Farewell, Mohawk Place. We Knew You All Too Well.
by Donny Kutzbach
Legendary live music venue closes this weekend after 22 years
It never was the Taj Mahal, but these days 47 East Mohawk Street really is looking the worse for wear.
The building is tagged with graffiti, and boarded-up windows on the top floors peek over chipping paint and a crumbling exterior. Inside the door, the wood walls are stabbed with two decades’ worth of staples left behind from pulled-down show posters. An inch of scum and dust coats the jukebox. In places, the floors are worn nearly to the support beams below them. On particularly stormy nights, the rain drips in gaping holes in the ceiling.
“Let’s just say a little dim light and a new coat of paint can only go so far,” says Erik “Spicoli” Roesser, Mohawk Place’s curmudgeonly, acid-tongued manager. “It needs an overhaul that one of those home design shows would walk away from. It’s sad to see, but when a building is over 100 years old and certain things have been neglected, it comes with the territory.”
The Mohawk Place looks a little too much like a dive bar even for its own well-earned reputation. But, in the end, beauty or decrepitude never made a difference to patrons of Buffalo’s long-standing live music venue.
What brought us all to Mohawk Place—which closes its doors after a pair of sold-out shows dubbed “Mohawk Place’s Last Waltz” this Friday and Saturday—was music.
August 12, 2001: It was the same week the that the White Stripes graced the cover of taste-making British music weekly NME. Jack White, very sick with the flu, and his ebullient drumming partner Meg White took the postage stamp that was the original stage at the Mohawk Place.
There are those shows of which it seems every music fan in Buffalo says, “I was there.” That night the room was crammed like it had never been before. Hundreds were there, certainly, but the Mohawk would have had to have been half the size of First Niagara Arena to accommodate all those who claim to have been there now.
I can say, with plenty of witnesses to back me up, that I was among the throng that evening.
It was an epic Saturday night jaunt: from a canal concert in North Tonawanda to see Buffalo powerpoppers Girlpope open for the Knack, then quickly on to the late Melody Fair for an in-the-round night of Cheap Trick, then back downtown for the White Stripes on that tiny Mohawk stage, where Girlpope also played an opening set.
My running buddy was a fellow music freak and local scene regular named Brad Solly. By the time we got to Mohawk Place the beer was flowing, as it always was. Happy more to be amongst our usual friends at Mohawk Place than in the presence of the White Stripes, we got caught up in our draught-soaked dreams and formulated starting our own band.
Within five months we had our first show booked at Mohawk Place.
That has been the essence and soul of Mohawk Place: live music, musicians, wannabe musicians. People talking about music. It was all always there.
My own story and that of Mohawk Place have been tangled up rather tightly over the last fifteen years. I’d been frequenting the venue since the last gasp of my college years in the mid 1990s, catching Japanese noise acts, rockabilly bands, alt. country rockers, and everything else under the sun. Around the time of that fateful White Stripes show, I was writing for Artvoice regularly, so I was constantly penning previews about the joint. I was also earning a paycheck promoting concerts, and it wasn’t long before I got my break and started booking shows at Mohawk.
Then, of course, I was also in a band (Semi-Tough) that played Mohawk, putting on weekly DJ nights, volunteering my time and sweat to help with the opening of the bigger room and “new” stage, and generally helping out wherever I could.
While my story is somewhat specific to me, as you will see, it is hardly unique.
It all started when Pete Perrone, freshly retired from the Air Force, bought the historic building on East Mohawk in 1990, renovated it, and began running the bar.
With his combed-back pompadour, thin moustache, denim jeans and jacket, Perrone always looked like he had stepped out of a ’57 Chevy, so it was little surprise that he initially envisioned the Mohawk Place as a blues and rockabilly bar.
“When we started playing there, the club was still mainly a biker hangout,” recalls Mark Norris, singer and guitarist for Girlpope and the Backpeddlers and a former Artvoice editor Mark Norris.
