It was a dump. But it was our dump.
On Saturday, Mohawk Place will host one final concert, before shutting its doors, ostensibly for good.
For more than 20 years, the downtown club has been a hub of the original music scene in Western New York and a home for touring bands from the alt-country, indie rock, punk and roots music scenes. Tonight and Saturday evening, the club is presenting its “Last Waltz,” with a pair of multiband bills celebrating Mohawk’s legacy, featuring a plethora of the very groups that have helped construct that legacy.
And then the building will go dark, joining the ranks of such legendary live music venues as the Lafayette Tap Room, the Continental and the Cabaret as part of a Buffalo club scene that no longer exists.
Since the announcement of the club’s plans to close, due to what has been described by insiders as “insurmountable financial difficulty,” there has been a local outpouring of nostalgia-tinged disappointment, a feeling echoed by many of the touring artists from around the country who made Mohawk Place a regular tour stop over the years.
“To me, any venue that stays open more than five years had figured out the delicate balance between art and commerce, and it is not easy,” says Buffalo native Chris Trapper, who performed at the club with the national touring group the Pushstars and as a solo artist. “I’ve seen many venues shut down over the years, with their idealism shot down into the reality that euro-dance club and college frat bars pay the bills without having to deal with drunken bass players, arrogant singers, stoned sound men, etc. ... but it is those magic moments when the band is grooving, the sound is blaring and the beer is flowing that stay woven in our souls, that we never really forget.”
There is also the tangible feeling that we – members of the local music scene, musician and music-lover alike – are about to lose something very valuable. And there’s also the very real fear that the void created by the club’s departure may never be filled.
“The Mohawk was like our own version of [fabled New York City alternative music club] CBGB,” says local promoter and musician Donny Kutzbach, who has helped book bands at Mohawk Place for the past several years. “That’s a good analogy, really. Just like with CBGB, the success of Mohawk Place was a good barometer for what was going on in our local music scene.”
What was the source of the club’s allure? In the physical sense, the building at 47 E. Mohawk St. is not much to look at. It’s fairly dilapidated, dark and dingy, in need of repair, and far from glamorous. It’s also in a part of downtown that sees little in the way of foot traffic, particularly since Buffalo Place relocated its free summer concert series from around the corner at Lafayette Square, to the much more spacious Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf.
Mohawk Place never had the mainstream pull of the Chippewa Strip, and unlike Allen Street, could not depend on run-off from adjacent music clubs.
And yet, the club became a central headquarters of sorts for members of the area’s music community, most of whom performed there regularly, and many of whom worked at the club. One such musician is Erik Roesser, whose tenure as the Mohawk Place bar manager ends when the final chord resounds from the stage Saturday night.
“I started playing there as part of the Old Sweethearts, and ended up working here partly because it felt like I was here all the time anyway,” says Roesser. “This place has always felt special. Part of the reason that such a community feeling generated around the Mohawk is due to the fact that, let’s say starting 10 years ago or so, everybody played with everybody else. Musically speaking, things weren’t so genre-specific. You could have an alt-country band playing with an indie band or a punk band, or whatever. The bands played together because they all knew and liked each other and they all hung out together at the club whether they were playing that night or not. That seems to be going away now. And it needs to come back, whether Mohawk Place is here or not.”
Marty Boratin, who handled the booking for the club from 2000 through 2005, says that courting musicians was part of the plan from the moment original owner Pete Perrone opened his doors in the early 1990s.
“Pete always wanted to establish Mohawk as the place where musicians hung out, because he knew if the musicians hung out there, a scene would develop around that,” says Boratin. “By the mid-’90s, the Mohawk became a clubhouse for local musicians, a home away from home. If you’d go to one of the annual tribute shows – the Joe Strummer or Syd Barrett tributes, for example – 75 percent of the audience would be made of local musicians. This is exactly what it was like at [the long closed Buffalo punk/garage rock mainstay] McVan’s in the late ’70s and ’80s. All the musicians hung out there, all the musicians played there and the club became a central part of the music scene.”
