Adam Zierten didn't know much about Mr. Roberts before his band Reason for Leaving began playing shows at the stage-less east-side bar four years ago. But after a few months, he was serving up beers there as an employee, and not long after that he was co-booking bands at the budding jam-band power spot.
"Now I'm sort of the in-house booking guy," Zierten says. "Erik Riedasch of Groovulous Glove was the one who'd really started bringing in jam bands and opened things up for music at Roberts. Erik's still getting the jam bands and bringing in all the hippies, while I've had a hand in trying to get other things in there."
With a capacity of about 200, Mr. Roberts, 2116 Atwood Ave., isn't a big place. But it's one of the bigger music venues on the east side. That makes it appealing to both local acts and touring jam bands, who call in from across the country trying to snag dates. Zierten also fills out the week with special features. Sunday is punk night; on Mondays the soul band Afro Disiacs alternates with an acoustic showcase; and Wednesday night is reserved for an open jam.
Even in full jam-band mode, Mr. Roberts retains the flavor of a neighborhood bar. Last Saturday, as Riedasch's band Minglewood ran through solo-heavy originals and a few Grateful Dead covers, a modest knot of hippies bounced along with the music. However, at the opposite end of Mr. Roberts' big C-shaped bar, middle-aged guys in Badger hats and Packers gear seemed oblivious to the music as they talked animatedly and took long pulls from brown bottles of Bud.
That mixing of very different crowds is by design, says Zierten. The bar never charges a cover, so regulars who wander in for beer are always rubbing shoulders with people who show up strictly for the music.
"Mr. Roberts started as a neighborhood bar," he says. "And we don't want to drive anyone away. We're trying to mix the best of both worlds."
Having the Barrymore Theatre all of 100 feet up the block definitely helps the live-music side of the business. Concertgoers looking for a drink often stop in before and after the theater's shows, bulking up bar receipts. And sometimes the national acts they're paying to see at the Barrymore join them at Roberts.
"Maybe once a month or so one of the bands will come over," Zierten says. "There was a night when Reel Big Fish played with two other ska bands, and it happened to be a Wednesday night. They all came over, and where normally we just have a few guitarists and whatever [for the open jam], we had 12 guys with horns just jamming out and having a good time."
But the occasional impromptu star turn doesn't really pay the bills. Big crowds do, and Zierten's happy to report that Mr. Roberts is seeing more of them. His Sunday punk night now draws a large, genre-appropriate audience, and he plans to promote that fact to local punks. The bar's audience for reggae hybrids is also starting to expand, with Namarupa joining Reason for Leaving and Zierten's Sublime cover act, Jose & Sumlimes, as some of Mr. Roberts' most reliable draws.
Jam bands catalyzed Mr. Roberts' transition to live music, and they continue to pull in good audiences.
"I never really liked jam music until I started working at Roberts," Zierten says. "Now I'll try to figure out which ones I dig and make sure that I either work on those nights or come down and see them."