“When we’d show up to play there on a Friday, we’d have to plow our way through the leather-fringed crowd that blocked the entrance after Willie and the Reinhardts’ weekly gig. ‘Hey, the band’s here!’ some drunk would say as I juggled an amp and a snare drum. They’d usually give the drum a solid thump with their fist for good measure.”
Norris says Perrone’s dry sense of humor and warmth cut through the chaos.
“What I remember was Pete Perrone treating us kindly,” Norris says. “Pete was just a nice guy that didn’t treat me like a nuisance.”
Make no mistake, though: Perrone—a greaser with a conservative bent—was tough, too, as Dave Gutierrez remembers. Gutierrez’s hybrid psychedelic-garage-surf-rockabilly trio the Irving Klaws were late for their first Mohawk Place gig.
“I distinctly remember that Pete Perrone just hated us,” says Gutierrez. “I don’t think he liked us musically much at that time, either, and totally hated that we were late, as the headlining Frantic Flattops were the draw. Over time, of course, we became pretty much a house band at the Hawk and have been ever since, up until now. I consider Pete a great friend and he was always very good to us after that first gig…I laugh about it now.”
Perrone was a champion of the underdog. In the early 1990s when venues like the Continental were forcing young and unproven acts to audition for slots to play, Mohawk always had an open door, allowing new bands a shot without hoops to jump through. He would see someone who had hung around his bar a little bit and give them a chance, regardless of their experience.
Bill Nehill went from standing in the crowd at Mohawk, to standing on the stage, to tending the bar, and ultimately to booking acts for several years.
“I starting going there regularly because there door price was always cheap and you would always see the same core of people there talking about music,” Nehill remembers. “When one of the main bartenders announced he was leaving, my girlfriend at the time convinced me to ask for a job. I knew Pete well enough, and despite my lack of experience, he took me on. Working with [former bartender] Mikel Doktor was always wild. He was a guy who really took me under his wing and treated me as his equal. That meant quite a bit to me.”
“I mentioned to Pete one night that if he ever needed someone to help out with sound that I would be more than happy to do it,” says Renee Roberts, a self-taught drummer and indie rock maven who started playing at 16 years old and who has played in more than a dozen bands on the Mohawk stages. “He jumped on that offer and I soon found myself behind the board.”
Perrone did not set out to make Mohawk Place a genre-busting, catch-all haven for those who didn’t fit in elsewhere. But that’s slowly what happened.
“He really was a reluctant savior ,” says Nehill. “All Pete wanted was open a small blues and country bar, nothing fancy. Instead he got a band of freaks and outlaws with no direction home.”
Most of the freaks were musicians. Or at least aspired to be.
“Pete prided himself on the Mohawk being a ‘musicians’ bar,’” recalls Marty Boratin. “He knew if the local musicians hung there, people would be more likely to come out for shows. And local musicians were able to open for national acts and possible get a hookup for playing out of town.”
It was Boratin’s tenure as booker that turned the tide at Mohawk Place.
Boratin had been a fixture on the Buffalo music scene for two decades—working at record stores and on local radio, putting on shows—before he took on the Mohawk Place calendar with fellow booker and music enthusiast Jack Hunter.
“Jack started handling the booking, gearing it to the taste of the clientele and owner around 1994,” Boratin remembers. “The place looked like a classic biker bar, with the hawk logo. The alt. country thing was pretty big at the time and that ended up as a big piece of the booking, with crossover appeal to the blues and rockabilly crowd.
“I was pretty up on the alt. country scene and had record label contacts from working at New World, so we knew who was on tour and looking for dates,” says Boratin. “Bands weren’t coming before then because there wasn’t a venue they could play and make any money at. Sound at Nietzsche’s was normally $150 or so. The small PA system at Mohawk was sufficient for most acts coming through a 150-capacity room, and the band could take the door money. Lots of power-pop and indie acts—like the Loud Family or Andrew Bird—who would normally pass on Buffalo suddenly had a venue.”
