Eli's Inspection Blues 

Shut down again by the county, the Mile High Club's challenge is to renovate without renovating history.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Frank Klein shouts as he wanders through the shell of Eli's Mile High Club. "It looks like a war zone in here."

Well, that's probably what he says -- the sound of a jackhammer nearly drowns him out.

Bad news for those of you excited about witnessing Oakland's Glorious 2003 Blues Renaissance: You missed it. It lasted a week and a half.

In the 1970s, Eli's served as the Bay Area blues scene's very own Castle Greyskull -- the headquarters, the epicenter, the Death Star. Famous headliners (Big Mama Thornton, Bobby "Blue" Bland) rubbed elbows with famous patrons (James Brown, maybe the Stones). The joint literally oozed the blues: Owner Eli Thornton even took one for the team in that regard by getting shot and killed right in the club by a jealous lover and former waitress.

Doesn't get more authentic than that.

Can Klein -- Eli's latest owner -- show that kind of dedication? He might have to before he can get the damn place open for good. After Thornton's death the club cycled through various owners and trends and Republican recessions, but Klein bought Eli's this year, completely revamped it, and reopened June 6 to fabulous fanfare. A new era for Bay Area blues! Joe Louis Walker had the gig! The joint was packed! Jerry Brown was there! Happy days (within artistic reason) are here again!

Then, a week and a half later, the Alameda County Environmental Health Department had Eli's shut down. And shut down it remains as of press time. At the moment, in fact, its innards look like the set of Escape from LA. "It's costing us a tremendous amount of money," Klein says, sitting at his makeshift desk on the second floor. "We've been shut down for three weeks, with no income stream, and we're desperately trying to get reopened. It has been very frustrating."

As he speaks, the jackhammer rages downstairs. Everything in the building is vibrating, convulsing, and violently rattling. Amazingly, Frank's teeth are not.

"We took a concerted gamble opening that the health board wouldn't require too many more improvements than we'd already made," he explains calmly. "And we basically lost."

The county hasn't demanded anything world-destroying -- Eli's just needed to meet new standards for the walls and the floors in the bar, kitchen, and restrooms. That's a pittance in the grand scheme of things: The club, Klein estimates, has sucked up about $150,000 in renovations so far. He completely revamped the electrical system. Switched around the fire exits. Repainted everything. Spiffed up the backyard patio. "Brought the ceiling up to code," whatever that means. Leveled the floor. Changed the plumbing.

Standard renovations, really, and nothing Klein -- who served as managing partner for SF's Biscuits & Blues club for eight years before quitting this year to tackle Eli's full-time -- hasn't run into before. But after nine days of glory his joint is shuttered again, and Klein is kowtowing to another laundry list of codes. At the moment, he's a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.

And one other thing: Too many improvements can be bad news for a blues club. More than any other genre, the blues demands an emphasis on grime, authenticity, history. No one trusts a chrome-bright joint with shiny walls and spotless floors, which explains why blues-biting corporate behemoths like the national House of Blues chain go to painstaking lengths to make their clubs resemble run-down shacks.

It's very expensive crappiness and very deliberate nonchalance, the equivalent to slashing up your new designer jeans just to give them "edge." And all so the juiced-up power-broker clients feel "authentic" as they pound their bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade in time to whatever watered-down blues-rock band is flopping around on the House of Blues stage that evening.

That won't be Eli's. Hopefully.

"The historical aspect -- we weren't about to go change dramatically the premises until they made us do it," Klein says. "We took that gamble. I can understand the health board's problem. They don't necessarily cater to people's need for historical preservation. They want to bring it up to code. Or what they perceive as code."

The clock's ticking, but Klein's pretty upbeat about the delay: "It's a pain in the ass, but getting everything done now is a lot better than having to do it six months from now."

Still, Eli's opening-night momentum is long gone, and the shows Klein scheduled for June and early July have evaporated, along with a wad of his cash. "The national acts that were touring, we're paying them their fees," he says. "The local bands have been really understanding -- they're just switching dates around. But the national acts you do have to pay. You can't just say, 'Since we have a hardship, you have a hardship.'

"We've missed eight major shows," Klein continues. "Four were national acts, four were local acts. And we've got really huge shows coming up that we need to be open for. Major shows."

Eli's has already missed one reopening date since closing -- the club's Web site still reads, "We anticipate reopening by Friday June 27 for Lloyd Gregory and Friends." (Sorry 'bout that, Lloyd and Friends.) But Klein has set a new deadline: This Friday.

When Eli's does throw its doors open once more, the owner wants to please the inspectors, but he needs to please the joint's old clientele -- and they probably liked those "historic" bathroom walls. "It is Eli's Mile High Club," he says. "And it needs to retain that ambiance and that essence."

He's got a sense of humor. "I'll invite you to the grand re-reopening," he shouts over the din as he shuts Eli's front door. Hopefully that door will open for good on Friday. And hopefully the joint looks just nice enough for the county -- but not too nice.

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