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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007 05:37 am

Requiem for a tavern

The Hilton pulls the plug on a favorite venue

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Scott Kay and the Continentals make their last UCT appearance Saturday, Sept. 15
Untitled Document I hate to be the bearer of bad, sad news, but here goes: The Underground City Tavern is not long for this world, and this weekend will mark the end of an era for the Springfield music scene. The Hilton heads have leased the space to a popular restaurant chain, and so the live-music venue must go. The UCT’s transformation over the last six years from an obnoxious sports bar to one of the most popular roots rock bars in the Midwest owes much to the dedication and desire of Brian Reilly, now executive night manager of the Hilton Springfield, and the booking prowess of Sean Burns of the Sangamon Valley Roots Revival, along with the blessing of Hilton general manager Michael Fear.
In addition to live Americana music most Friday and Saturday nights, the bar has also hosted diverse open mics Tuesday-Thursday. Acclaimed acts that performed at the Underground City Tavern included Billy Joe Shaver, Robbie Fulks, the Tarbox Ramblers, Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin, Commander Cody, Slaid Cleaves, BR-549, Wanda Jackson, Del McCoury, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. The incredible acts that waltzed through the below-ground bar gave rise to countless memorable moments:
There was the time when a songwriting buddy and I were trying to get CDs of our stuff to Billy Joe Shaver, considered one of the best writers in the business. My friend finally got a chance to talk to Shaver and with a deep breath handed him the fruits of his intensive songwriting labors. An exasperated Shaver snapped, “Why do I need your songs? I’m trying to write my own!” He refused the CD and turned away.
Then there was the special moment when the bass player from Commander Cody (at 52, the kid in the band) expressed to me his joy at playing the Underground: “Yeah, man, I love it here. You can get as drunk as you want playing, then all you got to do is stagger upstairs and crash. This is where it’s at.” Even though hauling equipment down those stairs was tough (and hauling it back up at the end of the night was even tougher), the thought of resting in a nice hotel was appealing to road-weary musicians, as was the proximity of the beds to the place of intoxication. Remember when Dave Alvin broke yet another string on his acoustic guitar while trying to keep up, volume-wise, with his rockin’ band and stomped offstage, never to return, during an encore? And how about (I wasn’t even there for this one) when Slaid Cleaves was so obviously moved when his UCT audience sang the words to his songs during his 2005 performance? When I saw him at the 2006 MerleFest, he recalled that night with honest joy.
Maybe you just had to be there, but the UCT did put Springfield on the roots-rock map and gave plenty of us Springfieldians some of the finest musical moments of our lives. Hasta la vista, Underground City Tavern. It was fun while it lasted. The last shows at the UCT (700 E. Adams St., 217-789-1530) will be Luke Turasky’s Bluegrass Jam (tonight, Sept. 13), Matt the Electrician with the Henhouse Prowlers (Friday, Sept. 14), and Scott Kay and the Continentals (Saturday, Sept. 15).

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.
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