The Mohawk and Buffalo gained a reputation with bands, not just as a great spot to play but also to relax and stay, thanks to Boratin’s knack for hospitality and lodging. The opportunity to crash at Marty’s, have him prepare you dinner, and go through his record collection added to the appeal. Through the years Boratin hosted everyone from Fugazi to Mike Watt to Dinosaur Jr. To this day, Boratin and his music-industry-bred wife Susan Tanner continue to host bands and put on house concerts at their home in Eden.
“Marty’s hospitality is legendary with a lot of bands, both for the great meals he’d have for you at the club—I mean great gourmet great, for spooners like us—and the sweet accommodations at his home,” says Brent Best, singer/songwriter/guitarist of Denton, Texas-based Slobberbone, whose twangy barroom rock made them beloved Mohawk Place perennials.
While Best insists it was Boratin’s hospitality that initially hooked the band, there was more to the Mohawk mystique.
“What started for us with Marty grew into a lot more. The Mohawk for me just felt like a home. And it’s great to have an honest-to-goodness home so far from your own. No matter how long or shitty the drive that day, or whatever other road-borne affliction was dogging me, it was always such a relief to walk in that place and sit down, get a drink, and see friends you hadn’t seen in months. To walk around and look at every old show poster or promo shot again. The jukebox. To sit at that bar. Booze tastes better in a place like that. Hell, I loved the smell of the place. It smelled old and righteous, like the back seat of an old car. You knew it had been host to a lot of cool shows, a lot of cool nights.”
The White Stripes and perhaps the Black Keys are the names most often reeled off by revering hipsters attempting to retell the who’s-who of acts that graced Mohawk Place, but the list is so much deeper and wider. The late rock-and-roll guitar-slinging legend Link Wray rattled the stage when he was well into his 70s. Canadian rock superstar Sam Roberts played a free show that was arguably the most packed the Mohawk ever got; to this day he considers it one of his favorite places he’s ever played. Fallout Boy snuck in a secret show at Mohawk in between dates at arenas.
The list goes on: My Morning Jacket, John Cale, Metric and Broken Social Scene, Pere Ubu, Daniel Johnston, Germs, Billy Talent, the Jayhawks, Drive-By Truckers, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings…and that’s still just scraping the surface.
As much as the thousands of touring acts that took the stage helped to fill the room, at the heart of Mohawk Place were the diehard, music-loving locals.
Roesser—who has played Mohawk Place in bands including the Old Sweethearts, Roger Bryan and the Orphans, Starsick, and Semi-Tough—might now be the manager of Mohawk Place but at one time he was one of the “patrons” he would now have to throw out.
“A friend of mine kind of snuck me in there one night. At the time it was 21 plus to get in, and I was maybe 19 years old,” Roesser recalls.
“After that night hanging in the back by the old pool table, chain-smoking, seeing bands, and sneaking beers, I was basically hooked.”
The fans were often also musicians and sometimes critics. Buffalo News pop music writer Jeff Miers saw the club from multiple perspectives: with a guitar in front of him and from the crowd.
“Experiencing the club from both sides of the stage helped me to see the big picture,” Miers says. “I’ve been blessed to learn about the music community I write for and about first-hand. The place felt like a club for musicians and music-lovers. Going to see a great touring band there with an equally great local opener, playing a show there myself, writing a review on a band there, or just going to hang out with my friends in the music community—it always felt like one piece. It was always all about the music.”
At the Mohawk Place, there was not one defined scene or set of rules, as Dave Gutierrez remembers it.
“It was a home for more of the underground bands here in Buffalo,” he says. “As long as you brought something to the table and were real, you would have a home at the Hawk, no matter how weird your band may have been. You had punk, garage, art punk, Americana, rock and roll, experimental, and generally a heavier band than you might have at, say, Nietzsche’s—which is legendary in its own right, but they seem to have more a jam band and folk type base, whereas Mohawk Place really was a home for all the misfit bands in town.”
