How many of you remember Raoul’s Roadside Attraction?
Given the “dine-and-dance” spot closed in the 1990s, you can be forgiven if you don’t have fond memories of icons like Doc Watson, Bo Diddley, and Warren Zevon filling the joint while you had a great burger out on Forest Avenue, where Mekong Asian Bistro now stands.
Raoul’s still has a place in Ginger Cote’s heart, though. The Free Street Taverna, too, where bands played in the big picture window and Pete Kostopoulos brought in great regional acts like Question Mark and the Mysterians and the Lyres, and paired them with big plates of Greek food and cheap beer.
Those are the kinds of places Cote had in mind when she started putting together ideas for Big Babe’s Tavern, which will open where the Griffin Club once stood, across the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood, on Jan. 28, after more than two years of construction and regulatory hurdles.
Given Cote’s long history as an in-demand drummer – backing the likes of Sara Cox, Darien Brahms, and Kate Schrock, and playing in the short-lived super group Dirigo with Steve Jones and Strangefolk’s Erik Glockler and Luke Patchen, as just a start – it’s perhaps not surprising that she’s built her new locale to be musician friendly.
“I took all my experience touring in this country and in Europe – restaurants, dive bars, whatever,” Cote said, sitting in a half-finished booth along with Caitlin Houser, who will manage the place, and Caitlin’s husband, Dillon Houser, who will be the chef. “(I) just said, ‘If I had a place, I would not do that, but I would do this,’ and just took bits and pieces of the good and left out the bad.”
So, bands will get paid a decent check, even though they’re “local.” They’ll get a good meal and a couple beers. There will be great sound, including monitors so musicians can actually hear themselves on stage. And “the drummer’s on a riser,” Cote said, “not buried behind everybody, because a drummer designed the stage. It’s going to be a pleasure to play here. I feel like they’ll really be able to dig in more and not be frustrated by not hearing themselves.”
There’s even a green room in the basement, and every show will finish up by midnight, so bands aren’t playing bleary-eyed until the very moment of last call.
“Our generation deserves a space like that,” said Caitlin, whose father is legendary weatherman Lou McNally, who also happens to have sat in with Cote and Darien Brahms when they played the Taverna back in the day.
“I don’t know those places,” Dillon said. “Raoul’s? I was 10.”
But the vision goes beyond just a performance space. It’s a tavern in the traditional sense of the word, like the Irish and English pubs many touring musicians covet for the meals they offer and the sleeping arrangements upstairs. Big Babe’s has five themed rooms you can stay in on the second floor, with odes to Stax and Sun Records, Bonnie and Clyde’s Barrow Gang, even Stephen King.
“It’s another level of hospitality to offer musicians,” Caitlin said. “You used to see that more in the ’80s, ’70s, a place to stay on the premises.”
There’s unquestionably a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in the place: red-leather booths, photos of Johnny Cash and Bo Diddley on the wall, a guarantee there will always be $2 beers on the menu, swing-dance nights every other Thursday. And there’s a stand-up piano that someone will be playing just about every happy hour.
“It’s definitely a homecoming,” said Dillon, who most recently was sous chef at the East Ender, the Little Tap House before that, and at the Saltwater Grille in nearby Ferry Village, where he got his start back when he was 15. “Seeing Knightville now, it’s a little more like it was when I was a kid. I’ve lived through this place turning into a bit of a dump when the bridge moved, and now it’s super exciting to be part of the renaissance here.”
Portland music fans will certainly recognize the lineup at Big Babe’s coming out of the gate. After a grand-opening jam session Jan. 28, it’s Primo Cubano on Wednesday, Jan. 29, and every other week after that. Thursday, Jan. 30, is the Kenya Hall Band, which will alternate with the swing dance party going forward. Friday is King Memphis.
“On Saturday,” Cote said with a laugh, “we’ll see if the place is still standing.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 shows
Jan 24: Dog Park CD-release show, with Crunchcoat, Bait Bag, and Lake Over Fire at The Apohadion Theater. This is pretty clearly the show of the week, and it’s all-ages, to boot. Dog Park’s brand-new “Scotty” is antithetical to just about everything that’s popular right now: It’s not polished or danceable, and doesn’t feature anything resembling a hook. But damn if it isn’t charming.
Its nine songs clock in at roughly 12 minutes. Drummer and vocalist Chris Gervais reports that they recorded it all on “old GE alarm clock tape players,” which sounds both like a joke and completely accurate. The album launches with a pretty obvious rejection of pretension – “I always embarrass myself / By being alive” – and gets more grimy and self-deprecating from there.
“Red Cabbage” opens like the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” but is a tad darker: “I guess I’m sorry that my mental health was crashing and sinking.” Regardless, Quinn Farwell’s guitar contours feed on nostalgia when they’re not drowned in distortion. Jason Engler’s bass drives “Walter” with a depressive energy: “If you wanted me to be there all the time / You might want to just give it up.” This is the anti-pop our age desperately needs more of.
Jan 24: Murcielago, Twin Grizzly, Drivetrain, Thems That Wait at Port City Music Hall. Looking for heavy rock? This is where the heavy rock is. Murcielago has a new single out, “The Highest Low,” and they’re ready to celebrate.
Jan 25: Carl Dimow Quartet and Michael Feinberg at Blue. With a 6 p.m. start this is a downright civilized show of some really progressive jazz. The bios on these guys are as long as your arm.
Jan 25: An Anderson, Bass and Drums, and Smokemaster 420 at Sun Tiki Studios. Another all ages show? What’s going on in this town? This is the noise-rock show to curl the toe nails, with two locals joined by the New York-based B&D.
Jan 31: Dustbowl Revival at Bayside Bowl. This is the alt-country show that would have really hit this town’s sweet spot in 2001. As it is, there are still likely plenty of you who like a little twang with their indie considerations.
— Sam Pfeifle