James Wavey and the Make Outs record an online concert for Eli’s Mile High Club’s Patreon. (David Hiltbrand)
Eli’s Mile High Club is usually dim except for the glow of a red neon sign that spells its name in cursive. Graffiti is the main decor, along with old posters from its heyday as a blues club in the ’70s and ’80s. Now a hub for Oakland’s many musical subcultures, the bar still vibrates with the spirit of countless wild nights of dancing and cheap drinks, even as it sits mostly empty during the pandemic.
“Any venue that holds music for a certain period of time is going to retain a certain vibe as a characteristic that lives in the atmosphere,” says blues singer and bassist Greg “GMan” Simmons, who was a regular performer at Eli’s from the ’70s to the days before the COVID-19 crisis began. “Let’s call it a humble place—that’s a nice way of saying ‘dive.’ But a place to go is a place to go; it’s not judged on the outer accoutrements. It’s the vibe, it’s the energy. These are halls that have been rockin’ and rollin’ for a long time.”
Last month, Simmons and guitarist Bobby Young became the first artists to record a live performance at Eli’s for the bar’s new Patreon. Co-owner Matt Patane spearheaded the effort with his new media company, Sky Coward Media Inc., which supplies professional sound and filming equipment and coordinates artists’ pay through a Flux Foundation grant. Simmons and Young were crucial in shaping the Down By Blues virtual concerts that Eli’s now releases on Patreon every Monday. And on Saturdays, another video series called Red Room features sets and interviews with artists like emo rapper Ricky Lake, jazz-hip-hop artist James Wavey and hard rock band Psychic Hit.
The effort is the club’s way of continuing to support its eclectic artist community, both financially and in terms of morale. “Any time you’ve got a venue that’s going out of their way to see that the musicians are working and being able to do what we love to do—that says something right there,” says Young. “I’d say in the entire Bay Area, you can count the venues that are like that on half a hand. It’s really rare, but it makes you feel worthy as a musician.”
On a recent Friday afternoon in Eli’s back patio, Young, Simmons and Patane sit around a picnic table swapping tales from Eli’s storied past. It was always a haunt for local musicians, but big names like Etta James and James Brown performed there too. And it was the Rolling Stones’ preferred post-concert hangout when they were on tour. Legend has it that the Stones were once turned away at the door. (There weren’t very many white customers at the time, and the bouncer didn’t believe them when they told him who they were.)
“In those days, there was as much of a show in the house as it was on the stage,” says Simmons.
Darker stories came out of Eli’s too, but they only seem to contribute to the bar’s lore. One Thursday evening in 1979, for instance, owner Eli Thornton’s aggrieved girlfriend, blues singer Frankie Williams, came in and shot him. (In her trial, her defense presented evidence that Thornton had been abusive.)
After Thornton’s death, blues singer Troyce Key ran Eli’s Mile High Club in the ’80s. It changed hands again several times afterwards, but always kept its shabby charm. It was known as a punk and metal bar before Patane took it over in 2016 with business partners Billy Joe Agan and Erik Schmollinger. They brought back the blues—and many of the original performers—and started up weekly punk and rap concerts, DJ nights and drag shows. The crowd they attracted was diverse in terms of age and ethnicity, and everyone was welcome. Even Williams, of all people, came back to watch a blues show after serving her time.
“It was kind of awesome for us because we’re sittin’ there going, ‘Wow, this is cool. This piece of history just walked in the door,’” says Patane. “And it gave us this incredible reputation, like, ‘You could pretty much get away with a lot at Eli’s, including shooting the owner and getting let back in here.’”
Since the pandemic started, the owners of Eli’s have watched other Oakland venues close down permanently, so they count themselves relatively lucky. When the first shelter-in-place orders came down last March, they had enough savings to cover six to eight months of basic expenses. Help came from the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed them to keep on about half of their staff and reopen for outdoor dining during the summer. (They plan to start backyard food service again when weather improves.) A substantial grant from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, in the upper five figures, also went a long way towards keeping bills paid. And federal grant funding from the Save Our Stages Act will soon provide some relief as well.
In a phone interview, Agan, who runs the business operations side of things, assures me that Eli’s isn’t in danger of closing, and explains that he and his team want to do what they can with their resources to support the local music scene. “I can open up and just sell booze at the door,” he says. “But it’s hard for [musicians] to do anything, and to make a living off what they do.”
So far, the Eli’s Patreon channel has 63 subscribers who pay a collective $500 or so a month. Artists get 60% of the proceeds in addition to the Flux Foundation money they receive as compensation. It may not be a huge payday, but the hope is to keep momentum going until people can come to Eli’s to see live music again.
“Us being open and doing things for people online, it’s kind of us showing people we really do this shit for them,” says Agan. “We get messages every day saying, ‘Please don’t close, we love you.’ That’s not something we ever got when we were open. It really shows, like, damn, our space meant a lot to people.”
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