Sounds of the City: Mourning Mohawk Place
Bobo performing at Mohawk Place; photo by Nancy J. Parisi.
“Did you hear about Mohawk?” someone asked me the day before Thanksgiving. I had not, and like many Buffalo concertgoers, after hearing the news of its closing, I felt crushed. Since opening in 1990, Mohawk Place was an omnipresent venue for names both veteran and new. I was ten years old in 1990, so it is no exaggeration to say that I grew up with the bar. So many of the venues of my youth—Ogden Street Concert Hall, Showplace—are gone. But Mohawk remained, as lovably grubby as ever.
Now, after a two-night sendoff in early January, the club is closing. No reasons other than the vaguely stated “ongoing legal battles” have been given. One thing is certain: Mohawk will never be forgotten. Here are reflections from some folks who knew 47 East Mohawk Street as well as their own bedrooms.
Susan Tanner, talent booker and independent consultant, ESI Events
“Losing Mohawk Place is like losing a friend. Sure, there will be other places to see bands, other rooms where I will sit at the bar after a show and talk about life and music with bands, I hope, but it won’t be the same. Folks who haven’t lived in other cities may not realize what a gem Mohawk is: a small, intimate venue where you can bond with that band you love or discover a new artist you never heard before, for almost always a ridiculously low cover.”
Donny Kutzbach, co-owner, Funtime Presents, frequent Mohawk promoter
“The absolute unsung hero of Mohawk Place during the years that made a huge impact on music in Buffalo—the late ’90s until the middle ’00s—will always be Marty Boratin. The reason I started going there was because of what he was booking. The reason I started booking shows there myself was because of him. He put so much into what he did there and the reason there were shows happening there was because of his great taste and desire to get acts to the Queen City. I know for a fact that when management balked about a show and it lost money, Marty paid out of his own pocket. He couldn’t afford to do it, but he did. He had that kind of passion.
“For right now, it’s going to be a struggle trying to figure out what to do not just in terms of where to put touring and developmental acts who draw a couple hundred or less. There’s other rooms, but not one quite like Mohawk. Bands really loved playing there. People loved being there. It was so important for local acts. For many years, it was the epicenter of what was happening in music in Buffalo.”
Marty Boratin, WNY music impresario and former Mohawk talent booker
“I think the club was able to put Buffalo on the map as a legitimate reason for a lot of up and coming acts to actually stop and play in Buffalo, instead of just passing through between shows in Toronto and New York, or Cleveland and Boston. After years of branding Buffalo as a tertiary market, booking agents finally began paying attention to the city, taking chances with acts that normally wouldn’t be playing the market. It was more than just a room; it was a venue that actually cared about the acts that were playing there. Getting a hot, home-cooked meal and having a clean place to stay for free means a lot to a band in the middle of a six-week tour. The money may not have always been the best, but the bands always knew that they would be treated well—apparently this is a very European concept. I still run into bands, in person or online, that’ll remember what I cooked them in that dingy little kitchen behind the old stage fifteen years ago.
“After reposting the official closing notice on Facebook, I immediately began receiving notes of condolence from musicians from Chicago, from Ithaca, from Dublin, from L.A. and D.C., from San Antonio and San Diego. From folks like Kelly Hogan, Jenny Toomey, Johnny Dowd, and Mark Greenberg, musicians who played there numerous times over the years.
“Right now, there’s going to be a huge void for a small to mid-sized capital-R ‘rock’ room in Buffalo. I think it’ll be harder to fill the void for touring acts for now.”
Mark Norris, vocalist and guitarist for Girlpope and The Backpeddlers
“Girlpope started playing the Mohawk regularly in the late-90s. At the time, the club was literally half the size it is now. Because there was a wall located between the bar and the stage, sight lines weren’t always optimal and the sound could be rough. Still, the club’s layout and tiny stage lent a gritty, sweaty, wonderfully claustrophobic nature to our shows there. I’d romanticize that the place was Buffalo’s answer to the Cavern Club. Whether there were twenty people or 120 in the audience, I always felt that I was playing to a full house.
“We pretty much played there exclusively and that was because of the people there—the bartenders, the audience, the promoters; it was all very much like a family. The Mohawk also hosted some amazing bands and was a very hip club. Thanks to the people who did the booking—Marty Boratin, Bill Nehill, Donny Kutzbach, and Erik Roesser—I saw tons of great bands there I wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.
