Like the fading echo of the night's last song, an Anchorage landmark will soon close its doors for good. Blues Central, which has been serving up blues music and food for some 17 years, is turning off the amps and the kitchen lights for the last time on Saturday night.
The tiny Spenard bar has been around in some form for almost 50 years. It began life as the Chef's Inn, a popular eatery and piano bar, and news of its closure is being felt by both local and iconic blues musicians.
Frank Dahl, 69, bought Blues Central at Chef's Inn about 16 years ago. After years of fostering blues music and good times at his bar, Dahl said he is ready to retire. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority -- a state owned public corporation -- has bought the building and parking lot and will be turning the property into office space. Dahl said he has been trying for several years to sell the bar to someone who could keep it running as a blues music venue, but was unable to find anyone with the financial means to buy the club outright.
"They (AIDEA) gave me an offer I just couldn't refuse," Dahl said.
Dahl said he would retain the bar's liquor license and name and still wants to find someone to carry on its tradition of bringing big-name blues acts to the Last Frontier. But Dahl said owning a bar in Alaska's largest city is getting tougher. Dahl criticized the Anchorage Assembly and Alaska Legislature for targeting bars in stings and regular police checks. Dahl claimed the state has become too enforcement-heavy when it comes to the hospitality industry, which he said employs more than 20,000 people statewide.
"The ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) board comes in on a regular basis and send in minors who look over 21 and try to trick the bartenders into serving them. And they do it often," Dahl said.
A check of state records over the last ten years confirmed Dahl's claim that he has never been cited for wrongdoing at a bar or restaurant he has owned. Dahl said the constant police attention is driving business away, but admits his main reason for closing down is that he wants to retire. Dahl has owned bars and restaurants for almost 50 years -- serving on the board of directors for national fast-food chain Hardee's and Shakey's Pizza. Dahl started the Anchorage chapter of the Cabaret Hotel and Restaurant & Retailers Association. He continues to own the Pit Bar in Seward, but is ready to live life at a slower pace than the hectic business of bar ownership and concert promotion allows.
"I just don’t have the fire in my belly anymore," Dahl said.
That fire helped Dahl to put Anchorage on the map for blues music. Dozens of world-famous musicians have played at the small bar and grill in Midtown over the years. B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Jr., "Big" Bill Morganfield, and "Soulman" Sam Evans are just a few of the names who have both darkened the door and lifted the mood at the bar, which seats about 80 customers. Despite its intimate size, Blues Central has left a big impression on patrons and musicians who played there.
John Lee Hooker Jr. has played at the bar almost yearly since 1999. His only absence was in 2001, when his famous father and legendary bluesman, John Lee Hooker, Sr. died. Hooker Jr. said he doesn't belt out the blues anymore -- he has become an evangelical gospel singer -- but he does still sing the praises of the little bar in Anchorage, Alaska.
"I have been all over the world," Hooker, said. "And the one place that stands out for me in the whole U.S. is Blues Central."
Hooker said the bar has an unmatched vibe and feel. But it was the people, Hooker said, who made the difference.
"Frank Dahl treated me like a brother," Hooker said, detailing the many fishing trips and homemade meals and trinkets he received over the years in Anchorage.
Anchorage bluesman Harry Ross, who has played with his band The Diamonds at Blues Central for more than 18 years, said Blues Central will be sorely missed.
"It's hard to explain," Ross said. "It's like no other place I've played."
And the vibe, or "mojo" as Dahl called it, had a history in Anchorage that predated the blues bar. For almost 40 years, the building was known as the Chef's Inn, a popular restaurant and live music venue. It was originally built in downtown Anchorage, just before the massive 1964 Good Friday earthquake -- a disaster that forced the newly opened restaurant to move to its current location on Northern Lights Boulevard, on the edge of Spenard. There it has become famous for its French dip sandwiches -- Dahl kept the old Chef's Inn menu when he bought the place -- and its blues.
Dahl said he will continue to promote the annual blues train to Seward and will bring blues acts to Anchorage. But Dahl said someone else will have to take over the popular Blues on the Green -- an annual blues music festival held at a local golf course. Dahl plans to spend more time in Arizona with his dogs and horses.
"I am literally going to ride off into the sunset," Dahl said.
Blues Central will close for good on Saturday, Feb. 22. Dahl said he will sell off most of the pictures and blues memorabilia that have hung on the walls at Blues Central for almost two decades.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com