The Meadowlark, the intimate basement bar and venue at 27th and Larimer, celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in December, but it wasn't the party anybody imagined.
The venue has been mostly shuttered since COVID-19 restrictions started in March. For short periods in September and November, the patio and outdoor bar were open and DJs were spinning; then the Meadowlark was forced to close again when Level Red restrictions went into place.
Now that the city's under Level Orange rules, the bar's back in business — sort of. With reduced capacity, the venue is just trying to stay aloft.
Owner Loy Merck says his business, which reopened its outdoor area in mid-January for weekend service, was losing money in the fall because of limited capacity and shorter hours; nonetheless, he decided it was worth reopening now that the State of Colorado is allowing it.
Erik Ludwig, who's been the Meadowlark's general manager for the past nine years, says being open has been a double-edged sword, because he wants to take care of his employees as much as possible.
"You've got to balance it with being as safe as possible," he says. "Then trying to make the financials work is a whole other ballgame, because it's just so different than before. The sales are just so different. We're down 75 percent, at least.”
The Meadowlark's popular Monday jazz nights have been moved to Sunday, and Ludwig says he plans to bring DJs in, as well. A pizza place is set to move into the building next door at 2705 Larimer, which Merck also owns; it was home to Meadowlark Kitchen until the restaurant closed last summer. In the meantime, the Meadowlark is also using the patio next door.
At 73, Merck, who had open heart surgery last October and hasn’t been to the bar since the pandemic started for fear of contracting COVID-19, initially wasn’t in favor of reopening again. But when Ludwig requested that they do so, he decided it would be safe to reboot the outside bar and patio, which would be feasible in winter because they're heated.
The outdoor space at the Meadowlark got a makeover in 2008 that transformed it from something like a neglected community garden to an inviting patio with a large stage and outdoor bar. By that time, Merck had owned the building for nearly a decade, even though the bar itself didn’t open until 2005.
Back in 2000, Merck, a longtime ironworker, was helping build the metal structure for the Volunteers of America building across Larimer. One day, he got into a fight while on the job and was laid off. Walking away from the site with tears in his eyes, he noticed a “For Sale by Owner” sign on the building at 2701 Larimer.
He ended up buying the run-down two-story building, which also had a basement that he fell in love with at first sight even though there was nothing but gravel on the floor. He'd watched a television interview with folk and blues singer Maria Muldaur that was held in a basement bar in New York City that had walls lined with stone and green upholstered furniture, and he was inspired by the setting.
“I thought that doing the bar in the basement would be the greatest thing, going from zero to a thriving business,” Merck says.
The building needed a lot of work, and the upstairs had to be renovated, too, so Merck could rent out apartments on the second floor and office space at street level. He remembers sandblasting the ceiling of the bar, which ended up turning a golden color because “that’s 1885 wood.”
Over the next four years, Merck continued to transform the once-bare basement into a warm and intimate bar with exposed brick and stone walls, a tip of the hat to Muldaur's interview space. He installed a stage against the east wall, and the venue finally opened a few days after Christmas in December 2005.
Over the past fifteen years, the small room has played an outsized role in Denver's music scene.
In 2010, long before headlining Red Rocks and touring the globe, Lumineers co-founders Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, fresh in town from New York City, began playing open-mic nights in the space.
"I went to the open mic at Meadowlark and heard act after act, musician after musician, that were really fucking good," Schultz told Westword in 2012. "It really kind of blew me away. I heard people like Sawmill Joe, Esmé Patterson from Paper Bird, Tyler Despres and Maria Kohler, who were hosts of it at the time, and they would do songs from Science Partner, and Tyler performed stuff from the Dualistics."
While the open-mic nights attracted some of the city’s finest acts, Jonathan Bitz, who was the Meadowlark's talent buyer from 2007 to 2011, also helped cultivate Denver’s singer-songwriter scene at the time; he opened Syntax Physic Opera on South Broadway in 2014.
“Bitz was a real music man,” Merck says. “He was such a good guy. He helped get us a lot of notoriety.”
Merck also credits DJ Low Key and his long-running hip-hop nights, dubbed The Solution, for some of the Meadowlark’s success. And the venue’s jazz jams have long been a destination for younger musicians looking to play to a crowd of jazz heads.
While Merck cites 1968 — when he was a medic in the 82nd Airborne Division in Vietnam — as the most exciting year of his life, he says that bringing the Meadowlark to life was also a big thrill.
“It's almost like having a girlfriend, it was so much fun for me,” he says of owning the place.
Although the venue is losing money while it's open, Merck is proud to have kept some of his employees working, even as thousands have lost jobs in the music, entertainment and hospitality industries during the pandemic.
Ludwig's plan is to eventually have the Meadowlark open five nights a week, from 4 to 10 p.m.
“We're still here and we're still doing it, so maybe it's worth it,” Merck says. “There will be better years.”
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