First Avenue adds a restaurant, revamps its VIP Room for 40th annivesary

Categories: Local Music
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A preview of Greg Gossel's mural in First Ave's Record Room

First Avenue turns 40 years old this weekend, and over the years it has undergone plenty of changes and faced numerous challenges--outside competition, a changing music economy, change of owners, and the evolving face of downtown Minneapolis. Throughout it all, it has endured as one of the nation's most highly respected venues for touring bands, while constantly adapting and finding new ways to keep patrons coming through its doors. The venerable institution is kicking off its 40th anniversary celebration with a marathon of music, new beginnings for old rooms, and the addition of a bar/restaurant called the Depot Tavern, a nod to the original name of the club, the Depot," when it first opened on April 3, 1970.

"What we're doing is really expanding our footprint a little bit," says General Manager Nate Kranz. "We are making a lot of changes, but none that really affect our core business of putting on live shows."

The Depot Tavern, the biggest and most ambitious of First Ave's new ventures, is slated to open in May and will feature burgers, hot dogs, and other game-day and bar food, with what Kranz promises will be a unique twist. The idea of expanding First Ave to include a bar with food service open during the day has been kicked around before. Notably, there was a short-lived experiment to have the 7th St. Entry open during the day many years ago, and according to former manager (and current Triple Rock manager) Chris "Zartan" Olson, there was discussion of opening a restaurant around the turn of the decade. However, opportunity is definitely knocking now. "One big reason we decided to open The Depot Tavern is because of the new Twins stadium opening up in our neighborhood, but really the timing just happened to be good," Kranz says. "The space where it is opening had been occupied by a check cashing business for the last decade, and it just so happened their lease was up last year. We looked at our options and decided a neighborhood bar with some food would be very appealing not just to Twins fans but also to our customers who are coming down to see a show."

Still, this isn't going to be a radical change from what patrons at First Ave are used to. "The focus of the place is definitely on being a bar, but it also is going to feature some great food and should be a super place to hang out before and after concerts," says Kranz. Another advantage: providing food for hungry bands. "I think that is a great idea and high time they expanded into some of the rest of the building," says former Entry stage manager and current Rhymesayers tour manager Randy Hawkins. "I remember the old days of cooking hot dogs and chocolate chip cookies in the old kitchen [located by the coat check]. Now it's a whole new place to go to have some food while you wait for your band to on and get away from it all... Not to mention having an option for close food for the bands."

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First Ave's general manager Nate Kranz
And what about other changes that First Ave is making? The former VIP Room will now be called the Record Room to highlight the focus on DJs, along with some aesthetic improvements. "We are adding a giant art installation [by Greg Gossel] on the wall opposite the bar. It's a collage piece that I believe is 24' x 8' when assembled," says Kranz. "We have a new logo for the Record Room and we'll also be hanging a sign over the outside entrance so that the room is a little bit more visible to people on the street." Kranz also says there's going to be a continued increase in promoting shows in outside venues, and, possibly most exciting for half of the 7th St. Entry patrons, a women's room in addition to the traditional unisex bathroom.

No matter what the changes, however, First Ave remains a place committed to the basics: Kranz, Olson, and Hawkins all agree that First Ave's reputation for good sound, staff, and crowds is unimpeachable. "I have been touring around the world for 20 years and I have found very, very few clubs that match the comfort, ease, and great shows that First Ave has been consistently doing for the past 40 years," says Hawkins. "I don't know how many bands have come through and said from the stage 'You guys don't know how good you got it, having this club in your city.'" It's also a place well aware of its own history, from the stars on its outside walls that designate a small fraction of the local and national bands and DJs who've graced its stage to the memories of those who work there. "[Prince] is the most memorable show I've seen here. Like a lot of people, I had grown up just hoping to see Prince play First Avenue at least once so I'm glad that happened," says Kranz, acknowledging the joint history of the two local music institutions.

Olson's favorites are a little more personal. "I had to do overnight security for one of those nights [when Cheap Trick played three nights in the Mainroom] and I found myself sitting at Bun E.'s drumset on stage at 4 with all the house lights off and the stage lights on and me playing his drums to an empty room... I have to say meeting my wife Jenny and all the friendships I made with some of the nicest people you could ever imagine tops my list as well."

Friday marks the kickoff of First Ave's anniversary celebration with Spoon doing two sold out nights in the Mainroom, as well as shows in the Entry and dance events in both the Mainroom and the newly named Record Room. Keep tabs on First Ave via their Twitter account and website.

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