball with y'all." -- Matt Guitar Murphy.

But I was soon seduced away from the photos by the chorus of Rufus and Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" coming from the next room. From a perch near the stage, I was riveted by the spectacle unfolding in front of me. It wasn't the Brendan's house band stealing my attention -- even though guitarist Brian Lewis, bassist Mike Marlier(filling in for Chris Harris, the group's regular bassist), keyboardist Jeff Jenkins, drummer Jeff Fournier(filling in for Brian McCrae) and guest vocalist Diana (aka Diana Castro) are probably better than 80 percent of the bands I've seen in the past decade. No, what had me speechless was the male portion of the lone couple on the dance floor (which, by the way, is much larger than the old one and doesn't obstruct your view, no matter where you're sitting). He was wearing his best Hawaiian party shirt, shorts and sandals and dishing out moves he no doubt perfected during years of practice in front of a bedroom mirror to the soundtrack from Thank God It's Friday. His was the classic Caucasian overbite-permagrin boogie taken to a whole new level. As the band rolled into the next song, this painfully rhythm-less fellow continued with his Riverdance-meets-New-Kids-on-the-Block strut. And as the hits kept coming, a random guy jumped on top of the newly restored bar -- a solid-mahogany beast unearthed by Tom Sundheim of the nearby Architectural Artifacts and presented to Geraghty, who'd planned to slap a coat of paint on it before he realized the hidden treasure underneath -- and did his best Coyote Ugly imitation. Meanwhile, the contrast between the stoic expressions of the band's members and Permagrin's spastic shuffle was unforgettable.

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