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Brian Liebeck of Icehouse: ‘The thing that kept us alive this summer was being able to do outdoor shows’

Lucky for Icehouse – very, very lucky – it has a large outdoor courtyard. Concerts have been held there since June, with socially distanced seating and masks required.

Icehouse, on 25th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, has a large outdoor courtyard. Concerts have been held there since June, with socially distanced seating and masks required.
Icehouse, on 25th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, has a large outdoor courtyard. Concerts have been held there since June, with socially distanced seating and masks required.
Courtesy of Icehouse MPLS

When Icehouse opened on 25th and Nicollet in June 2012, the big stage in the front room, visible through the street-facing windows, let it be known: Live music will happen here.

It was also a restaurant with a gastronome’s menu and a bar with creative cocktails. Writing for the Star Tribune, Tom Horgen called Icehouse a “triple threat: a foodie destination, a cocktail den and Eat Street’s first bona fide music club.”

COVID made it a triple target. Independent music venues are so imperiled that 90% aren’t expected to survive. Restaurants and bars are struggling.

On Wednesday, Icehouse’s co-owner Brian Liebeck said by phone, “I’m gonna keep swinging, even when my legs are chopped off at the knees.”

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From checking out shows at the Artists’ Quarter while still underage to hanging at the Clown Lounge in the basement of the Turf Club, Liebeck always wanted to have a music venue. “I anticipated something smaller, like on East Lake or in St. Paul.” Then the Icehouse space became available, and “it was just too cool to pass up.”

From the start, the music was diverse. “That was the beauty of what we did,” Liebeck said. “So many different types of music. It was what we were interested in, and who we knew, across multiple genres.” He characterizes the diversity as “a reflection of the local musicians. Folk artists are playing on hip-hop artists’ records, and vice versa. The jazz guys are everywhere. That gave us access to a wide variety of artists to play here.

Brian Liebeck
Courtesy of Brian Liebeck
Brian Liebeck
“I remember when we first opened that David Huckfelt [of the Pines] said, ‘You just have to let it be what it wants to become.’ We never let go of that idea. That maybe caused us to not be very concise with what we’re doing here. But it also created communities among different circles of people.”

The music was booked by a local Who’s Who of musicians. It grew from weeknights to nightly, adding brunch on the weekends, matinees on Sundays and a Sunday-night dance party. Marijuana Death Squad, Chastity Brown, Jeremy Messersmith and Doomtree all had residencies. Groups from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Schubert Club and the Mill City Opera performed on the Icehouse stage. There were quite a few poetry slams, and Jazz Mondays.

Programmed by drummer JT Bates, a friend from the Clown Lounge days and one of Liebeck’s most trusted advisers, Jazz Mondays became a destination for Twin Cities jazz fans. Where else could you see Tim Berne, David Torn or John Medeski on a Monday night?

Beyond music, Liebeck made the space available to groups like AchieveMPLS and the Wilder Foundation. Dave Chappelle once came for five instantly sold-out nights.

Lucky for Icehouse – very, very lucky – it has a large outdoor courtyard. Concerts have been held there since June, with socially distanced seating and masks required. More shows were scheduled into early November. Then it snowed.

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Before COVID, how were things going at Icehouse?

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Brian Liebeck: We were already on a path to making some changes. We were struggling with the combination of the casual fine dining menu mixed with a music venue and bar. We were having conversations about “Is this operating model sustainable? Do we change up to more of a bar? Do we reduce the music schedule?” And then COVID hit.

MP: What did the rest of 2020 look like?

BL: We had a number of weddings booked, so that was looking good. We had just had some turnover with our management and were getting the new staff up and running. We had a really good team starting to move in the right direction. Diane [Miller] was booking some really good shows. We were feeling like we had the right pieces in place.

Left to right: Renee Copeland, deVon Russell Gray, Davu Seru, Diane Miller, and J.G. Everest perform on the Icehouse courtyard in August.
Photo by John Whiting
Left to right: Renee Copeland, deVon Russell Gray, Davu Seru, Diane Miller, and J.G. Everest perform on the Icehouse courtyard in August.
MP: How many people were working there when you closed, and what happened to them?

BL: We had around 55 part time and full time. We laid everybody off. On [March] 17th, the first day of the shelter-in-place, I told everyone to just go get on unemployment.

We applied for a PPP loan, but we didn’t get the full amount for two and a half months of payroll. We got about half of that. It was just enough to reopen.

We reopened initially with seven or eight people. We’re up to about 20 now.

MP: Are you able to continue with the weather changing?

BL: I’m trying not to freak out, because this week obviously has been slow with the snow. But we’re set up for indoors. We had people dining inside all summer, in the back room. We plan to use that back room mainly. The front room will be for when we have shows or private events.

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We’re just trying to remain scalable and not go into debt, is basically the name of the game. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll add shows after we get to a level of comfortability indoors. We have a huge space and the luxury of spreading people around.

MP: Icehouse was a new buildout in 2012, so you have pretty good HVAC in place?

BL: We do. Pre-COVID, I was always fascinated by how air moves in the space. I feel comfortable being in here, and comfortable having guests in here, spread apart.

MP: What strategies have you used to stay open during the pandemic?

BL: When we reopened, we reduced our menu considerably. We’re not doing foie gras anymore and some of the other more expensive ingredients. I love all that stuff, and it was wonderful that we did it, but there’s no way we could have survived with that type of a menu.

It’s more pub fare now. I think it fits the space better, and also fits with the fact that we are a music venue. During COVID and the shelter-in-place, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on that. If we’re trying to be too many things to too many people, we end up not being anything to anybody.

