Words & Deeds

‘Time to evolve.’ No more bands at iconic Downtown Boise bar. It will close, remodel.

After a long tradition of live music, Tom Grainey’s will stop hosting bands. “What I’m tasked to do as an owner, as a manager, is to look at something, tear it apart, digest what’s going on and make it better,” owner Jason Kovac says.
After a long tradition of live music, Tom Grainey’s will stop hosting bands. “What I’m tasked to do as an owner, as a manager, is to look at something, tear it apart, digest what’s going on and make it better,” owner Jason Kovac says. Special to the Idaho Statesman

The intersection of 6th and Main streets is known as Boise’s bar-hopping mecca for booze, dancing and bands.

But hamstrung by a shifting culture, musicians are closer to becoming an endangered species there.

After decades of local and touring performers, Tom Grainey’s Sporting Pub, 109 S. 6th St., will pull the plug on live music at the end of March.

It’s a business decision. “There’s just not a return on it anymore,” says Jason Kovac, who has owned Tom Grainey’s for nearly 11 years. “I’m not anti-musician. It’s time to evolve and change.”

There’s a bright side. The iconic Old Boise bar, which opened in 1979, will be remodeled. Tom Grainey’s will close for construction April 2 through 30. The adjoining spaces, Tom’s Room and Grainey’s Basement, will remain open.

When Tom Grainey’s returns, its stage will hold karaoke-singing customers on weekends instead of musicians.

Feeling nostalgic? Me, too. But the writing was on the wall.

Many Downtown partyers aren’t particularly amped about live bands in 2019.

“Times have changed,” Kovac says. “The demographic that goes to 6th and Main aren’t all young, but the majority of them are, and they grew up with instant downloads and YouTube and EDM music.”

It’s not even an age group. It’s just a reality.

“I’m pro-musician, I’m pro-band, I’m pro-rock ‘n’ roll,” Kovac says. “But other than four or five times a year that I go see a show that I really want to see, who goes out to see live music anymore? That’s the problem.”

Tom Grainey’s is the most visible part of a three-room nightclub. Below street level, a DJ plays tunes on the dance floor at Grainey’s Basement. Upstairs, regulars sneak back to Tom’s Room, a speakeasy nook opened in the rear last year.

Tom Grainey’s commitment to live bands — and the cost of musicians, sound technicians and music licensing (BMI sued Grainey’s last year) — means it’s no longer pulling its share of the load, Kovac says.

He’s hoping a new direction and remodel will change that.

Over the years, Grainey’s hasn’t always depended on live music. When Kovac bought it, the previous owner had moved away from bands, too, he says.

“What it’s always been is an Irish pub,” Kovac says. “We’re going to make it more comfortable. It’s going to be beautiful and designed the right way. And it’s going to stand on its own, finally. My designer said it best: Grainey’s is finally going to grow up.”

Tom Grainey’s and Grainey’s Basement will keep hosting live music during Treefort Music Fest, Kovac says. And the Basement might even feature occasional bands during other months.

“But I’m just not basing my business model on live music anymore,” Kovac says. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Karaoke? That’s a different story. It already powers business at Tom Grainey’s on normally slow Mondays.

“It’s so packed on Monday nights, you can’t get in,” Kovac says. “And it’s fun. It’s interactive. We do double or triple the sales on a Monday night for karaoke than we do for live music on Fridays or Saturday nights, except for a handful of times a year. Something is wrong there.”

Live-music diehards at 6th and Main streets still will find bands playing original and cover music at Pengilly’s Saloon, 513 W. Main St. There’s a smattering of bands monthly at the Reef, 105 S. 6th St. And Humpin’ Hannah’s, 621 W. Main St., revolves around longtime house act The Rocci Johnson Band.

But Downtown’s Irish pub will seek pastures with more green when it returns May 1.

“It just got to a point where it wasn’t worth it anymore,” says Kovac, who will become Tom Grainey’s longest tenured owner next year. “I’ll leave it up to somebody else.”

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Michael Deeds is an entertainment reporter and opinion columnist at the Idaho Statesman. Since starting at the Statesman as a news intern in 1991, he has been a sportswriter and features/entertainment editor. Deeds also has freelanced for The Washington Post, Relix, Country Weekly, Velo News, Beer Advocate and more.
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