The Baseball Furies qualified as a misfit band: loud, fast, out-of-control, whiplash garage punk. They built a dedicated following and their own sort of scene, highlighted by the two years of Rust Belt Revolt in 2001 and 2002, which for those fleeting moments made Buffalo the capital of the garage rock world.
“It started as a birthday party that I was throwing for myself,” says Baseball Furies and Tyrades member Jim “Hollywood” McCann. “Hey, some one had to!
“As the Baseball Furies starting touring nationally, we meet so many great people in amazing bands. The majority of these bands didn’t have records out yet or tour much. Also, these bands were super fun and idiots. In a good way. So I thought it would be cool to have a chance to see all my friends and also host a party for them to thank them for booking my band in their towns. This grew pretty fast and I talked my buddy and Tyrades bandmate Robbert McAdams into morphing his birthday, the day before, into the Revolt and helping me pull this off. So we did everything 50-50, and it turned into a two-day, 13-band fest. I didn’t care and didn’t think anyone in Buffalo outside our scene would care or come to the show—no one did! But with that many band members I knew the place would look full.”
None of the bands had a money guarantee or anything. It was free beer. At the end of it, all the bands got paid equally. It wasn’t much, but much fun was had.
“I have to admit the Revolts where a bit of a backlash to all the garage fests on the West Coast,” says McCann. “We couldn’t break into the larger national scene the way I wanted. So it was a bit of ‘Well, if you don’t want us, we don’t want to be in your secret club.’ I but did. Ha! But I loved the idea of all these young and upcoming bands, without full-length records out, all in the same place size-wise, coming together to form this next wave. There was a real sense of community. None of these bands became the White Stripes—the White Stripes where actually on the waiting list for year two but we decided to invite all the same bands back and everyone agreed, so they didn’t play—but there where some strong acts that toured and put out some great music: Jay Reatard, Lost Sounds, Clone Defects, the Dirt Bombs, Bantam Rooster, Guilty Pleasures, Mistreaters, Irving Klaws, and many more.”
Following a successful first decade, it was time for Mohawk Place to get bigger.
In the fall of 2002, Perrone knocked out the old kitchen, cleared out the back storage room, and opened things up to create a bigger stage, more than doubling the Mohawk’s capacity. With late, great Mohawk Place handyman and jack-of-all-trades Kevin Miller leading the charge—plus added free labor from many of the circle of Mohawk friends and bands—by November 2002 the Mohawk had what came to be known as its “big stage.”
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Vic Lazar—who played Mohawk with more than 20 different acts, including Maceo Ruez and Knife Crazy—saw the opening of the bigger room and new stage as a change he didn’t entirely like.
“To be honest, I feel like the Mohawk I loved has kind of been gone since then,” says Lazar, who recently moved to Southern California, where he continues to write and play music. “I missed the low-key, mellow vibe of the small stage shows. I may be in the minority here but I think the moment they blasted out the kitchen/rat hangout, the venue’s spirit evolved into something else. Not bad—I still loved it—but the essence had definitely changed.”
There was no question that the bigger room and stage changed things dramatically for Mohawk Place. One of the first shows after the renovation was Eyes Adrift, a supergroup featuring Sublime’s Bud Gaugh, the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood, and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic.
Renee Roberts remembers it being a benchmark night for Mohawk Place.
“Once the set was complete and the crowd dissipated from the club, Krist came back in and hung out until the wee hours of the morning, putting money into the jukebox and just being an overall cool guy,” she remembers. “I guess my point is that if this famous, international rock star can hang out in a hole-in-the-wall rock club and have a good time, then there was something special about this place.”
