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As the Bug Jar hits 30, its stage remains silent

May 19, 2021
Originally published on May 19, 2021 10:48 am

This was a name almost -- almost -- as big as previous visitors to the Bug Jar, such as The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and Lizzo. 

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, backed by the iconic chintzy décor of the tiny Rochester music club, was describing in a March 31 press conference some of the federal government’s programs that are designed to save our music culture from the coronavirus pandemic.

“God willing, by September, when these grants expire -- some of them expire in January -- we will have beaten COVID, and the Bug Jar will be back again,” Schumer said. “I heard the Black Keys -- they were one of my favorites -- and Lizzo was here? Wow. So this is a pretty good place. Pretty hip place.”

“He had an eight-minute window to be in and out of there,” recalls Bug Jar co-owner Aaron Gibalski. “So it was a brief, me thanking him, him wishing me luck, type of thing.

“He went on the news with, he was pretty confident he saved the Bug Jar.”

If only it were that easy. Set aside, for a moment, the unsettling image of Schumer rocking out to The Black Keys’ “Tighten Up.” This is a club that opened on May 31, 1991. Math wizards will instantly note that means we’re coming up on the Bug Jar’s 30th anniversary.

And that’s a pretty astounding accomplishment for this kind of venue. These places are as vulnerable as orchids, forced to withstand assault from all kinds of pests. Elected officials, Schumer aside, are traditionally wary of gatherings of music-charged young people. The music industry itself is capricious, the economic potential is dicey. For a small venue such as the Bug Jar, in a modest city such as Rochester, to survive for three decades is a testament to, as Gibalski says several times, “a real labor of love.”

“It’s a real labor of love, everyone’s 100% committed. Even through the ups and downs, it’s what we enjoy doing.”

Loyalty pays off. The Bug Jar still sells its T-shirts. And a crowd-funding campaign through GoFundMe has raised $25,000, surpassing its goal of $20,000.

Gibalski, Bobby Teresa and Brant Riggs bought the club in 1999, after it was well established as a pillar of the city’s edgy avant-garde. There was even a series of outdoor shows, the Bug Bowl, at the Highland Bowl. The White Stripes headlined the 2001 Bug Bowl, on the Sunday morning that The New York Times devoted a half-page story to the band as The Next Big Thing.

These indie rockers are a tight community. Gibalski remembers coming back to the club that night after packing up the Bug Bowl and seeing members of The Greenhornes, who had played that afternoon, tending bar.

The Bug Jar is a labor of love for guys like Bobby T, who Gibalski says rarely leaves town without checking out another city’s indie scene. When Gibalski was visiting New Orleans, on Bobby T’s recommendation he checked out a place called The Dungeon. “I walked in there,” Gibalski says, “it’s almost identical to the Bug Jar. Checkered floor, Jaeger machine in the middle, the two-headed baby. I felt like I just went to work again.”

A labor of love. Until the lights went out with the pandemic. The Bug Jar has been closed since March 2020.

“Two weeks before everyone else,” Gibalski says.

“National bands, even local bands, everyone got wind of COVID happening and canceled shows.”

Culture crushing. Live music in a pandemic is, Gibalski says, “The first one to go, the last one to come back.”

But come back, it is. Many venues have been presenting shows for months. Kate Stathis, who keeps CITY Magazine’s calendar listings, says the number of shows has been growing week by week. Randy Fluker curates an obsessive Facebook page called “Get Your Gig On,” listing local music events. Fluker noted on last week’s Thursday post that it was, “The Largest Thursday Gig List In A Year.”

Even some big venues, a far more complex business than your local bar, are showing signs of life. Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, near Canandaigua, is promising a hefty schedule starting later this summer. Darien Lake Amphitheatre has announced a handful of shows, including the Zac Brown Band on Sept. 5. The Dave Matthews Band has an Aug. 18 show at St. Joseph's Health Amphitheater at Lakeview, just outside of Syracuse.

Is it all a mirage, to vanish with yet another revision of pandemic guidelines or an appearance of the fourth wave of COVID-19 that some experts are predicting?

Among the legislation touted by Schumer is the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant. “And that’s what we were intending to use until they also passed the Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” Gibalski says. “And that just seemed to be a better fit for us, just for a whole bunch of reasons. Financially it just seemed like a better, a better path for us. You couldn’t do both.”

The idea of the Bug Jar as a restaurant is kind of amusing. It serves no food, despite having a kitchen. But if you’ve been to the place, you know the joke is the kitchen appliances and living-room furniture are bolted upside-down to the ceiling. Unusable, except perhaps by chimpanzees.

But a business has to know how to read the room. The Save Our Stages Act is for venues that primarily rely on ticket sales and merchandise. Most of the Bug Jar’s revenue comes from alcohol sales. So it’s a better fit for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which also covers bars and food trucks.

To further muddle the picture, two other businesses owned by Gibalski -- Dragonfly Tavern and Silver Iguana Cantina (pro tip: order the Cowboy Candy tacos) -- are open. For takeout as well, which is the road many restaurants have taken, just to keep some revenue coming in. “People were buying to-go margaritas like crazy,” Gibalski says.

All of this culture depends on how the COVID-19 guidelines are interpreted. So while Abilene Bar & Lounge recently reopened with a lineup of live music that sounds a lot like what the club was offering pre-pandemic, including national bands, the similarly sized Bug Jar remains silent.

The culture resurrection is not one size fits all.

“The size of the place, the way it functions, the way it flows, is almost impossible to do with limited capacity, social distancing,” Gibalski says. “Previously we had the food requirement, all sorts of boxes were checked, working against us.” He’s talking about how a few months ago, the state insisted a venue had to be serving food, with the music “incidental.” Abilene, which doesn’t even have an upside-down kitchen bolted to its ceiling, got around that by offering hummus and chips.

“And they seem to be dissipating one at a time,” Gibalski says of those guidelines. “So we’re just waiting it out, and hopefully that grant gets us there.”

Gibalski expects to hear about the grant application this month. As for reopening, “I would go tomorrow if I could. There’s a lot of confusing info out there as far as I’m concerned.”

And this week’s announcement by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that fully vaccinated people will no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors or socially distance, still leaves questions unanswered. Gibalski wonders if events such as the Park Avenue Festival pulled the plug on 2021 too early.

“It’s hard to keep up,” Gibalski says, “and I don’t know who to listen to.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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