Chelsie’s was a semi-legendary rock club once located at 980 N. High Street. I only had the pleasure of checking out this establishment once, which would have been in the fall of ’97. You kind of feel guilty sometimes about not patronizing certain establishments more – or even never getting around to checking them out at all – but the reality is that our time and our money are both precious resources and it’s just impossible to cram in everything we would like.
Anyway, if my notes are correct, this would have been a Friday, September 19, 1997. Whatever the case, the band on tap that night would be Watershed, whom I had seen one other night back in ’95. But I don’t know what band we’re going to see, because my tour guide, so to speak, Clif, can’t remember the name of the group. All he knows is that his coworker at B Street, Colin, is playing here tonight. And I don’t know enough about Watershed at the time to put 2 and 2 together.
We park on this residential a block east of High and walk to the club. The air is warm for the season and almost spookily still, perfect for a walk as we make our way to that main thoroughfare. Neither of us know the precise location of the bar, however, Chelsie’s, and didn’t think to do a drive bar before parking, thus we’re not sure in which direction to walk from here. We ask this elderly black gentleman hanging out at this particular corner if he’s ever heard of the place, and he hands us both his business card. It turns out he’s a preacher at ministry a few blocks south of here, one which serves free food for anyone who will sit through a sermon. Given my penchant for reckless behavior there’s no telling what kind of dire straits I might find myself in this week or the next, so I thank him, tuck his card inside my wallet. But no, he hasn’t heard of this place, either.
With a shrug, we decide to head south, and sure enough hit paydirt soon enough at 980 N. High. We have found the club, and its requisite surly doorman, both standing tall amidst a number of trendy looking art galleries which have shuttered for the evening, along with a handful of other bars peppering this region.
“Eight dollars?” I gasp, “these guys better be pretty fucking good.”
“No shit,” Clif agrees.
Then I spot the name on the bill, and this elicits a knowing chuckle: Watershed. Clif asks me what’s so funny, and I explain that I had seen these guys a couple of years ago, but went home after 3 songs. This would have been at the Blitzfest or whatever it was called, a free show held at Polaris in the summer of ’95. They were the headliners and it had been a long day, so my impression of that experience probably doesn’t reflect on them. My girlfriend at the time, Heather, never showed up – we were going through a rough patch which pretty much ended up being the final patch – so I said screw it and drove down alone. I remember the Nixons played earlier, hot on the coattails of their only hit, and also a ton of local bands who weren’t very good, and that Suzi Waud, at the time the most popular DJ in town, came onstage to say a few things, and that this was maybe the highlight of the day. By the time Watershed appeared, as the last act of the night, I’d heard enough a few tunes into their set and decided to pack it in. I didn’t realize at the time that they were signed to a major label. Clearly they were a bigger deal than the Nixons, but it was hard to have perspective on them in some respect because they were local.
The long, battle scarred bar sits perpendicular to the door and runs nearly the length of this cramped establishment, filled to the brim with bodies. Nonetheless we manage to secure a couple of bottled beers, as I scan my eyes around the room and try to appraise this place. The atmosphere at Chelsie’s kind of reminds me of Ruby Tuesday, albeit on a much bigger scale. Even so, I’m not entirely thrilled by what Chelsie’s has to offer, and the outrageous admission ranks among the least of my concerns. Despite a back door swinging wide open this decrepit joint has the worst ventilation of all-time, as we’re dripping sweat in buckets. A massive elevated stage lines the rear wall, which the bands assuredly love, and does indeed make them appear lordly, yet most clubs hosting groups of this caliber would never risk doing so in such limited space. The phrase fire hazard was specifically created for settings such as this, with scores of people wedged elbow to elbow, the friction between us incendiary enough to shoot sparks on its own.
Call this a scaled down model of campus as a whole. Alluring and terrible at the same time, full of dogeared charm. When I look back on this era years down the road I know that this is how I’ll see it, dark and cramped and loud, sweat dripping from every pore, off to meet a group of individuals we may never intersect at all. Nights like disjointed limbs, impossible to stitch together again in any functional matter, where so much changes on an hourly basis you forget why you left the house to begin with. Courses change direction as quickly as the Midwestern wind, alliances plotted, names learned and then forgotten, romances that bloom and wither in the space of one tumultuous evening. And everywhere, everywhere, there are no strangers left, because from one end of this city to another we’re all friends already and our futures are plotted but we’re not tuned in enough to grasp this, the import of these adventures escapes our meager minds.
