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Driftwood nights: Music reigns, characters change at this true American original

sahagian and fields
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
In it for the music, and for the long haul: Driftwood talent booker Larry Sahagian and bar owner Heidi Fields.

In his beautiful 2005 memoir, "The Tender Bar," J.R. Moehringer celebrates the Manhasset, N.Y., pub he grew up in via the prism of one of its regulars:

Steve believed the corner bar to be the most egalitarian of all American gathering places, and he knew that Americans have always venerated their bars, saloons, taverns, and ‘gin mills,’ one of his favorite expressions. He knew that Americans invest their bars with meaning and turn to them for everything from glamour to succor, and above all for relief from that scourge of modern life — loneliness. He didn’t know that the Puritans, upon landing in the New World, built a bar even before they built a church.

Moehringer could have been writing about the Driftwood Char Bar, the warm and trippy South Minneapolis hole-in-the-wall whose many charms and cast of cartoon characters change nightly – hourly, even – and whose flavorful history, roots, vision and good energy make for a truly original vibe that can drum up echoes of The Star Wars Cantina, the end of CasablancaHemingway haunts in Paris or Havana, or any other watering hole of yore you can name.

“Thank you, we loved the music,” said one gargantuan Afro-Caribbean gent in a falsetto whisper worthy of Aaron Neville, to bar owner Heidi Fields on his way out the door one night last week, after fast-rising free-funk floaters Pho woke the dead at the Cremation Society down the street; “it’s like Chicago or New York.”

Better: It’s South Minneapolis, situated in the same neighborhood as kindred-spirited homegrown businesses and entities like Curran’s Family Restaurant, Anodyne Coffeehouse, Roadrunner Records, and the Kingfield Farmers’ Market – not to mention fellow neighborhood pubs Kings Wine Bar, the Lowbrow, and Pat’s Tap, and located well within walking or biking distance of hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers who may or may not know that Willie Mays patrolled center field for the 1951 Minneapolis Millers at long-demolished Nicollet Park up the street. 

“We’re not one of the hip, trendy bars. We’re not Northeast,” said Larry Sahagian, the former leader of ‘80s punk-funkers The Urban Guerrillas, who spent a decade booking the Cabooze and who, for the last three years, has been seeding the Driftwood with a high-quality mix of local and national singer/songwriters, blues, funk, rock and punk. “I love music, and Heidi loves music, and the regulars from the neighborhood love music, and that’s the bottom line. Music is our life.”

band photo
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
James Loney and Lolo's Ghost tearing it up at the Driftwood.

Thus far, there are no laminated alt-weekly awards for “best neighborhood bar” hanging behind the bar at the Driftwood (but there are some rad Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd posters, and a huge tie-dyed heart on a sheet behind the drum kit), nor has Esquire magazine’s annual hunt for the “best bar in America” discovered its decidedly not-for-everybody delights. But that doesn’t mean something special isn’t happening on a nightly basis at the former Westrum’s Tavern at 4415 Nicollet Avenue, something you can’t get at Applebee’s, First Avenue, or Buffalo Wild Wings.

“It’s just a nice little juke joint,” said Sahagian, of the Driftwood’s positively organic nature.

“I always say it’s a ‘gay-lesbian-interracial-biker-bar-and-hippies, too,’ ” said Fields, who opened the bar in December 2007 after Westrum’s went under earlier that year amidst neighborhood complaints about loud noise and drug-dealing. What a difference six years makes.

“I love this bar,” said Fields, sitting at one of the Driftwood’s tables out front, nursing a goblet of red wine and enjoying a cigarette. “I’ve met so many outstanding people and musicians. This town is full of talent, and I want this place to be a place where they can showcase their talent and hone their craft. A lot of the music we have here is originals. We don’t do cover bands. Our main [vision] is you have to do original stuff. I believe in supporting musicians, and original music.

“I grew up eight blocks from here. I always knew I wanted to have music here. Through the friendship of musicians, it grew and adapted and changed. I always say that I built the bar, but the musicians and the people that come are the ones who make it. I just provide a space.”

She also tends bar, cooks, runs sound, does the books (her background is in accounting), and acts as an open-armed and -hearted hostess who puts in long hours and face time with her customers. Named for a piece of driftwood that Fields found in Mexico (“something aged, natural, homey, folkie”), the Driftwood at times can approximate a coastal feel, providing a salty landing spot for surfers, sailors and fishermen of all stripes coming off the lakes for a bump and the sound of music.

It’s safe to say you can travel far and wide all over the Twin Cities and not find a better venue and pure musical talent than you do at the Driftwood,” said WCCO-TV news photographer Joe Mears, who hits the Driftwood on his bike after his nightly newscast duties have wound down. “I’m lucky that Nicollet’s on my commute, because I get to ride by here and hear the music. I’ve heard more talented musicians playing here for no cover than what you pay for in some clubs, and I always think the same thing: ‘I did not expect to be blown away by a band I’d never heard of before in a little place like this. I did not expect to be here at 1 a.m. when my family’s at home and I’ve got to be up in the morning.’ But it’s so worth it.”