We reduced our staff count and the expectations for our level of service. We essentially moved into being more of a bar.

Keith Ellison and Brother Ali, center, talk music and politics during a Spotify event at Icehouse with Frannie Kelley, left, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, right, of A Tribe Called Quest in 2018.
Photo by John Whiting
Keith Ellison and Brother Ali, center, talk music and politics during a Spotify event at Icehouse with Frannie Kelley, left, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, right, of A Tribe Called Quest in 2018.
The thing that kept us alive this summer was being able to do outdoor shows. The landlord was generous enough to give us a really good deal on the rent. The city was offering their expansion of premises permits for free and granting them for the entire summer. So that helped a lot. I don’t know what it would have looked like without the shows.

We started a food and beverage minimum on the outdoor tables. It became very apparent we had to do something. In the past, we wanted more people to come in, and if you’re just having a drink that’s fine. But this became a situation where we’re having a concert replacing what would have been diners, and a limited capacity.

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Some artists were turned off by that. They didn’t feel comfortable advertising their shows to friends who were other artists or dancers and out of work as well. I understand that. But we needed to stay open. It became a numbers game, and we had to tighten up the finances.

And then we’re trying to get more from other revenue streams we haven’t had in the past, the to-go and online ordering and stuff we haven’t ever felt the need to do.

MP: Let’s talk about May 25 and George Floyd. What was that day like for you, and the days that followed?

BL: We were in the process of reopening, so it was quite a stressful period. We soft-opened our to-go menu over the Memorial Day weekend, when the George Floyd murder happened.

Time just stopped. Another Black man killed by police. Anytime that happens, there’s a visceral response. I came into work later that week and up and down the street, windows were smashed. And that’s when you start to think, “This time is different.”

Our windows weren’t smashed, but we boarded up. I had mixed feelings about that. We’re a white-owned business, so trying to protect our space – blah, blah, blah. But I don’t own the property. We had a lot of protection in the neighborhood, with Pimento [Jamaican Rum Bar] next door. They had a lot of people on the block, which kept it relatively safe from damage.

MP: Have you made any changes to how you operate your business?

BL: Our hiring was very open to demographics. I think we did a pretty good job in that area over the years. Even before we reopened, I was thinking, “How can we make this a more positive environment?” That wasn’t the case at times in the past. I’m certainly not naïve to believe we were devoid of toxicity. For me, it was trying to get to a place where we’re all being kind to each other, we’re working in a cohesive environment, we’re in a space where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

MP: What was it like to start presenting live music again?

BL: I made a promise to myself to actually enjoy the shows and take them in. There are some stressful nights, especially when you have to educate certain people on social norms during a pandemic. But it was very enjoyable.

It was good to be able to connect with customers who have been coming [to Icehouse] for years and we were always just passing by each other. It was a good summer in regards to just connecting with people.

Being one of the few places offering music in town, it felt nice to be able to do that. There wasn’t a night when someone wasn’t telling me this was their first live music in seven months, or six months. Customers would see a few shows and say, “OK, you guys seem to be doing things correctly.”

We were able to gain the confidence of the artists. It wasn’t like there was a bunch of people knocking on our door wanting to play. It was actually the opposite.

I always thought this space [the courtyard] would be great for shows. And when we started doing it, I’m like, “Oh my God!” Especially the night that JT and Mike Lewis did their duet set. That’s when I kind of fell over how good it sounded with the soft brick and the vibe.

Live music was the one thing that kept me sane this summer. I think the last time I went so long between concerts was probably in middle school.

Left to right: Douglas Ewart, Mankwe Ndosi, Davu Seru (drums) and Douglas Kearney at Icehouse in 2019.
Photo by John Whiting
Left to right: Douglas Ewart, Mankwe Ndosi, Davu Seru (drums), Douglas Kearney and Donald Washington at Icehouse in 2019.
MP: Earlier this year, you told MSP magazine that under the current setup, with flexibility from your landlord and the city, you could get through another three or four months. Where do you stand now?

BL: At the current rate, probably a month. Especially as we move inside … It’s hard for me to answer that right now, with the last few days and how slow it is. But we’re literally month by month right now.

MP: What’s the smartest thing you’ve done since the pandemic began?

BL: I would say the smartest thing with the business would be staying flexible and pliable. Rolling with the punches and not getting too carried away with the uncertainty.

I’ve been staying in the center of the uncertainty and being OK with what might happen – everything from we might have to close, to we’re gonna limp along and have to work quadruple hard to stay open for the next however many months until this passes, to there might be another riot, like the one we had when the gentleman committed suicide in the parking garage.

I see a therapist every week, and that helps a lot. It’s just keeping on an even keel.

MP: Is there a silver lining in the past several months?

BL: COVID has forced me to slow down a little bit, mentally and physically. To not try to get everything done at once. I’ve kind of lost my need for perfection.

Especially in March and April, people were really looking out for each other. I feel like I’m in a community that we haven’t always had. And we’re bringing to the forefront a lot of the social issues that have been plaguing us for so long. Things could finally change for the better, even though it’s really hard right now.

People are definitely waking up to and looking at the separation between the haves and the have-nots. Obviously, the upper middle class is more white people. It’s not people of color. Certainly it has forced me to refocus on what is my place in all of this as a business owner of a music venue that books a wide diversity of acts, and what that means, and what my role in that is as a middle-aged white man.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

BL: Travel! I had a place picked out in Nicaragua in mid-June. But I think right now, I would love to go to London, check out an English soccer match and eat some curry.

***

Visit the Events page on the Icehouse website to learn what’s happening in the courtyard. Meanwhile, Liebeck is exploring the possibility of livestreaming concerts from the Icehouse stage.