Another instance saw the Mohawk’s regular bands taking action under the direction of Roberts following the 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island that left 100 dead. The ensuing legislations stripped the Mohawk’s capacity drastically, and Perrone—a notorious skinflint—wasn’t sure if he could justify putting in a sprinkler system.
“I remember that it was going to cost a lot of money to add that sprinkler system, and if it wasn’t installed, Mohawk probably wasn’t going to be much of a live music club anymore,” Roberts says. “I think conversation started that we should do a benefit to help pay for the sprinkler system, but we soon realized that with a capacity shrunk to 50 people we couldn’t have it at Mohawk! We talked to the kind folks at the Hamlin House to see if we could rent out their room, they said yes, and 13 bands were ready to help raise money for the system. If you ask anyone who played that night or anyone that was in attendance, they will tell you it was one hell of a party. I don’t think the Hamlin House knew what they were in for when that night started. But in the end, we accomplished what we had started to do—we raised a couple of thousand dollars for the sprinkler system and shows were being booked again at our favorite venue.”
The locals were also key to programming and creating some of Mohawk’s biggest events. Gutierrez started an annual Syd Barrett night that gained international notoriety among acolytes of the late Pink Floyd founder. With the Irving Klaws, Gutierrez regularly hosted Halloween tribute shows with bands taking on the songs of and dressing like their favorite legendary acts of the past.
Grieving the passing of legendary Clash frontman Joe Strummer led Wolf Tickets singer/guitarist Chris Malachowski to create a tribute night to Strummer’s music that has become a Queen City institution.
“I am not afraid to admit that I cried the day Joe Strummer died, and I happened to be at the Mohawk drowning my sorrows when Pete suggested I take action and do a benefit show there to fight the sadness I was feeling,” remembers Malachowski. “It turns out it was a great suggestion. I think about that very spot where we had the conversation right near the door and always give a little internal chuckle, particularly once a year on that certain night.”
The annual tribute has raised tens of thousands for the nonprofit Strummerville foundation.
In 2009, Perrone retired from the business and sold the Mohawk Place to Scott Leary.
Under Leary’s ownership, the Mohawk Place not only continued to thrive but in many ways saw marked improvements. Leary was not the Mohawk fixture or host in residence that Perrone had been, but he solidified the staff, made the room easy for outside promoters and bookers to bring shows to, and most of all made the investment in a sorely needed new sound system that brought some national bands back that had eschewed the room for its dated PA.
“The upgrade that Scott made to the PA was a huge part of giving that place a chance to grow and allow us to do acts that in the past the room could not accommodate,” says Neal Brodfuehrer, Mohawk’s production manager and guitarist of punk fixtures the Chosen Ones. “It also brought a whole new reason for local bands to make the Mohawk their place to play.”
As Leary cleaned up the room and added a selection of draft beers to complement the cans of PBR, the last few years saw Mohawk hosting some of the venue’s greatest shows: Black Francis, Cursive, Ron Hawkins, Mudhoney, Fleet Foxes, multiple-night stands with Every Time I Die, and plenty me.
None of it was enough. The November announcement of the closing of Mohawk Place has been a shock for most.
While neither Leary or Perrone were available for comment on it, sources close to the matter say that there is an ongoing issue of unpaid state sales taxes dating back to the mid 2000s.
Compounded by that, on Thursday, April 14, 2011, the hardcore band Terror were performing when a fan named Mike Bird suffered injuries after repeated stage-diving and crowd-riding. Benefits were held to help pay Bird’s medical expenses, and insurance was supposed to cover the injuries he sustained. Bird allegedly insisted he wouldn’t sue the Mohawk. Within days of the incident, however, the club was served by lawyers.
“The Mike Bird incident is one of the direct catalysts in the eventual demise of the bar,” Roesser says. “There are ongoing and pending lawsuits, our insurance carrier dropped the club’s policy, and that helped force our hand on the issue.”
