The Circle Bar is once again open for live music after some high anxiety.
It's Saturday night. White Linen Night is going on around the corner, but in the Circle Bar, people are reminiscing. "I remember coming for a soft opening in '98 or '99," singer D.C. Harbold says. "Peter Holsapple was playing, then the next night it was Hank III - the full show."
Harbold has played the Circle Bar countless times, first in Flatware, the band he formed when he moved from Delaware to New Orleans. The Circle Bar has had live music long enough to see him through a fairly busy musical life in New Orleans as the singer in Clockwork Elvis, and as the bass player in countless bands, most recently The Help with Barbara Menendez.
On this Saturday night though, no live music is scheduled. The long-time underground rock outpost on Lee Circle was visited on August 2, and when no one could produce the mayoralty permit needed to allow live music, the Circle Bar had to cancel its scheduled shows. While the rest of the New Orleans is enjoying art on Julia Street, owner Dave Clements, lawyer Don Kelly and many musicians who have played the Circle Bar over the years have gathered for a "Notary Party." Kelly has brought a stack of affidavits for musicians to sign to attest to the fact that they've played there, attended shows there, and that the Circle Bar is in fact a long-standing live music club. They allowed each musician to specify the date for his or her first gig at the Circle Bar, his or her last gig there, and the date that he or she first became aware of live music being performed at the Circle Bar.
"I called [booker] Jason Songe after I heard about the shutdown and offered any help I could," Kelly says. "I'm a music fan, I represent bands that have played Circle Bar, attend a lot of shows there, and the bigger picture of what already happened at Siberia was disturbing to me. This city needs to work with, not against, its music community."
Clements has been given reason to believe that if he can demonstrate this history, then Songe can start staging live music shows again.
Also on hand to attest to the Circle Bar's history are Jimmy Anselmo, long-time owner of Jimmy's Music Club, Tom Stern (Thousand $ Car, Uptown Plowboys, The Sophistocats with the Sophistokittens, the Plowboys), Rich Siegel (The Help), Joe Adragna (The Junior League), and Micah McKee (Silent Cinema, Empress Hotel) among others. The night has a reunion vibe, though the cause is serious. Guitar Lightning Lee lost a gig at the Circle Bar because of the shutdown, as did Adragna, and the bar's ring is significantly lower when bands aren't playing. By the end of the night, Clements and Kelly would have almost 50 affidavits.
"I'm not sure I ever had a license," Clements confides. He has spent the last few days rummaging through old checks to see if he had one made out to the city. He has found the old door that many of the licenses and permits were posted one on top of the other. "Now I'm trying to carefully peel them apart to see what's there."
Clements made a few frustrating, run-around calls to City Hall to try to find out what to do before he finally found a sympathetic voice. "I've got to say, he was the most helpful, intelligent, nicest person at City Hall," he says. He was told that if he got together evidence of the bar's history, he should be able to reopen Wednesday. Hence the Notary Party.
When city inspectors stopped the Circle Bar from staging live music, it represented the second bar within weeks to stop. Siberia on St. Claude Avenue has also stopped while it gets its paperwork in order [more on that Monday], but the two actions have rattled the city's music community. Some club owners would only talk off the record and expressed fear that saying anything might invite more scrutiny than their clubs could stand. The closings prompted lawyer Owen Courreges to ask at the Uptown Messenger, "Why does Mayor Landrieu hate live music"" Nola Slate wrote:
And yet in the last few weeks there have been tidbits of scuttlebutt, rumors proven to be true, culminating in several articles about clubs and bars being told no more live music. Not just in one part of town, but all over town. Circle Bar Uptown: blammo. Siberia on St. Claude: blammo. A move to kill Frenchmen Street music: blammo. Nevermind the continuing harassment of brass bands on the street. You know. That "On the streets" part the CVB is touting. Wrong permit. No permit. Mayoralty permit.
The anxiety and drama is understandable, According to the Mayor's Director of Communications Ryan Berni, the truth is more mundane. "In the course of doing an enforcement sweep, we find that a lot of businesses don't have the proper permits," he says. "What we do is issue an administrative subpoena, but all it basically says is, 'Please come in and apply for the proper permit.' Sometimes that means fill out the paperwork and pay a fee, and if it's not zoned for that type of use, then there's a conditional use process that goes before the City Planning Commission and the City Council."
Alcohol Beverage Outlet (ABO) and other sweeps often come in conjunction with major events such as the Super Bowl or Mardi Gras, Berni says. Those efforts range from taking down advertising that conflicts with an event sponsor to stopping people selling beer out of coolers in the streets. "in conjunction with these events, we make sure people have permits," he says. "A lot of time it's safety-related, making sure things are up to code. We also do sweeps of businesses to make sure they have the proper permitting. They're checking for occupational licenses, ABO permits, and life entertainment or other types of mayoralty permits.
"We're always trying to strike a balance. Of course we want live music in the city, but we also have to protect neighborhoods."
It's Thursday afternoon and Clements is worried. Wednesday's came and went without word of his permit. City Hall has often seemed capricious over the years, and even if all owners were really seeing were the slow, bureaucratic wheels in sluggish, dot-the-i action, it has been enough over the years to give them reason to be concerned that one wrong word could result in a vengeful delay. In a story in The Times-Picayune, Claire Galofaro wrote, "Clements calls the whole mess 'insane,"" which made him worry that he'd said the wrong thing, hurt the wrong feelings, and caused his file to be "lost." Making the anxiety worse was the fact that he's found City Hall to be helpful. Someone at City Hall discovered that he had in fact had a mayoralty permit until 2004, when it expired and was never renewed.
It's Thursday night. At 5 p.m., Jason Songe posts a message on Facebook that Bob Andrews is playing in the Circle Bar with Washboard Chaz. Next to it is a photo of the permit.. Clements had to pay for the years he missed - 2009 to present, but he has live music again.
"I called and talked to a woman who said, 'I've got your permit in my hot little hands,'" Clements says. "I went and got it."
Narcissy plays the Circle Bar tonight at 10 p.m.