Almost as a matter of magnetic propulsion, we’re pushed out onto the back patio, where we run into a handful of Clif’s friends. This auburn haired, extremely talkative and somewhat amusing Joe character I remember meeting before is yukking it up with some folks, and also milling around is this wholesome set of twins who look as though they’ve teleported here from a 1950s sitcom. A drop dead gorgeous blonde named Laura whose hate filled scowl is fiery enough to blister paint on the surface of nearby buildings, and her slick, smiling boyfriend with immaculately groomed jet black hair. Some guy named Johnny, some chick named Amy, too, but these are just faceless names, blank slates whose personas never extend beyond this moment of introductory hellos.
Meeting people through Clif is a curious affair because he clearly knows a lot of people, although I do question how well he knows them. The plain looking twins, with their short, sandy colored hair seem genuinely pleased by his arrival, but elsewhere he registers few blips on the radar. So I’m left wondering if these folks are always this nonchalant, or whether he’s around so much it’s no big deal, or else they’re simply shocked that he appeared down here. Introducing me it goes without saying rates even lower and the prevalent reaction is disinterest, as if wondering why Clif is even bothering at all.
When the headliners we’ve coalesced to support are ready to go on, as one nearly unified mass we reenter the building, needle our way through the dense foliage of bodies near the stage. And the instant this power trio dives into their first number, it becomes apparent that either my tastes have changed or they’ve gotten a whole lot better. Probably a combination of both, in fact. Two summers earlier when I saw them, Watershed were signed to Epic Records, a major label for whom they’d cut a couple releases, and they were playing for a crowd of ten thousand. So while tonight’s paid attendance might pale in comparison, Chelsie’s is packed to the rafters, nonetheless, and they’re making up the difference in sheer quality of performance, they’ve come a long way.
Colin sings most of the songs, and there’s something of a dapper British gentleman about his appearance – maybe a little Hugh Grant-ish, or Gavin Rossdale-esque, although really, I’ll tell you what he reminds me of, he reminds of Robert Smith from the Cure, if only he were 50 pounds lighter at a similar age and smiled as much as this guy does. More importantly, these quick little three minutes gems ring with hooks, the kind of catchy choruses less talented musicians sell their souls for. The guitar shimmers and the bass bounces and the drums snap out the beat with sharp, compressed ferocity, and there’s nary a wayward note played anywhere. What I envisioned as a favor to a friend has instead torn my ears apart, and when their set comes thundering to a halt forty five minutes later I feel as though they’ve not yet played a single song. And while my friends in Superstar Rookie might have dismissed this term as not applicable to their own sound, the description power pop certainly fits Watershed, this generic umbrella nonetheless a weapon they’ve wielded like no other band I have seen live.
After the set, we ooze like gelatinous blobs onto the back patio again, the cool blast of fresh autumn air a form of life support that resuscitates our torpid shells. Colin buys Clif a beer for showing up, a kind reversal of the usual fandom role, and a positive vibe hangs in the breeze, as the band is clearly pleased with their performance, with the turnout and the money they’ve pulled in off the door. In addition to the frontman himself we meet their bassist, a gruff cat with shaved head also named Joe, and their drummer, Herb, and once our drinks are extinguished we all climb into separate vehicles, in pursuit of a party up on campus.
The party in question would be at Casey’s house on Blake, near campus. Clif is following me, as we’ve driven in separate cars, but when I find a curbside spot just up the street, he is forced to continue driving around. I get out and start looking for 79 West Blake. But my eyesight is horrible, so I mainly just traipse around hoping to bump into someone I know. There’s no hope whatsoever of spotting the address on a house, even from the sidewalk, so it’s a matter of recognizing voices or promising situations or something.
At some point, I pass these four dudes hanging out on a porch. They yell hi to me and I shout a hello back at them, but keep walking. Then one of them hollers, “yo dude! Up here!” and I realize it’s that redheaded Joe guy. Upon retreating and joining them on the porch, I see the address is 59 Blake, which means someone must have given me the wrong coordinates somewhere along the line, or else I screwed it up. But no, it actually turns out to be neither – Joe had just been walking along, and these three guys he’d never met before invited him up for a beer. They’re having a party themselves, and offer me a frosty beer as well. Someone breaks out an acoustic guitar, and Joe is soon strumming familiar cover songs to surprisingly good effect. Then we invite these random characters to the actual party we’d been trying to find, and traipse the few houses up to 79 West Blake.