To throw in perhaps a lesser but still stinging factor: It can be argued that the erosion and waning strength of the local music scene has hammered nails in the Mohawk’s coffin. While the club continued to keep a calendar of local shows, the draw for homegrown music, always humble, has seen a rapid decrease. The Friday and Saturday local shows that Boratin, Nehill, and Roesser all maintain have been the basis of the club’s business for years were failing to bring in crowds like they used to.
“Slowly, over the years, you saw a void start to happen,” Roesser explains. “It’s a gap in the generations. Not to say there aren’t still great local bands or bands out there grinding it hard and coming up—Pentimento and Young Suns are two off the top of my head who work to get people out and are great—but there was definitely a hole for a long time, and now some of those bands are starting to fill it.”
Chris Malachowski worked close with both owners and looks at the demise of the Mohawk as something sad but unstoppable.
“Pete started the Mohawk and for that he is immortal,” Malachowski says. “Scott saved the place from going under, recognizing the historic nature and importance, and for that he also deserves great credit. At the end of the day I will stand up for Scott Leary because I think the situation became untenable, and at the very least he let the old girl have her last waltz with grace and dignity, something others may not have done.”
The reality is setting in. After this weekend, Buffalo will no longer have the Mohawk Place.
“It’s like watching a loved one slowly pass,” says the usually sarcastic Roesser, turning somber. “I’ve known about the closing longer than most. I’ve had time to come to terms with it, but it doesn’t make that any easier. Knowing that somewhere there’s some 19-year-old kid out there that won’t ever get to have the experiences that the Mohawk offered me is the saddest part.”
Upon the final shows this weekend—when an eccentric selection of many of the venue’s regular crew of bands over the last two decades will play one last time—the Mohawk Place will leave a hole in Buffalo’s music scene. There will be much to miss.
A long way from Buffalo, at home in his Lone Star state, Brent Best has a tear in his eye about it. But he is still smiling.
“I’ve always said that the coolest thing about doing what we do is the people you end up hanging out with as a result of a mutual feeling for music,” Best says. “You realize that had you been from wherever it is you happen to be at the time, that those are the people you would’ve already known and been hanging out with. The Mohawk Place was one of those places, where those people went and met up. There was just such a strong sense of fellowship and kindred spirits to the place for us. I will and am already missing it, and am sincerely saddened to not be able to be there to help send her home myself.”
Over 20 years, Mark Norris is glad he found there what he wanted.
“When I started the band at 19 or 20 all I was really hoping for was acceptance,” Norris says. “I was suffering from a major heartache, didn’t have a car, and felt really isolated. I specifically remember holding my crappy Fender guitar and looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Someday, I’m going to go to a club where I have a bunch of friends. They’ll be happy to see me when I get there and I’ll play my music for them and they will like it.’ The Mohawk was that place that allowed that dream to happen for me. I will not forget it.”
As Neal Brodfuehrer turns off the speakers for the last time, he says he’ll be thinking of the camaraderie.
“I’ll miss the making friends and talking about music, poking fun at each other, racing back and forth in arrogant exchanges of wit,” says Brodfuehrer. “The atmosphere that place has and we all enjoyed will be my fondest memory.”
Jeff Miers, too, will miss the community and clubhouse feel that the Mohawk provided.
“You know, musicians often feel like freaks,” Miers says. “Sometimes justifiably. But at Mohawk, you felt like your freakishness was something valuable. You felt accepted. You felt like you were right where you belonged when you were there. On those nights, there was nowhere in the world I’d rather have been than in Buffalo.”
As Frank Sinatra once sang, it’s in those wee small hours you miss her most of all.
“I’ll miss the times at the end of the night,” Roesser admits. “When the place was cleared and the doors were locked. A few stragglers always remained but they were mostly friends of yours that you couldn’t get rid of anyways. The conversations in the moments is what I’ll really, really miss.”
But as much as we all loved Mohawk Place, you simply can’t love it all.
“What will I miss?” says Dave Gutierrez. “Everything but the bathrooms.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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