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William Elliott Whitmore took the stage at the Hi-Pointe this past Thursday, August 31, several days before the venue shut its doors. But the Iowa native's acoustic elegies seemed like the epitaph for the club.
From Whitmore's gruff a cappella opening tune to the rough-hewn spirituals he plucked out, the show had the feeling of a gospel revival equal parts melancholy and hope. The rapturous audience gathered around the stage to see him was diverse: punks, hardcore lifers and curiosity seekers. They bought him a shot of whiskey when he asked, cheered for an anti-cops song and listened attentively to a tune Whitmore introduced as his "last will and testament."
The crowd was small, which created intimacy although the bartender was plenty busy slinging PBR (and a few patrons watched the Cardinals eke out a win). And in typical Hi-Pointe fashion, the show started just a little behind schedule. In a nutshell this was the Hi-Pointe: one of the best dives in town, a place to congregate, where time doesn't matter.
This is the place that over the past two decades booked countless national acts before they were famous (Jeff Buckley, Queens of the Stone Age), brought in musicians who already were (the late Who bassist John Entwistle, Johnnie Johnson) and tacked locals on to national-band bills whenever possible. Many around town thought the booking had decreased in quality in recent years; but the Hi-Pointe's place in St. Louis music history never wavered.
One of the first shows I attended after I moved to St. Louis last June was a show at the Hi-Pointe (although it wasn't the infamous Hold Steady engagement, which to this day I regret skipping). Even though I hadn't been in town very long, a clerk who'd rung me up at Whole Foods recognized me because of my hair. (Nearly a year later at another show, I was approached by several people I'd never met in person due to MySpace, not MyHair.)
The Hi-Pointe was just that kind of place, a bar where everyone seemed to go, where friendliness from the musicians on down to the employees was the rule rather than the exception. Operating as a bar or brewery since 1912, the blue-collar joint survived countless changes in ownership and somehow retained its unpretentious, gritty character.
"We've always had this neighborhood bar-meets-music-venue bar vibe," says Lisa Andris, who's been the Hi-Pointe's managing officer since 1987, three years before the upstairs music venue opened. "To me, that is the main thing that made us stand out from other places."
It was also the sort of place where love connections happened. (Perhaps the cheap pitchers of Stag helped?)
"What's struck me so much about this week is all the tons and tons of couples that have met here," Andris says. "eHarmony's got nothing on me. I've had three couples purchase the booths that they met at here."
"Community" is a word that keeps cropping up in conversations about the Hi-Pointe, and not only in the romantic sense: Andris gives a special shout-out to her "hip-hop guys" who ran the Hi-Pointe Café on Monday nights one of the most consistently popular events at the venue. (And a long-standing one; see "Meet the Beat," February 3, 1999.)
"We were all so close-knit, we tried to move as a unit," says HPC co-host Finsta. "Some people, they were saying, like, 'This is our Cheers! This is where you go where everybody know your name!' You feel at home, you know when you go there you're going to have a good time, you're going to enjoy yourself."
Between the serious fun, Hi-Pointe Café nights helped spawn and nurture serious homegrown talent. Some of the area's biggest stars (including Ebony Eyez) had early performances there; national acts including Juelz Santana, Rah Digga and Clipse have dropped by.
Another regular, DJ Trackstar, has this to say about what made the Hi-Pointe Café so special: "It was a crossroads of industry and culture. There is definitely a dirty, basement, grassroots feel to both the venue and the show itself. [It's] one of the few places to hear hip-hop in its raw form, without the glamour and money stacks.
"But it's also been a great place to network, promote and collaborate. It drew not only emcees, but promoters, managers, DJs looking for talent or looking to tap into the 'underground' element of St. Louis hip-hop, and anyone else looking to make their way in the scene."
The night will live on elsewhere. Finsta says several places have already approached him about moving, and he doesn't expect to be on hiatus for long. (Check www.myspace.com/hipointemondays for updates.)
What's next for the venue is unclear. Word the Hi-Pointe was closing started trickling out late last month via MySpace bulletins and e-mails, followed by rumors galore: "The building's been sold!" "Yuppies are buying the bar!"
Andris sent out a long e-mail confirming the Hi-Pointe's demise but the letter, which focused on thanking everyone for the memories, said nothing about what led to the closing.
"When I fell into the crazy world of the Hi-Pointe (just four months after its inception and transformation from an 'old school' old man bookie joint, to a late '80s post-new wave hangout) my beloved son Brian had just gotten his first tooth," Andris wrote.