The Bunkhouse spruces up, prepares for brighter future

What made The Bunkhouse Saloon special?

“Nothing. It was a (dive),” says Ronald Corso, a longtime Vegas musician and producer. “But it was our (dive).”

Corso’s point, made in slightly more colorful language, encapsulates the ragged charm of the venerable downtown music venue: It may have been plenty shopworn with a tiny stage and overmatched sound system, but it was still plenty loved as a come-as-you-are incubator of Vegas bands and smaller national touring acts.

Local musicians didn’t just play The Bunkhouse, they felt like they were a part of it.

“I think it was the venue many elements of the Vegas ‘scene’ claimed as their own,” says Brendan Scholz, frontman for Vegas rockers Mercy Music. “On any given night you could see a multitude of bands spanning numerous genres. No band was turned away. Everyone was welcome.”

Thing is, though, The Bunkhouse, that little dive on 11th Street, is no longer a dive nor quite as little.

After a year of renovations by new owners the Downtown Project, the club reopens on Monday with a stellar kickoff show headlined by Built to Spill and Vegas’ Rusty Maples.

While The Bunkhouse will have a (mostly) new look, the idea is to preserve the spirit of the old room.

“The sense that you immediately got from it was this sense of ownership by the local community, this was their house, this was where the local music scene lived and played and drank. You could just feel it,” says Bunkhouse booker Mike Henry, an Austin, Texas, transplant who developed a pair of music venues there. “I think that what we’re trying to do is maintain that as the core of the experience and then it’s ‘How do we build around it so that the tools that The Bunkhouse has are even greater?’ ”

Henry, along with Bunkhouse operations head Mark Carlson, gave a tour of the new, old venue on a recent Friday afternoon as workers put the finishing touches on the club.

Upon entering the room, the first thing you see is the larger, crescent-shaped stage, positioned against the opposite wall from its previous location. The club is bigger, with a capacity of 250 people, having been extended 20 feet in the back, and outfitted, according to Henry, with a “world-class” sound system that will be operated by a full-time engineer.

There’s a number of old pictures and relics from The Bunkhouse of the past, including the deer head that gazes down from above the bar.

As for food and beer offerings, Carlson says the emphasis is on steering away from standard bar eats — he mentions sloppy Joes and biscuits and gravy as examples — to be washed down by affordable brews.

There’s a takeout window outside, where the back patio and area adjacent to the entryway will be outfitted for people to come and hang out whether they’re attending a show or not.

Speaking of the entryway, it’s no longer off 11th Street, but has been reconfigured to steer foot traffic directly from Fremont Street. The Bunkhouse back alley leading to Fremont Street will be lined with lights, speakers and some plants and will serve as a walkway to the venue, which pulls it more into the Fremont East Arts District.

A lot across from Atomic Liquors will offer parking for the club.

The space will probably help: early Bunkhouse bookings include surefire room fillers such as the Breeders, Bob Mould, Washed Out and RJD2.

The lineup features plenty of Vegas acts, too, such as The Clydesdale, Dusty Sunshine, The Dirty Hooks and Candy Warpop, to name a few.

“I think the return of The Bunkhouse is going to be great for the local music scene,” says Melissa Marth, singer/keyboardist for The Big Friendly Corporation, which plays The Bunkhouse on Sept. 12. “I think by them having Rusty Maples open for Built to Spill for the grand opening is a grand gesture from the Downtown Project to bridge the gap between the gentrification that many seem to resent and their goal of making it a community that has something to offer everyone.”

Henry cites such renowned venues as Washington, D.C.’s, 9:30 Club, San Francisco’s The Independent and Hollywood’s Troubador as clubs that he wants The Bunkhouse to be mentioned alongside.

The room isn’t that big, but the same can’t be said of his ambitions.

“The goal is for The Bunkhouse to be one of the great midsized rooms in the country, no questions asked,” Henry says. “The bar is no lower than that.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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