An 11-year Union Of Opposites

Sidebar Tavern Marks Anniversary As Suits And Punks Mingle, Get Along Together

Midnight Sun

August 20, 2009|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,

It's one of the most surreal bar scenes in Baltimore.

At 5:30 on an average Friday evening, a wave of finely dressed folks from the state's attorney's office and other local government workers filter into the Sidebar Tavern, a scruffy basement corner bar near City Hall to sip beers and cocktails.

But the Sidebar isn't just an after-work hangout for the suit-clad crowd. It also moonlights as one of the region's more renowned punk clubs, and it regularly plays host to local and regional rock and hardcore bands.

As such, the second wave of the Sidebar's patrons is markedly different from the first. Usually, an hour after the lawyers and office workers arrive, the first wave of punks rolls in. For the next hour, ties mingle with tattoos. And surprisingly, they all seem to get along.

"It's a weird place during the afternoon," said Don Clark, a 41-year-old who lives in Fells Point and has been going to the Sidebar for years.

"On one side of the bar, you have the City Hall people. On the other side, you have the punk rock crew. It's half-and-half."

This odd mishmash of opposite scenes has helped the Sidebar stay in business for years. Friday and Saturday, the Sidebar will celebrate its 11th anniversary with an indoor/outdoor festival featuring more than 20 bands. It will be the first time the Sidebar has celebrated an anniversary since owner Richard Ashburn bought it more than a decade ago and turned it - almost accidentally - into a punk club.

"Most bars do 5, 10, 15," Ashburn said. "We thought, 'Let's make it stupid.' "

When Ashburn, now 62, first took over the Sidebar in late August 1998, it looked ... well, normal, he said. There were brick walls, an antique floor and a fireplace. The building used to be a restaurant/bar called Dave's Pub, and before that, it was Cher's Place. Until he took over the Sidebar, Ashburn had never owned a bar. He used to exercise horses. Then he got the itch to run his own watering hole.

"Why does any guy want to buy a bar?" he said. "I got away from the horses, took the money I had and put it down on this place."

Ashburn's gamble almost didn't pay off. A year or two after he opened the Sidebar, the kitchen was hemorrhaging money.

"I don't know how to run a kitchen," Ashburn said. "Unless you're a chef, there's no reason to have food in your bar. You're going to lose."

Desperate for ways to raise money, Ashburn was open to ideas about throwing events at the Sidebar. That's when Jeff Bradford, a cigarette company rep and local booking agent, suggested Ashburn start bringing in punk bands.

At first, Ashburn refused. He knew as much about punk music as he did about running a kitchen, he said. He didn't want to scare off the regulars, either.

"I said, 'I can't put punk music in here,' " Ashburn said. "I've got a happy-hour crowd to worry about."

Ashburn reconsidered and decided to test the waters. Turns out, the happy-hour crowd didn't seem to mind the punks. In fact, the two groups quickly settled into a peaceful coexistence. Some of the happy-hour regulars even started coming to the shows, Ashburn said. And the punk shows started helping him pay the bills.

Since Ashburn didn't know much about the punk scene, he gave Bradford full rein. After a couple of years, Bradford stopped booking shows there, and Ashburn gave the job to Matt Joseph. Originally hired as a janitor for the club, Joseph, now 28, had little experience promoting shows. But he loved Baltimore's punk scene and was fiercely loyal to the club.

"I didn't really know what I was doing," Joseph said. "I still really don't."

Joseph's booking strategy has always been to get as many bands - and crowds - as possible. To that end, he's been successful; the Sidebar has music at least four or five times a week. It's open only six days a week.

Over the years, some pretty odd acts have played in the basement club. Metal band Lizzy Borden brought its over-the-top stage show to the 8-by-16-foot stage.

"I heard there was an enormous light show for, maybe, 10 people," Joseph said.

Former child star Corey Feldman also played the Sidebar with his band, Corey Feldman's Truth Movement.

"I think there was a lot of heckling going on at that show," Joseph said.

The challenge as a booking agent, Joseph said, is to keep turning new kids on to the Sidebar.

"People move on from college or they get married, have kids, change jobs and move out of state," Joseph said. "People fall out constantly. It's a constant trouble to keep a new crowd in."

Since opening, the Sidebar has undergone quite a transformation, aesthetically speaking. Fliers and stickers now adorn the brick walls ("the kids seem to like the stickers," Ashburn said), rope lights snake across the bar back and a black "Sidebar" banner hangs behind the stage.

According to Joseph, the Sidebar is well thought of among local rock, punk and hardcore bands. When he was putting together the roster for this weekend's festival, he was able to get a few bands such as the Goons to reunite just for the event. Other performers such as Blondsai, The Fishnet Stalkers and Thee Lexington Arrows are mainstays at the club.

Over the years, the Sidebar has carved out its own little scene in the regional punk landscape. Ashburn's reluctant decision to turn it into a punk bar while still appealing to the happy-hour crowd and Joseph's commitment to booking bands have helped make it a little bar with a broad appeal.

"We don't make any money, but we have a lot of fun," Joseph said.

If you go

The Sidebar Tavern's 11-year anniversary festival will be held Friday and Saturday at the tavern, 218 E. Lexington St. Doors open at 4 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Call 410-659-4130 or go to

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