Boratin was a major catalyst in Mohawk Place’s development from a venue for local bands to hone their craft into an actively courted tour stop for national and international bands of the “cult status” or “bubbling under” variety. The “pinch me, I think I’m dreaming” moments at Mohawk Place have included shows from the White Stripes, Link Wray, Tommy Stinson of the Replacements, John Cale of Velvet Underground fame, and punk legend Mike Watt. Boratin has his own list of favorites: OK Go (pre-video fame), Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Okkerville River, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Tegan and Sara, Ty Braxton, Rogue Wave, the Black Keys ($150 guarantee) and the White Stripes (the night before the Sunday New York Times ran a full-page feature on them). Recent years saw the likes of Hold Steady and Fleet Foxes play the ’Hawk before breaking (relatively) big.
Employed at the time at New World Record, Boratin acted on the potential synergies between retail and live music.
“That made a big difference, because I was already talking to labels and even agents on a regular basis at the record store,” Boratin recalls. “We’d set up an in-store performance for a band, and then have them play at Mohawk that night. The record store was a great way to reach the community, because the community would inevitably gather there. That’s lost now. There’s no face-to-face interaction, no human contact.
“But at the time, we were able to help put Buffalo on the map as a destination point for bands to stop and play in Buffalo, instead of just passing through on their way between Toronto and New York, or Cleveland and Boston, or Chicago and Portland, Maine. Booking agents finally started paying attention to Buffalo. They took chances with acts that normally wouldn’t have played here, and its because Mohawk developed a reputation as a place that was more than just a room, but a venue that actually cared about the acts that were playing there.”
Kutzbach and Roesser are eager to give Boratin credit for developing Mohawk Place on both the touring band and local artist levels.
“None of this would’ve happened without Marty,” says Kutzbach.
“He’s the reason that we’re even having this discussion,” offers Roesser. “So many times, if we didn’t draw enough people to cover the band’s guarantee, he’d pull money out of his own pocket to cover the difference. He’d put the bands up at his own house, and cook these elaborate gourmet meals for them. The word got around that coming to Buffalo meant playing a good gig at the Mohawk and being treated like family by the people involved with the club. That is so much more of a rare thing in this business than most people realize.”
Plus, absolutely no one was getting rich in the process.
“Um, no, there was no money in it,” laughs Boratin. “Listen, at the peak of my time at Mohawk, my old journals and calendars show as many as 88 different bands playing the club during a given month. I would be doing press, making fliers, printing and hanging posters, talking to agents on the phone, following up with the bands themselves, talking to the local bands and getting them on the bills – all while working a 40-hour ‘day job.’ A lot of touring bands would be getting a $100 guarantee, and if we didn’t make that on the door – which we always tried to keep at $5 or less – I’d come up with the difference, feed the bands, give them a comfortable place to stay, and stay up all night at my house listening to records with the band members after the shows. It was all so much fun, but it was also an incredible amount of work. And a difficult pace to sustain.”
Susan Tanner – who spent years working for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, helping transform the label into one of the most successful independent entities of the past 20 years, and is now married to Boratin – sees the Mohawk’s success in non-financial terms.
“That’s what you do when you love music,” she says. “You get involved in any and every way you can, because you’re motivated by that love. It’s never about the money. It’s more about the fact that you could see a band like the White Stripes or the Black Keys, and all of these incredible regional bands, in such an amazing, intimate space. That’s a rare and beautiful thing to be a part of.”
There’s no telling what will become of the strong independent music scene that has developed around Mohawk Place after the club closes its doors most likely in the early morning hours of Sunday.
Will someone step in at the 11th hour and take over the club?
More significantly, where will the music, and the artists who perform it, move? Will those involved be able to find a new venue of a similar size to host concerts with indie bands that consider a draw of 200 people to be a successful night?
We have no way of knowing from this vantage point, but for some, it’s time to move on.
“Mohawk was a place for its time, and it was absolutely the best,” says Kutzbach. “But its time has come and gone.”
Mohawk Place’s Last Waltz
Where: 47 E. Mohawk St.
When: 7 p.m. today and Saturday, Both shows are sold out.
Tonight’s lineup includes the Irving Klaws, bobo, Wolf Ticket, the Chosen Ones, Returners, TMMC, Trailer Park Tornadoes and White Whale.
Saturday’s lineup includes girlpope, Chylde, Two Cow Garage, Handsome Jack, Old Sweethearts, Johnny Nobody, Semi-Tough, Roger Bryan and the Orphans, On Beta, Failures Union and Thermidors.