It's 10:30 on a recent Wednesday night inside south city's favorite Spanish-named German-bar-turned-hipster-hotspot, El Leñador. A band is setting up its equipment onstage — it's the third of the night — when bartender/promoter/hometown hero Johnny Vegas leans across the bar: "A lot of people are being tight-lipped," he says, "because a lot of the stories either involve illegal activities, or they just can't remember 'em."
And so it goes with Stag Nite, a south-side tradition that is preparing to celebrate its ninth anniversary. The premise is simple: Three bands, five bucks, dollar Stag beers all night — every Wednesday since the first one was held nine years ago at Magee's.
"I just happened to be the bartender there," says Vegas. "It was around this time, 2003, that my friend Maggie St. Germaine started booking music on Wednesday nights. She was a neighbor and just wanted to see some music at her local bar."
As time went on Stag Nite did experience the occasional hiccup: "I got fired from that place four times and hired five for various infractions," Vegas says with a smirk. "So, Maggie said, 'Screw it; let's quit doing it.' Then, when by popular demand they got me back, and we started up again, she kind of handed the reins over to me."
Since then the hump-day event has seen four venues — Magee's, Off Broadway, the Wedge and now El Leñador — and, by Vegas' estimation, more than 1,000 bands. We talked to some of the bands and players who have come to be regulars and friends and found a tight-knit community centered around the time-tested, debaucherous pairing of rock & roll and cheap beer.
Whiskey Richard (The Reverend Whiskey Richard and the Buster Hymen Band): So I played, like, six "last" Stag Nites. At Magee's we were kinda like the house band 'cause we just showed up every week — there were only three of us, and it was easy to get us all there, and we just drank a lot. The owner of Magee's was an older dude, and he had a lady, and she was younger — and I was drunk. So I see them walking in, and I don't know the guy, and I just scream out, "Hey, who's that old guy with the hot broad?" Apparently he didn't like that so much, so he told Johnny to ban us and that we couldn't play there no more. And Johnny says, "These guys, they bring people, and everybody drinks a lot when they play, you know? I'm not gonna not have them here."
Vegas: Randy, the guy who owned the place, came in, and he's like, "I don't like these guys" because, you know, they're pretty offensive — not very family friendly. And then I waved my arm around the bar — there was like 50 people in there — and I said, "Uh, these guys do," and he looked around and said, "Never mind." Common sense took over.
Richard: And then he got mad again because we do this song about the butt-fuckin' — I guess you probably can't print that — but anyway I guess his lady wasn't down with that, and every time I saw him after that he gave me dirty looks. But he'd show up Thursday morning, and I guess there'd be a wad of cash in the drawer, so everything was forgiven.
Ashley Hohman (The Vultures): My favorite Vultures show we played was at Off Broadway Stag Nite. The FBC [Fucking Bike Club] were having a full-moon ride, and like 200 people showed up at Off Broadway — kids were hopping the fence while we were playing. It was one of the last shows we played, and Peat Henry [of the Pubes] was doing back flips off the stage, and everybody was going insane the whole time. You couldn't control the audience or the amount of people that were in there. I'm sure they were way over capacity — it was one of the biggest shows I've ever played.
Vegas: That happened twice in a row — or within a couple of months. I believe both shows were the Vultures and the Trip Daddys, and the FBC just poured in. I called up my buddy who is a part of that group and told him, "Bring 'em down here, I'll let all you guys in for free. Just don't sneak in any beer and tip the bartenders." It worked out pretty well — I've been trying to always keep my eye on the full moon whenever I'm trying to book a show, 'cause you never know when you can get them in here.
Irene Allen (The Round-Ups): The first time the Round-Ups played at Stag Nite a series of hilarious but upsetting events that I won't repeat led to a street fight consisting first of a fight between three people and then everybody that originally jumped in to try to stop it eventually all being like, "Fuck it, fight, woohoo!" Everybody fought on the corner of Taylor and Clayton, and nobody fucked with it at all. This was at Magee's, and I went in to try and apologize to Johnny Vegas later and beg him to let us come back, and he was like, "Nah, this is awesome; this is what it's all about."
Vegas: That's one of the bands that played the early times that I formed some of my closest friendships with — everyone in that band are really good friends of mine still to this day. Irene probably told you about the brawl that happened outside, right? There was probably about 75 people in the bar, and they all just cleared into the street in typical brawl fashion, and I had to pull one of the band members off of our brand-new doorman who just started — nobody had realized that he worked there.
Vegas: The Monads were my go-to band. Whenever I was in a bind I could call them up a couple hours in advance and say so-and-so cancelled; get down here. And they would get down there. It was when they were a three-piece — before they had Matt on the fiddle — and they would play unplugged, and Jason, the singer, would just sing into an empty mic stand. People seemed to really like that. [Laughs]
Patrick Eagan (The Monads): I think that was one of the ways that we really started getting noticed, which was really cool. I remember the very last show at Magee's before it moved to Off Broadway. We had a big going-out party where everybody got dressed up in suits and wore black arm bands, and it was sort of a passing of the torch onto another club, because we knew Magee's was gonna be torn down.
Steve Pohlman (owner, Off Broadway): I remember when we started doing it at Off Broadway. Johnny said, "I've got an idea! Let's do shows every Wednesday night with one-dollar Stag and a cheap cover. We'll sell a lot of beer and not make any money. It'll be great!" And I said, "You're right. That is a great idea!" And I refuse to testify about anything else associated with Stag Nite on the grounds that it may incriminate me.
Ellen Herget (The Skeskes): I think a lot of people will step up and tell wild Stag Nite stories, and those stories are all killer — but I think it is also important to note that Stag Nite is beloved because it is a consistently friendly atmosphere. Everyone I know goes to Stag Nite weekly, no matter what bands are playing, because it's about the gathering of folks from the neighborhood — whatever your concept of "the neighborhood" may be — in the middle of a long week. St. Louis is a working-class town; the music scene is a working-class scene. And rather than tell a specific story about the countless times we all stood around catching up and listening to tunes, I want to point out that Johnny's weekly shindigs offer everyone a break from their weekly grind. And Stag. Delicious, cold, golden Stag.