Lisa Nola has two immediate misconception problems to deal with:
1. People keep confusing her with Lisa Light of the Lovemakers. Understandable, given the name thing and the fact that they're roommates, but Ms. Nola doth not wear raccoon-eye makeup and gyrate onstage with her ex-boyfriend.
2. People keep calling the club she just (re)opened "Eli's."
"It's just called the Mile High Club now," she corrects, giggling good-naturedly.
This is not a woman (or a club) with the blues. As Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau would put it, Not any meurrrre.
June of 2003 saw Eli's Mile High Club reopen to great fanfare as a "Rebirth of the Blues" moment. The venerable Oakland spot, a few blocks from MacArthur BART, sprang up in the '70s and rose to tremendous West Coast blues prominence in the '80s under beloved helmsman Troyce Key. But following Key's death in '92, the joint slipped through various hands, opening sporadically only to abruptly shut down again.
But this time Frank Klein, impresario of SF's highly successful Biscuits and Blues nightclub, had seized the reins. He dumped a ton o' cash into code-satisfying improvements. He booked old-guard big-shots like Joe Louis Walker. He spoke eloquently of balancing blues-cred grime with suburbanite-cred glamour.
He lasted just under a year. A victim of poor turnouts, apathy, and insufficient parking, Klein shuttered the place in late May.
Nola unshuttered it in early July. The Mile High Club -- seven days a week, restaurant, full bar, live entertainment -- is back in the saddle, though eschewing the blues thing and baiting the hook for more reliable fish: indie-rockin' nightlife hipster types.
For one thing, twentysomething Oaklandites are far more willing to deal with the Mile High's somewhat shady surroundings than, say, your average Walnut Creek Clapton fans. "There was a higher, upper-class clientele that used to come into the blues club that were afraid to park their car there," Nola says. (Klein expressed profound interest in a parking lot, but that never quite materialized.) "But with this crowd, I don't think they seem to mind. People who are younger don't have those impressions of Oakland. I think they're more willing to go out. I'd go to the city, my car's been broken into, everything's happened. I'm just sort of used to it."
Nola imagines the Mile High as the East Bay's very own Cafe du Nord -- her strategy is to hector touring bands already hitting SF into giving Oakland a spin while they're in the neighborhood: "One of the things that I've heard from so many bands that I've met is it'd be great to play in the city, and then also play in the East Bay, so they can stay in the Bay Area an extra day ... that's kind of the idea, that they would play both."
But though Klein sank plenty of cash into the club so far as building codes were concerned, the Mile High still needed plenty of work to reflect even a fraction of that swanky Fillmore-esque opulence. Nola says she and the property's owners (Mike McDonald and Ron Kriss) have dumped a total of $20,000 into improvements: a new DJ booth, revamped patio and sound system, and lots of painting and soundproofing action.
So don't expect diamond chandeliers or light-up disco floors or nothin', but the Mile High still has a snappy sort of blue-collar swank. For its first official Saturday night, the joint hosted new-wavey Seattleites the Lashes, utterly ludicrous garage-rock doofuses Boyjazz, and -- lo! -- beloved Oakland sleazemeisters the Lovemakers, makin' the trek up from Los Angeles, where they're recording their big-shot major-label debut. A several-hundred-deep crowd flailed about in a sort of stylized awkward euphoria as the 'Makers did the XXX-rated synth-pop thing, replete with a truly transcendent cover of the Cure's "A Forest." And should Robert Smith references of any sort give you hives, the Mile High has a splendidly spacious patio -- picture Thee Parkside's without (alas!) the Ping-Pong table -- on which to smoke/booze/make laughably ineffective sexual overtures.
A delightful evening, but this joint has had more marital partners than Liz Taylor. Can the Mile High's good vibes last longer than, oh, a year this time? Nola's strategy involves plenty of theme nights: Thursday will feature a steady stream of DJs (interestingly, this week's guest is St. Peter). Wednesday is subtitled "Music in the Atmosphere" and will feature free admission, increased romantic ambience, and "really pretty music, nothing too crazy." And Tuesdays will specialize in random-ass Gong Show fare. "It's basically a cabaret," she says. "Anything from burlesque and vaudeville to magic to jazz. We have a Dixieland band coming next week. Last week we had the greatest group called the Poontang Wranglers."
It's worth noting that only a slightly older Oakland nightspot, Café Van Kleef, has a similar Tuesday night vaudeville focus. But Nola's competition is market apathy, not other bars. "The more the better," she says. "It's kinda hard to be the stand-alone, y'know, and build from that. The more people see the East Bay as a place to perform, the easier it is on all the clubs and all the bars that start to grow here. Because that becomes sort of a nightlife scene, which we don't really have yet."
Of course, rewriting Oakland's nightlife history means largely erasing what once was there, but Nola says folks aren't taking the loss of the blues too hard. "I've met a couple members of Troyce Key's family, who owned it in the '80s -- they were really supportive," she says. "Everyone's main issue with the club is not so much that there has to be blues bands playing there all the time, but that the club has to stay open, that it doesn't get torn down. People who've seen the doors open have come by, and even if they're not into seeing a rock band that night, they've still said hello and said, 'You know, it's so great to see the lights on in this place. '"
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