When Walnut Creek investment planner Steve Henson walked into a bar called the Minnow in Alameda a few months ago, he saw two things: a cruddy redneck dump and potential.
He decided that he would buy the old nag and clean it up, make it a classy place to take your lady on a Saturday night. A real family joint where mom, dad, and the kids could take in a Van Halen tribute band and some Coors Light.
Young punk booker Arica Pelino had seen the same potential in the place earlier. While walking down the street one day at the nautical north end of Alameda, she came across the somewhat hidden club, and thought that it looked like a cool place to put on cruddy redneck/punk shows. And so she did, convincing the bar manager to let her start booking bands such as the Plus Ones, Pleasure Forever, and even the Dickies. Working for no pay, she began getting the Minnow listed in the calendars of all the papers, and each show of hers brought more and more people into the club. The setting was perfect. It was a big space with several big round booths, a pool table, a great sound system, and friendly staff. The fact that it was kinda dingy only added to its raw appeal. “We were just getting our momentum,” she says. “Then Steve bought it.”
Henson, who has not run a club before, now finds himself the owner of an old bar beloved by its historic patrons as the Old Crown (from its previous name,
the Crown & Anchor), and one also newly renowned by starving East Bay music aficionados as the “best place to see indie rock and punk shows.” Neither are relationships he seems to want to continue. In the first week, Henson fired a bartender and cut the other twenty-year veteran down to two days a week. This didn’t go over well with the regulars, some of whom have now found other haunts. Meanwhile, folks who showed up at one of Pelino’s shows a few weekends back had to wait upwards of twenty minutes for a drink while the new bar staff — reportedly two of Henson’s friends — scrambled to keep up with the demand.
Perhaps it is just growing pains. But Henson definitely wants to attract a classier Alameda crowd, in a town with few options on the weekends unless you go in for bowling. “We want to make it a place where people go and feel good,” he says. “They come and have a good time.” Not exactly lofty ideals for a bar. But Henson’s musical taste tends toward the conservative, favoring big band over the Big Boys.
“Once a month we are going to do a gothic night,” he says, showing his amenability to rock. “Now, it’s totally different from what you would expect from the type of bands we’ve had in the past. They have a real good crowd, I’ve checked everything out. The kids that come — I call them kids because I’m old — the kids that come are polite, they have fun, they dance, they don’t break anything. To be quite honest, they even clean up when the thing is over. It’s just fantastic.” Henson is also going to revamp the inside of the club with chicken wire and change its name to the très chic “Rooster’s Roadhouse.”
To his credit, Henson says he’s willing to let Pelino keep booking shows at his club “if she’s willing to work with us.” But Pelino says she is not comfortable with the way he has handled the sale, suggesting that she isn’t likely to book the club for free anymore.
The Minnow employee who first gave Pelino a chance, the bar manager known simply as RD, originally went in as a partner with Henson, but he pulled out after the first week. Henson allowed RD to put up about three percent of the cost of the club, a seemingly generous offer, but RD complains that Henson was just leading him on so he could buy the club, making promises to keep things as they were. “When Steve agreed to buy it, he said, ‘I love what you are doing, this is great,’ and then he just completely pulled the rug out,” says a visibly torn RD, who looks a little like one of the Romantics. “We were a family. We were just getting rolling. It just doesn’t happen overnight, this is stuff you build up.”
Pelino has just three more shows at the Minnow planned for November. “I don’t think Steve will realize the impact it’s going to have when he has no shows booked, no regular patrons, and no one who can make drinks,” she says.
After that, it’s Henson’s show, so to speak. And though he may have rubbed a few people the wrong way, coming on like a big boss man who has no room for “the wrong kinds of people,” the fact is, it’s his bar now, and if he wants to bring his idea of class to Alameda, he can. He’s already scheduled Wednesdays as big band night, an interesting idea for an Urban Cowboy themed watering hole. But the sad thing for us “kids” is that now we have one less place to see our music in the East Bay.