Monday, October 31, 2011

Old Dog Tavern - The Independent Musicians' Best Friend

Kalamazoo, Michigan was once known for its production of guitars, mandolins, buggies, checker cab, stoves, paper, paper products and drugs (don’t get too excited, I’m talking about the Upjohn Company).  Glen Miller loved this city so much that in 1942, he recorded a song about a gal he once had in Kalamazoo. The song is still played as part of the Western Michigan University Broncos Marching Band's pregame performance prior to all home football games. 

Orville Gibson
Orville Gibson began to sell his unique mandolins in 1894 out of a one-room work shop in Kalamazoo. During the 1920s, Gibson was responsible for many innovations in banjo, guitar and mandolin design.  The Gibson Guitar Company called Kalamazoo home until the mid-1980s, when it moved all operations to Nashville, Tennessee and Bozeman, Montana.  A few Gibson employees decided to stay in the area, and they established Heritage Guitars in the old Gibson factory, building boutique versions of classic Gibson designs. 

Music has always been a major component of the community. Kalamazoo was once home to many live music venues that specialized in all styles and forms of live music.  Blues, country, rock-a-billy, alternative, heavy metal, or classical live performances could be found every weekend, while weekly open mic nights provided the live entertainment junkie the fix that they needed until the weekend lineup came to town.  The ugly and sinister recession cloud that entered our lives a few years ago put a damper on the sunny side of live entertainment venues.  This cloud changed the normally lively and upbeat rhythm and harmony that musicians brought to Kalamazoo patrons via the live venue. All of a sudden, doors began closing. The live music staples of Club Soda and Kraftbrau closed their doors, and slowly but surely, others followed. The live music scene began to dwindle down to a single note you could faintly hear - but only if you listened carefully.

Kalamazoo was also once known as the “Paper City." This 1908 postcard, published by the Star Paper Company, captures a glimpse of the Kalamazoo Paper Mills that once graced downtown's landscape.  The Kalamazoo Paper Company was started in 1867, burned down in 1872, and rebuilt in 1873 to make book paper. The Star Paper Company was located in downtown Kalamazoo at 402 E. Kalamazoo Avenue, snuggled up next to the railroad tracks. This historical building is now the home to Old Dog Tavern.
I remember visiting the Star Paper Factory building on many occasions years ago, when Kraftbrau Brewing Company was taking up residency in the Star Paper Company building.  Kraftbrau was a fantastic place to catch some of the best live entertainment Kalamazoo had to offer.  One thing I know for sure, Kalamazoo residents like to have a good time, they like to be entertained, and they are culturally educated. Entertainment runs rampant throughout the city. It is hard not to find something to do every night of the week - theater, art, museums, music, university and college events, live stage shows, movies, food and drink. Kalamazoo has it all, and far exceeds many communities in these departments.

I hadn’t been to the Star Paper building in quite some time.  Kraftbrau had since closed, and I had been shaking up cocktails in the Windy City for ten years. I was very happy to hear that the Star Paper Company had a new tenant.  A new “dog” was in town, only this was an old one.  I also heard a bit of gossip from that snarky thing called the internet that I was thrilled to learn was the truth:  Old Dog Tavern purchased the now defunct Club Soda bar fixture.  Those of you who go back a ways know that the Club Soda bar was THE place to see live entertainment back in the 1980s. Does anyone remember the “Boppin’ with the Taxman” event?  Although I shouldn’t remember it, I vaguely do.  I spent quite a few of my college days at this little entertainment spot that is tucked away on East Michigan Avenue. Many fond memories are kept closely guarded inside my psyche so I can always relive what the Club Soda bar experience was like. I felt very nostalgic knowing I could relive the energy of this bar fixture at a new establishment. 

