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.
So was the room itself. House engineer Scott Griess had that space completely dialed in. Whether you thought you were Denny Terrio or just wanted to sit and absorb the sounds and vibrations with your friends, the sonics were perfect: not so loud that you couldn't carry on a conversation, not so quiet that your chatter would disturb the groove. Most soundmen are willing to sacrifice tone for volume, but not Griess. On this night, every note from every instrument had clear and distinct separation. This is, hands down, the best-sounding room in the city, a testament to both Griess's ability and the EAW system itself, put together by noted sound guru Rich O'Dell.
Aside from that, Brendan's best feature could be its bathrooms. As I watched the mutant version of American Bandstand -- where Permagrin was now joined by a dozen of his brethren -- Geno Cherenzia (or just Geno, for anyone who's had the pleasure of meeting him), the club's longtime manager, spotted me in the crowd. "Have you seen the bathrooms yet?" he asked. "We call it MOABB -- the Mother of All Blues Bathrooms. You've gotta check it out." Normally, no one gets too excited about a club's lavatory. But if you'd ever had the unfortunate experience of using the bathrooms at the old Brendan's, you'd know why Geno was so excited about the new facilities. While the abhorrent smell at the old place was mainly due to the fact that three bars/restaurants shared the same grease disposal, the bathroom stench surely didn't help matters. In fact, the Market Street facilities may have rivaled those at New York's CBGB for the worst potties in the world.
Still, nature had been blowing up my phone for the past half-hour, and that was incentive enough to visit "the Mother." And if I hadn't known better, all that elegant tile on the floors and backsplash and the fresh coat of sky-blue paint would have convinced me I was in a posh, five-star hotel bathroom in Aspen.
A lot of planning went into this club, with months spent working out the smallest details. Geraghty and his partners -- sister Sheila Geraghty and Tom Walls (Trinity, Rocky Mountain Diner, Choppers) -- listened to all the complaints about the old place (the small dance floor, the obstructed view, the bathrooms) and addressed them here. Musicians will dig the "green room" -- complete with leather couches, a shower and a refrigerator loaded with beers -- where they can chill post-gig; they'll also appreciate the ease of loading and unloading on a clear path directly from the back-alley door to the stage. And customers will enjoy the VIP area, which comes with its own waitstaff and can be reserved for parties of twenty or more.
But while the Delta roadhouse feel of the old joint has been traded for a swank Chicago-supper-club vibe, everything that made the original Brendan's special is still here in abundance: great music and a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere.
This weekend marks Brendan's grand opening. On Thursday, July 10, Michael Hornbuckle will play from 8 p.m. to midnight. Five bucks will get you in and buy you three drink tickets; proceeds from the evening will go to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Nina Storey gets things going early on Friday, with a non-smoking show from 8 to 10 p.m.; a portion of the $12 cover will also benefit the CCH. Brendan's all-star house band will close out Friday night and be back on stage Saturday with Diana Castro.
As for Mr. Permagrin? That entertainment is free.
Fresh-squeezed: Chris Sauthoff (aka Citrus) left his gig as guitarist with Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass over a decade ago -- but he still has plenty of love for the Lord. "That man is my brother and my hero," he says of Theo Smith. "Thanks for sparkin' all those memories."
I wrote about Theo in the June 26 Beatdown, after running into him at Rise, where he's dancing at night while preparing a new album, Lordgasm, by day. And it turns out that Citrus, too, is busy planning a second coming. When he's not performing stage-manager duties for George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic -- which he's been doing since he left DOB in 1994 -- or playing with P-Funk, he's fronting the recently re-formed Stone Koolies, the band he left to join up with Theo. The Koolies will have a few local dates before Citrus hits the road with Clinton in August; in the meantime, you can catch him on Monday nights at Dulcinea's 100th Monkey (717 East Colfax Avenue), where he's been sitting in with the Byron Shaw Project (Jonez, Judge Roughneck) and Cocktail Revolution, a drum-and-bass ensemble, in the venue's 3D Lounge.