“More importantly, Pete Perrone always made me feel important, respected, and appreciated as a musician. Whether we played a good show or were totally off the rails, he was a great support. I know he was like a father figure to a lot of the other local bands that played there, too.
“Every single one of those factors helped make the club special. That’s why people are so upset that it’s going away. I think we all realize that you couldn’t repeat that formula even if you had the recipe.”
Nihilistic Spasm Band at Mohawk Place; photo by Nancy J. Parisi.
Roger Bryan, the Old Sweethearts and Roger Bryan & the Orphans [Bryan wrote a piece about Mohawk for buffaBLOG. —Ed.]
“In a lot of ways, it feels like it’s had its time and it feels right letting it go. Though when you think ahead about the great smaller traveling bands who have found a home there and for our own resident bands, it leaves a very large hole in the scene. As for what it’s meant to me, it’s hard to describe. It’s much more than a good show or fun nights. What that place represented and the people who filled it are very important. Those who know, know. If you weren’t there through those years, you won’t fully understand it any more than you would a stranger’s life reading his obituary. We were lucky to have it as long as we did.”
Jack Hunter, actor and former Mohawk booker
“From very early on, the financial deal was the bands took 100 percent of the door, no fees for doorman, sound, PR, whatever. So if the band had a great night, so did the bar; if the band had a terrible night, the bar probably bit the bullet as well.
“From the beginning, we took band PR photos, framed them and nailed them to the wall. The jukebox featured tunes from bands who played the Hawk. None of these were new ideas, but I think it made the club feel like a musicians’ home and many players around town chose to hang out at the Mohawk when they didn’t have a gig. I suppose this happens at most music clubs, but the communal feel was especially strong very quickly at the Mohawk.”
Mikel Doktor, guitarist and longtime Mohawk bartender
“My first exposure to the Mohawk was in the summer of ’96. My band, the Dollywatchers, booked a gig there, mainly because of the ‘dive bar’ feel. Many bands did the same then. It was far from a dive. Not a place to take Mom for lunch, but … The first show I actually worked was Question Mark and the Mysterians—how the hell do you top that?
“Most people saw me as the 10-to-4 bartender. But I also put my blood, sweat, and tears into that place. I was a counselor when needed, a handyman a lot, took the beer orders, helped flip the steaks, carried out the drunks, broke up the fights, started the fights. Did I tell you about the time Tommy Stinson bartended for me? Or stealin’ a kiss from Meg White? And from what I’ve heard, I used to breathe fire behind the bar, picked up the glass, wiped up the blood, and rebuilt from the fire. All with a shot of Crown in one hand and your girlfriend in the other. Boom!”
Nancy J. Parisi, photographer and writer
“Mohawk Place was a place for everyone. There were moments in Mohawk emblazoned in the memories of everyone that was there for those historic evenings: Paul Westerberg (2005) meandering off the stage to work the long bar of adoring fans; Jonathan Richman giving one of his most lively performances; and countless rollicking gigs by Buffalo bands such as Bobo, Irving Klaws, Girlpope. Buffalo is losing a perfect mid-sized concert venue where musicians and revelers experienced music in an intimate setting.”
Renee Roberts, longtime Mohawk sound engineer
“The old Mohawk stage was a home away from home for a lot of us degenerates that thought being in a band would be cool and fun. What I didn’t know at the time was that playing on that stage, I would eventually make lifelong friends with others who felt the same way I did. In the process, bands were formed, disbanded, and then new bands were made. But the constant was that we always wanted to play at Mohawk because the bar treated the local bands very, very kindly.
“With the arrival of the big clean-up and addition of the back stage, this meant there was a possibility that the local bands had a chance to open up for some of our favorite national acts coming through that were on the verge of breaking out to bigger venues. We could say that we opened up for so and so before they were playing to thousands of people.
“I thank Mohawk Place for giving me some of the greatest friends a girl could ask for. A place where I learned that Jameson is a way better whiskey than Crown will ever be. Shots up. Cheers, old friend.”
David Gutierrez, guitarist and vocalist, the Irving Klaws
“This whole situation is tough to digest and even though I have known about the coming demise for some time, I still have not truly wrapped my head around it. All the hours we plugged away at writing and jamming up there, all the hours spent not just performing there but literally rehearsing our music in the building—and this doesn’t include all the times spent checking out the hundreds and hundreds of great acts that came through there.
