The Turf Club

The Turf Club is an historic landmark in the Twin Cities music world. One might wonder how this club set in the Midway—the land between downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul—amongst porn and pawn shops, liquor stores and Ax Man, maintains a name at all. This is not the hubbub of nightlife; no river views, no skyscrapers, no horse carriages or antique fire trucks, no pretty street lights, no Snoopy. It’s University bus stops and Snelling traffic.

But part of the Turf’s charm lies in the very fact that it is set apart, an outcast from the rest of the busy modernizing Twin Cities. A hop and skip to one of the numerous venues in Minneapolis is always an enticing option, but Saint Paul has a unique and opposing aesthetic to Minneapolis, one that is captured on the outskirts of downtown, at the Turf. Rich in unpolished history, this is a rock ‘n’ roll joint that gives everyone what they expect from a Midwest bar: flannels and beer. Sorry, there ain’t no chocolate martinis here.

Opening in the ’40s as a two-steppin’ country bar, mellowing a bit through the folk artsy ’60s, morphing with the dance wave of the ’70s, then embracing the grunge of the ’80s, the club is like a treatise on Minnesota music. And this brings us to the other part of the club’s success: its consistent dedication to local and independent music, something this town of ten thousand musicians definitely recognizes and even appreciates enough to maintain loyalty in the face of an adverse location. So much so that the adversity becomes even more reason to frequent the damn place.

When the quirky—or to some, just plain creepy—Clown Lounge opened in the basement to showcase clown memorabilia, it suddenly started to book some of the hottest and most experimental jazz in town, not to mention offering some seriously stiff drinks. Despite the management changes and loss of the Clown Lounge (RIP) [since resurrected], the Turf remains one of the few dependable red-eye rock venues in a city that does sleep—like around 11 p.m.—on weeknights. You just never know what will come along next, but you can be sure it’s gonna be good. You see, catering to music junkies apparently pays off, especially when they are the ones entranced by rock—rock ‘n’ roll, classic rock, alternative rock, indie rock, folk rock, punk rock—because those music junkies just don’t die, they just don’t go away, and some don’t sleep.

The Turf is a perfect setting for rock. The long, prominent bar scales one side of the narrow interior; the stage is at the back; the entire space is enveloped in dark woods; and tinkling Christmas lights make for a cheap strip club ambiance rivaling the best of the local Veteran’s Legions. The music is loud, the crowd is devoted. So, just how diverse and representative is this venue for Minnesota music these days?

Well, how many places can claim to have hosted a self-proclaimed punk rock wedding complete with music from the wedding couple’s band? How many clubs have let a musician stay on stage for a fifty-two-hours-plus gig? How many places can keep the cover at five dollars? And how many places turn the volume up so loud that the floor bounces? One. The Turf Club. And the local City Pages can’t resist putting the club on their must-see, gotta-be-there “A-List” again and again. Yeah, we all know Minneapolis would like to claim this one as its own. That’s no surprise. It’s the dirt-covered diamond in the rough, sure to provide a gem of a night to remember.

Ask anyone from Mark Mallman (the guy responsible for that absurd fifty-two-hour marathon gig) to All the Pretty Horses (who frequent the club clad in bondage-goth ware) if the Turf is the place to be, and you’ll get a blank stare. Everyone knows the Turf has that special something. Even musicians tainted by the boys’ club method of booking; the chatty, aloof crowd; and the ear-splitting PAs and speakers can’t deny the elusive draw to be on that stage. It exudes a mysterious magnetism, but it predominantly stands as a dingy and dirty and loud backbone to Saint Paul—probably with no bar brawls, but several bar stories. Vive le rock ‘n’ roll at the Turf!

The Turf Club
1601 University Ave W
St Paul, MN 55104-3820

Jennifer Gehlhar of Minneapolis has been playing music for over twenty years. She currently plays bass for a local band and publishes a local zine, Atomic TC, in support of the wildly independent punk rock scene here in the Twin Cities.