I revisited the building a few months ago when I was in town preaching the gospel of local Michigan spirits for Incentive Vodka.  I stopped by for lunch on a Friday, hoping to grab a quick bite and talk about cocktails. I entered and felt the energy of this historic building one more time. Heavy timbers and Chicago-style brick add to the already eclectic atmosphere at Old Dog Tavern. The stage was moved from the East side of the room to the North end, allowing for more user-friendly audience viewing.  The former Club Soda bar graces the East side of the building, in the same L-shaped style as it did at its prior home. I sat down and felt the energy of a bar I had given energy to so many years ago.  An added bonus of nostalgia included Club Soda's marquee sign proudly hanging in its new home.  I was a little surprised to see that I was the only one present at noon, on a Friday that had gorgeous weather.  The bartender, Danielle, greeted me immediately with an enormous welcoming smile. I decided to have some lunch. Danielle let me know the lunch special of the day was a White Bean Chili that Amy Smith, the owner, had prepared.  Although it was a beautiful day, it was a little brisk, so a nice bowl of chili sounded good.  I agreed to the special and settled in with a Maker’s Mark cocktail. My chili soon arrived, and it was the perfect Friday afternoon lunch on a beautiful autumn day in Kalamazoo. Danielle was amazing as a bartender and a lunch companion. I probably stayed a little longer than I usually would for lunch, but we were having such a great conversation. Again, I was a little surprised to see only a handful of people come in for to-go lunches. I did learn that Old Dog Tavern doesn’t accept credit cards -- yet.  Yet is the key word here, kids. They are working on getting this added convenience of payment for guests very soon. Luckily, I had twenty bucks in my pocket that I was supposed to give my nephew after he completed his chores for the day. I had time to replenish his cash with a stop at the ATM before chore inspection, so all was good. Old Dog Tavern has fantastic lunch specials, and I would highly recommend it for those folks who don’t want to wait for a table and prefer a historic, rustic and rugged building with an atmosphere that is filled with old-style charm, character and energy. This is Kalamazoo history at its finest. 

I ended my visit with a promise to return in the near future when live music would make the place jump with even more energy. I fulfilled my promise on a Friday night after downtown Kalamazoo’s Art Hop. After a successful Art of the Cocktail demo at Webster’s Prime, Doug Stanke, Master Distiller of Incentive Vodka, and I wandered down to check out the scene at Old Dog Tavern. The parking lot was packed and the streets were still alive and vibrant with Kalamazooans absorbing all that the downtown area had to offer via the monthly Art Hop event.  Across the street from Old Dog is the famed Bell’s Beer Brewery.  This particular corner of downtown was brimming with beer aficionados and live music entertainment, very reminiscent of an artisan-crafted microbrew keg that’s been freshly tapped. This corner of downtown was effervescent, bubbly, hoppy, filled with flavor and crafted by passionate artists. We crossed the threshold and the old historic building was alive and happy with music. The tavern was filled with an eclectic group of patrons that ranged in age from college students to card-carrying AARP members. Amy Smith, Co-owner of Old Dog Tavern, was the Goddess of the Bar, taking care of all guests with a smile and an appropriate laugh, while still enjoying the music and moving at the speed of light to keep up with thirsty tipplers. 

The music lineup was stellar. I had the pleasure of catching Delilah DeWylde & The Lost Boys performance. Their rendition of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day” was taken to a new level of spectacular. Their performance of The Ventures’ “Pipeline,” note-for-note, complete with stand-up bass, brought the crowd to a new level of celebratory ritualistic happiness on a Friday night. Interesting enough, this was the second band that I enjoyed in Kalamazoo that had a stand-up bass player during Art Hop celebrations - very cool!  I was honored to step behind the bar and shake a few signature cocktails with Amy using my Spiced Apple Simple Syrup (see Autumn Harvest Cobbler posting for recipe). Although I spent many years on one side of the bar as a patron, it really meant a lot to me to step back behind the bar as a Traveling Elixir Fixer and mix up a little SW Michigan. There is a magic and creativity you can only experience when actually visiting the area - this is energy and magic that I believe Orville Gibson left behind as the Heritage Guitar Company continues to thrive.

I will definitely be back to the Old Dog Tavern - I love its charm, ruggedness, kitchy bar memorabilia, and the energy that this historic Kalamazoo building still holds. I hope to again go behind this legendary bar, mix up a few elixirs with Amy and Danielle, and keep the energy and magic flowing via prohibition-era cocktails. I firmly believe that Old Dog Tavern is the musician’s “best friend” when it comes to live music venues - a friend that Kalamazoo lost when Club Soda closed its doors years ago, but now lives on at the Old Dog Tavern. 

The Gibson Factory Smokestack, Kalamazoo, MI

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