“Irving Klaws and Girlpope were the first bands to play on what is now the ‘big stage.’ In fact, the space where the ‘big stage’ is now used to jokingly be called ‘my office.’ That’s how much time I spent in there. I have awesome memories of hanging out with bands like Question Mark and the Mysterians, and even doing sound on that small stage for a literally on-the-verge-of-superstardom White Stripes, all when the big stage wasn’t even built yet.
“As sad as I am at losing an old friend like the Mohawk Place, there is a part of me that welcomes the change. It’s time for a new bar to come into its own and fill the gap. I have hope that a younger generation of like-minded music-loving souls will come up with something new for themselves. A new bar, a renewed scene to call their own. Our generation will be proud and happy to pass that rock ’n’ roll torch down.”
Ron Ehmke, artist, performer, and Spree music writer
“Mohawk Place was, for me at least, the single most important Buffalo venue for most of the 1990s and early 2000s. Its rise mirrored the era of alt-country, which was some of the most interesting music coming out of that period, and a true underground music at that. You couldn’t hear this stuff on the radio—even noncommercial radio—or MTV; you might read about a band in No Depression, say, Freakwater or Robbie Fulks, and a week later, they’d be passing through town. Mohawk was inevitably where they played, and the room would be packed.
“I recall a time or two, probably during one of the amazing Americanarama festivals, that I seriously considered camping out at the place. At its peak, it was just relentless—one great evening after another. I can’t think of any other venue in WNY that has tempted me in the same way.
“Reflecting on the place like this, I feel like I’m mourning the loss of a friend. A small, slightly dirty friend with the coolest taste in music and a steady supply of good beer.”
A few of their favorite shows...
SUSAN TANNER: “It was easy to walk out of Mohawk in a daze, wondering what sort of magic I had just witnessed. I have a few, but the triple bill of Slobberbone, Grand Champeen, and Say Zuzu stands up there, as does the only time the incredible Rosie Thomas played Buffalo (until appearing with Sufjan Stevens in December). Any Fleshtones show, any Waco Brothers show; Arlo, Clem Snide, Chris Smither.”
MIKEL DOKTOR: “Best show? Jesus … how can there only be one? Local, Girlpope and the Irving Klaws, anytime they played. Not to mention Americanarama. National? The Waco Brothers, the Forty-Fives, Hank Williams III, the Greenhornes, Tommy Stinson, and who could forget—and many will—the Man Scouts of America.”
DAVID GUTIERREZ: “I have so many ‘all-time favorite’ concerts there that I simply can’t pick one. I have to start with Link Wray; to me he was the ultimate legend, so much so that I literally kissed the old man’s sneakers on that stage. Opening for him was a highlight of my career, and it happened there.”
DONNY KUTZBACH: “There’s so many. As a promoter, it was probably John Cale. It was just one of those moments that I am still shocked and amazed to think about because—to me—he is one of the most important figures in twentieth century music. And he has made some of my favorite records ever. I am also very proud of bringing some of my other favorite acts like the Hold Steady, My Morning Jacket, Sam Roberts, Marah, and the late, great Link Wray. It was also amazing to do some of the special shows there like the ‘secret’ Fall Out Boy gig and Snapcase’s reunion. Fittingly, Snapcase [came back] to play among the final shows there.”
MARTY BORATIN: “I’ve seen so many amazing shows, it would be really hard to pick one. Maybe the one night Southern Culture on the Skids played the same night that Beck was playing at the Tralf. ‘Loser’ had recently hit big. We held the show up a bit to try and catch some of that crowd later on. And quite a few did, including Beck, who came down to see his soon-to-be Geffen labelmates. Beck’s openers, Doo-Rag, set up on the sidewalk in front of the ’Hawk and played a full set after SCOTS had finished up—way past midnight, and to a much more attentive crowd than saw them at the Tralf earlier that evening. OK Go (prevideo fame), Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Okkerville River, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Tegan and Sara, Ty Braxton, Rogue Wave, the Black Keys ($150 guarantee), the White Stripes (the night before the Sunday New York Times ran a full-page feature on them). Recent years saw the likes of the Hold Steady and Fleet Foxes play the ’Hawk before breaking (relatively) big. I know I’m forgetting dozens. I could go on and on.”
Note: The Doombuggy photo that ran with the print version of this article was incorrectly labeled; it was actually a picture of the Garofalo Springfield.
Associate editor Christopher Schobert best remembers Mohawk as the scene of a concert he was unable to attend: John Cale in 2004. Should’ve skipped work for that one.