From bananas to bandanas- Joe’s now Nashville North

As you peer at the likes of Martina McBride or Eric Church on the stage in the bar’s warehouselike back room, you realize it is entirely too late to say you miss Banana Joe’s.

Too late, and, frankly, too absurd.

Fifteen years ago, some out-of-towners tried to establish a nightclub of that name in the then-fledgling North and Clybourn district.

It was an ersatz beach bar, notable for a green and orange color scheme, raised dance floor and complete misunderstanding of the local market. It is safe to assume that Jimmy Buffett and reggae music competed for primacy on the sound system, which was often in its own sonic battle with whirring blenders.

And the look?

“It looked like Baja Beach Club and Dick’s Last Resort had a one-night stand, and the result was Banana Joe’s,” says Ed Warm, the Chicagoan who, with Tom DiSanto, bought the almost immediately troubled place four months after it opened.

After a year, as soon as their contract allowed, the partners changed the name to Joe’s Bar — sometimes known as Joe’s on Weed Street (No. 940, to be precise) — and gradually began changing the vibe.

The result is a success story more than a decade in the making. Banana Joe’s, a marketing scheme squeezed into a building, is gone. In its place is a club that plays sports bar in the front, but in back has gradually grown into a home in the North for Nashville artists, a 975-capacity room that routinely hosts performers who could play arenas, as well as the genre’s up-and-comers.

Neither Chicago nor the trendy shopping district that has grown up around Joe’s has, in the popular mind, much association with country music (although Warm says he’ll gladly take the Apple Store, Crate & Barrel and their devotees “over the prostitutes we used to chase off … that would come over from the North Avenue Bridge in the early days”).

But, twice now, Joe’s has been named the nightclub of the year by the Academy of Country Music in Los Angeles. This year, it beat out finalists including Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, Calif., and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Mesa, Ariz. Warm, 46, who grew up in the northwest suburbs and worked at Chicago establishments including the big sports bar Hi-Tops before buying Joe’s, has been an ACM director-at-large for three years, representing nightclubs and small venues.

More important to country fans, Brad Paisley has played the room three times, the first in 2005. Keith Urban has been there. Same with Lady Antebellum, the first three times arriving in a van or borrowed SUV and later, after the Grammy Awards in February, in several tour buses. And just in the past month, the bar has hosted McBride, maker of many hit singles over more than a decade, and Church, whose album “Chief” has been, arguably, the story of the past six months on country radio.

“It’s amazing to see the people who were playing for us a few years ago now headlining arenas, and there are a lot of them now,” says Warm, citing names including Miranda (Lambert), Jason Aldean and Sugarland.

Just as important to Warm are the Texas artists who’ve found a home at Joe’s, many from a scene known as “red dirt” — the gritty counterpart to Nashville’s more polished sound — beginning with the now defunct Cross Canadian Ragweed and including the likes of Stoney Larue, Pat Green and Dierks Bentley. Says Warm, “good music is good music, and that’s all we’re trying to do is bring in good bands.”

How this happened for Joe’s in a minute — but, first, a musical interlude.

Up close and personal

You might think an artist on McBride’s level would phone this one in. It’s a show that’s mostly a promotional event for WUSN-FM 99.5, the city’s country station, part of its Live Country series — eight shows a year at Joe’s. Those in attendance either won tickets as fans of the radio station or were given them because they work for sponsors or others affiliated with the station.

There’s a reporter collecting quotes, and at least one table of women who say Joe’s has given them VIP status and free admission to shows in exchange for their drink money and their cosmetically desirable presence. A waitress cuts through the full room, hustling Jagermeister shots.

And onstage, McBride, a brunette with big eyes and a bigger voice, is letting it all hang out. As if she’s never cared one whit about what being on tour might do to your vocal cords. As if every song really, really matters.

Backed by a full band, McBride belts out one hit tune after another, songs about wild angels and broken wings, a rebellious teenage daughter and an abused girl declaring “Independence Day.” Around the fringes of the room, there’s more loud chatter than you’d like in a music club, but a lot of these people didn’t have to be particular McBride fans to get in.

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