As we arrive, Clif and one of the twins are sitting on this address’s own dark front stoop, waiting patiently for me to show.
“Man, where the hell you been!” Clif howls, “I was afraid you got jumped or something!”
Our ravenous stomachs respond to the smell of fried beef, and we follow this aroma around to the back of the house, where Laura’s presiding over a gas grill. A handful of her friends sit around a picnic table in the cramped backyard, chomping down on burgers, while the house itself fills up with seemingly every soul who’d been in attendance at Chelsie’s and then some. The person or persons living here is never fully explained but I gather Laura’s boyfriend to be involved in some capacity, as he stands behind the living room bar dispensing drinks, cracking jokes and pouring draft beer into cups from a keg-a-rator, located behind the bar.
“How do you like your burger?” the other twin asks me, as the four of us are hanging near the back stoop, she and I and Clif and his own targeted twin.
“Rare as hell,” I smile.
“All these burgers are already taken!” Laura snaps, flipping over the current roster with her spatula, “and there’s none left inside, either.”
My theoretical twin slips inside for a moment, shooting me a discreet smile when she returns, toting a few pounds of ground beef she has magically located in the kitchen. As she gets the next batch going for Clif and me and the two of them, the crowd of people filling up the house keeps growing exponentially, but we remain here, sucking up the cool autumn air. In the absence of the otherwise ubiquitous bright white security lights, this block of Blake is shrouded in black, atypically dark. A dimness further enhanced by the thick, dense trees surrounding this place, the murky sky above.
The house is old like nearly every other home on campus, imbued with corresponding charm. Too small to accommodate this many people but they’re doing their damndest anyway, in this house with Buckeye paraphernalia plastered on every wall, tossed into every corner. Every light in the house is blazing bright, and when I file upstairs to use the restroom the stairwell itself is impossibly narrow and steep, a tricky maneuver even when stonefaced sober.
A whole bunch of people will continue filtering into this party. Though not really knowing anyone else when this night began, I will hang out for long after Clif leaves. At one point I remember standing and talking to the key Watershed duo, Colin and Joe – Gawel and Oestreich, as it turns out, respectively – in the middle of this really bright living room. Then some old dude with a really long beard walks up and gets on this kick about how I look really familiar to him. He indeed seems really familiar to me as well, though neither of us can place it. Somewhere past 3 in the morning I realize most of the good looking girls seem to have left, and I never really talked to any of them, so I take this as my cue to leave.
But it seems that once again, I have strayed from the intended post. Regarding Chelsie’s, one of my good friends was in Silo The Huskie and says they were supposed to play that memorable night in May of ’97 following the U2 show at the Horseshoe. But that the gig was scrapped when the owner showed up considerably late and torn off the frame drunk. He unlocked the doors long enough basically so that they could cart their gear back out of the place. I’ve also heard rumors about some benefit show where the employees actually used the proceeds for some big coke party instead of donating it to the stated cause – but these are rumors, mind you, only rumors. Let us dip, however, into what we can discover about the booking schedule at Chelsie’s. These aren’t confirmed dates that were played, but they were at least on the docket. I still have boxes upon boxes of old Alive! and The Other Paper weeklies that I will surely trawl through at some point for additional shows. But this is the roll call so far, of other shows I’ve discovered beside this one:
1/18/95 – Edgar Winter
5/11/96 – Jorma Kaukonen
9/18/96 – Switchblade Symphony
12/6/96 – Goldfinger
4/25/97 – Bloodhound Gang
6/4/97 – Reel Big Fish
8/13/97 – Iced Earth
10/10/97 – Merl Saunders
9/30/98 – The Outfield (local band The Shantee open)
10/19/99 – Melvin Seals
A healthy mix of local and national acts frequented the stage here, and these are only the most memorable names I could unearth. Ideally I would like to post the entire lifetime calendar for all of these places, down to the set lists. As far as what befell Chelsie’s, I’m not exactly sure, but seem to remember something in the papers about mismanagement – and the handful of first hand stories I’ve heard seem to corroborate this theory.