In just a few years, Van’s Dive Bar has become an indispensable hub for Anchorage musicians

Jay Straw stood at the microphone on a side stage at Van’s Dive Bar on Saturday afternoon, an acoustic bass slung over his shoulder.

Responding to an inquiry from the crowd, he promised the audience would get their fill of live music even if it meant taking extreme measures.

“I will serenade you at the urinal,” he cracked.

Moments later he was joined onstage by Zach Rasmussen, his bandmate in Comfortably Dumb, to kick off Vaniversary, an 11-hour, 28-band Anchorage music extravaganza.

The celebration of the fifth Vaniversary was a microcosm of the bar’s overall musical mission, with artists of all genres performing year-round and most nights of the week.

Positioned on Fifth Avenue east of downtown, Van’s — as advertised in its name — has all the trappings of a dive bar.

But like most dives, the principal value is in the people. And at Van’s, that often means musicians and music enthusiasts.


Count Paul Laverty among the latter. He said he’s been introduced to some of his favorite bands by seeing shows at Van’s — The Jephries, The Unknowns, Chelsea’s Biscuit and SunDog.

“As a fan of live music, you can’t beat Van’s for the diversity and the consistency -- it’s week after week,” he said. “The beautiful thing about the Vaniversary, with 28 bands, you get a chance to see a sampling of bands you’ve never even heard before. You can put a face to a name and a genre type and musicality.”

Van and Nicki Hale purchased the bar, which previously housed King’s X Lounge, in 2016. In the years since, with Nicki Hale handling day-to-day operations, the venue has expanded to host live music in some form on a near-daily basis.

Bassist Joshua Zullo has played at Van’s with a number of bands, including Estate Sale. Also a regular at Van’s open mics and jams, Zullo said the venue has developed into a hub that’s sparked plenty of new musical projects.

“The midweek kind of stuff is a great place for both musicians and artists to meet each other,” he said. “I’ve seen a handful of bands form at the open jams here. It’s just really cool to watch the venue itself grow and the musicians and community grow with it.”

The bands Saturday ranged from country to punk to metal to rockabilly, plus solo singers and acoustic instrumentalists. With two stages set up in close proximity, as soon as one band finished, another would fire up immediately, a sort of audial game of hot potato. All of the sets were 15 or 30 minutes long, allowing for a lot of opportunity for both bands and attendees.

“It’s a great place for emerging artists from Alaska to get their name out,” said Clancy Skipwith, a regular at shows. “The stage is open to everybody. The bar is open to everybody. It’s a very inclusive place. ... Maybe I don’t know everybody’s name that’s playing today, but now I can say I’ve heard them.”

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While a portion of the crowd fits comfortably in punk or indie rock scenes, Van’s doesn’t cater to a specific musical type. Earlier this month, the Spenard Jazz Fest held shows at Van’s, and the venue has devoted recurring midweek nights to bluegrass and the music of the Grateful Dead.

“It’s not genre-specific,” Zullo said. “It’s just, show up and play. Share your art.”

Sara Jean Larsson Greenberg, who fronts the band Wash Your Hands, has hosted the open-mic night on Sundays for around two years. She started going to open mics at the TapRoot, and once the Spenard venue closed its doors, she and many others started to migrate to open-mic night at Van’s.

“I think this open mic really was what allowed me to feel welcomed in a community, so getting to take over and also provide that opportunity to other musicians — whether they’re established, or brand new and just trying it out and I’m goading them to get on stage — I love that,” she said. “I just love being able to foster that healthy kind of community where we’re supporting each other.”

Straw, who was one of the major figures in founding Vaniversary, and Rasmussen kicked off the festivities with their own brand of musical hijinks. The set featuring Rasmussen’s soaring lead vocals backed by Straw on bass and harmony vocals quickly detoured to an on-mic discussion about how the first-ever recording of a distorted bass came on an album by country star Marty Robbins.

The crowd that started with two dozen attendees ballooned by the evening. People crammed into outdoor-seating areas in front and in back, and a pair of food stands did brisk business. Homer art-rockers Ayla Ray closed the night to a packed house of fans and fellow musicians.

“We have a really cool music community in Alaska,” Greenberg said, “and I’m grateful so many wonderful people exist within it.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.