Due in part to America’s ever-quickening slouch toward neighborhood gentrification and homogenization, the average life expectancy of a nightclub is two years. Hoboken, N.J.'s storied Maxwell’s announced this week that it will shutter its doors July 1 because parking near the bar was prohibitive and live music wasn’t nurtured, leading club owner Todd Abramsom to comment, “The culture in Hoboken is driven by TV now. A lot of the bars downtown are fighting with each other for who has the most giant TVs. That’s what Hoboken nightlife has become.” 

In music-mad Minneapolis, the Driftwood feels like a secret speakeasy (with plenty of on-street parking) and a one-of-a-kind place you couldn’t make up if you tried. Both Fields and Sahagian say they had no template for the club when they started, but it’s obvious their experience and hard work has forged that most elusive of endeavors: a true American original.

As such, it takes on a nightly life of its own. Some nights it’s dead, with a band or songwriter playing to only a couple of friends and the pool hustlers in back. Other nights it’s packed, and, given the minute-by-minute magic it generates, you’d swear you were in the middle of a Hold Steady song, or on Bourbon Street in New Orleans or 6th Street in Austin, Texas. Either way, the words of the late, great Twin Cities music promoter Sue McLean are always at the forefront of the Driftwood experience: “Live music is good for the soul.” 

“On any given night, there’s 18-year-olds to 70-year-olds here,” said Sahagian, who graced a jubilant Driftwood crowd with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” at the club’s Dylan birthday lovefest on May 24. “And as long as you go with the flow, anyone will talk to you here. All you have to do is walk up and say, ‘Hi.’ It’s a sweet spot.”

Portland, Oregon's The Quick and Easy Boys shredding at the Driftwood.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Portland, Oregon's The Quick and Easy Boys shredding at the Driftwood.

The sweet spot’s foundation is Sunday afternoons/nights with the Shotgun Ragtime Band, who have fired up their marathon Grateful Dead-flavored jams 103 consecutive (and counting) Sundays, a few of which have been frequented by Driftwood alum Nicholas David. Monday night’s popular acoustic jam and Willie Murphy’s Wednesday night blues jam provide old-school flair, and the rest of the calendar is peppered with up-and-coming local bands – including monster blues-funk band stars-in-waiting Pho, ferocious roots rockers The Lone Crows, and powerful pop punks Space Cats – looking to replicate the success of Malamanya, who took the Driftwood by storm a couple summers ago. 

“Heidi’s a real music lover,” said singer/songwriter and Driftwood vet James Loney in the bar’s basement after a recent set. “She does things on a shoestring, and she still pays you well. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

“Bands love playing here,” said Fields. “Because of the wood and the vibe, the room itself plays like an instrument. Bands always talk about: `It sounds so good in here. Natural.’ ”

After a long day of booking, cooking, ordering food and liquor, and talking to guests, Fields and Sahagian can often be found up in front of the band, dancing, singing and caught up in the light, heat, and moment. It’s “The Tender Bar” at its most tender, and indelible evidence for what makes the Driftwood tick.

"Look at this. There’s nothing else around; all the bars are closed now,” said Fields late last Sunday as the Driftwood dance floor churned. “A lot of people help me. People pick up the trash outside, and clean the sidewalk, because they love it. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Someone brought a bunch of flowers to us and put ‘em up outside, because they like this place. It’s like a commune here.

"I’d like for this neighborhood to grow. We’re on Nicollet Avenue; I’d like to have more and different types of venues so you don’t have to go downtown or Uptown. I get a lot of compliments from the neighborhood regulars, like, ‘Please don’t stop.’ I have no intention of stopping. I think it’s a wonderful concept. Everyone loves music. I’m a Taurus. I’m stubborn. I’m not going anywhere.”

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Comments (1)

I love this place

The Driftwood is a wonderful place that I hope remains out of the loop of anybody who has the illusion that they are cool or hip or some other sort of in-crowd label. This little place isn't cool and that's what I love about it. Indeed, it's so low-key you'll almost miss it while driving down the street if your not looking for it. This is one of those places where someone or several someones who are big will emerge from in a few years. You can feel it. The reason is simple. This place has no pretensions, it has no expectations beyond hoping everyone who gets up in that little stage will, somehow, have a magic moment. I've been participating in the Acoustic Jams on Mondays for the past eighteen months. The two group leaders, Levi Elvi and and Kevin Ittner, are open-minded musicians who understand the necessity of growth, errors, playing outside your comfort zone, and celebrating good work. They create an atmosphere of few rules, no limits as to what is played as long as it is with acoustic instruments, and good old fashioned fun. This coming Monday will be my last night there as a regular and I'm going to miss it. I'm moving out of town and will only be able to play at the Driftwood on rare occasions. I can only hope that there is a place like this in the community where I am going. Check it out. The people are great, the food is pretty good, and the prices are fair. One more big plus to this little gem is that it is like a true Irish pub. I've spent some time over there and I know what they're like and, more importantly, what they're not like. Forget those wood paneled places with the orange-white-green flags and the dark beer. That's the tourist Irish pub. The real things, those pubs back in the hills and off the main roads are warm, kind of goofy, and family friendly little places without all the trappings of tourist flavored symbolism. If you want the real deal, go to the Driftwood.