The Nights Goes Dark

Fabled concert venue Mississippi Nights closes its doors — for now.

Jan 10, 2007 at 4:00 am
After months of speculation, it can finally be said: Mississippi Nights, a concert club favorite since 1979, will close its doors after one last jam session takes place on Friday, January 19.

Rumors about the demise of the club, which is situated just north of Laclede's Landing at 914 North First Street, had intensified in recent weeks after the venue didn't officially announce any shows beyond the December 30 and 31 Bottle Rockets/Todd Snider double-bills.

Still, the mood at Mississippi Nights was festive (if a little sad, depending on with whom you talked) at the last weekend of shows, at least judging by how busy the bartenders were. The Bottle Rockets perhaps fed off of this nostalgic energy by barnstorming through a ferocious set of their uniquely Midwestern boogie-twang, influenced as much by KSHE as by vintage country. (That they played the last proper show at the venue is fitting: Bottle Rockets vocalist Brian Henneman's first bands, Chicken Truck and the Blue Moons, played there.)

The venue, though, may yet reopen somewhere else in St. Louis.

Mississippi Nights' co-owner, Rich Frame, says he's looking at several locations, with the current front-runner a completely new building to be constructed at Olive Street and Compton Avenue, two blocks away from the new Saint Louis University arena. Frame says he's in contract negotiations and says there's a 50-50 chance the venue will end up there. If that happens, Mississippi Nights' new digs will be on the first floor of a mixed-use complex that will also include retail, a parking garage and condominiums. Capacity will remain roughly the same (1,000 people), with a projected opening date of November 2007.

"That area is going to get nothing but better," Frame says of the intended locale. "We'll have plenty of parking, and we'll be two blocks away from the new arena."

Pinnacle Entertainment, a Las Vegas-based owner and operator of casinos worldwide, obtained the property that Mississippi Nights sits on from the city in 2005. The club entered into a lease at the beginning of 2006 with Pinnacle that said the venue could stay at its current location for a guaranteed six months — and that Pinnacle needed to give 120 days notice if it chose to terminate the lease.

Pinnacle's local attorney, Colleen McNitt Ruiz, says that a letter was sent to the club on June 21 that severed its lease. Mississippi Nights was supposed to vacate the premises after October 19, which did not happen.

But Frame was under the impression that the lease could not be terminated until after June 30, at which time the six months would have passed.

Losing Mississippi Nights, a mid-size venue that filled a gap between the smaller Creepy Crawl and the larger Pageant, will likely have some effect on the number of touring acts that come through St. Louis; recent years have seen well-attended shows from Built to Spill, Wolfmother, Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists and the New Pornographers. However, Pop's (1403 Mississippi Avenue, Sauget, Illinois; 618-274-6720) already appears to be booking many of the emo and punk shows that may have landed at Mississippi Nights in 2007.

But Mississippi Nights' legacy is inarguably how it put St. Louis on the national concert map. Seminal artists such as the Police, Hüsker Dü, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joe Cocker, 311 and Lucinda Williams graced its stage, while Nirvana played its only St. Louis date there in 1991.

"I remember seeing Nirvana and thinking, 'Wow, this is going to change everything,'" says Richard Fortus, a current member of Guns N' Roses who played guitar in the popular local group Pale Divine. "It was one of the best shows I've ever seen."

Indeed, the club's touring-act heyday is widely considered to have been the late '80s and early '90s, the era when alternative music started to go mainstream.

"Before I discovered the all-ages punk-show scene, that was the only place to see bands other than a stadium show," says Bunnygrunt's Matt Harnish, who was involved in college radio at the time. "It was the only all-ages club I knew about that was bringing national bands [to town]. When alternative music broke big, that was the place all the bands were playing on their way to becoming huge."

But Mississippi Nights' willingness to embrace new music also made it special in the 1980s, when X, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and others played there — making the club a haven from the cover bands that were popular in other bars in the city.

"That was the place in town that took chances on these out-of-town, strange new bands," says Michael Apirion of locals the Unconscious. "It was legitimate. All the other punk-rock shows at the time were being thrown in these fly-by-night places."

Apirion's band was one of the many local groups that packed Mississippi Nights on the weekend, along with Big Fun (whose hours-long sets mixed new-wave covers and originals) and the Eyes (who later changed their name to Pale Divine and played to similarly large crowds).

"Playing there was always sort of the pinnacle of success for a local band, I guess," Fortus says. "When [we were] just coming up, we'd go see bands that we loved there. That was a big deal for us to play there. And they had a dressing room. With a shower. That was major."

The January 19 jam session's aim is to celebrate the last 27 years of music at the club. Mississippi Nights' booker, Tim Weber, is putting out a call for musicians to play the show, which begins at 8 p.m. Interested parties can e-mail tweber or call 314-421-3853. (We'll leak performers as we know them, in print or at www.riverfronttimes .com/blogs.) It'll be a bittersweet night for sure — but, of course, also another memorable chapter in its storied history.

"You still hear stuff about Gaslight Square: 'Oh, the Smothers Brothers played there, Phyllis Diller.' And I guess that's great," says Big Fun vocalist Ken Krueger. "But just about every single huge name in music now, nationally, internationally, played at Mississippi Nights. In the overall history of the music thing, Mississippi Nights in and of itself had a far greater influence on St. Louis than Gaslight Square."