“I have been coming here since I was 17, and I just turned 42,” Rachel Taft says as we walk through the Sidebar Tavern, the Lexington Street watering hole named for its proximity to the Baltimore City courthouse. “The first show I ever booked was here, in 2012.”
Taft has witnessed Sidebar’s 25-year history as one of Baltimore’s most reliable homes for fast, loud underground music, but now she’s also running the place. In late 2021, her nonprofit Feed The Scene foundation bought the bar, and she has spent the past year renovating the space to get it up to code and ready to host shows again.
The Sidebar was frequently featured in HBO’s “The Wire” as Kavanagh’s, the cop bar frequented by many of the show’s characters, in parallel to the real Sidebar’s status as a cheap happy hour spot for lawyers and city employees. “The people that I’ve talked to from the various city offices that we’ve had to work with, from DPW and DOT and everyone else who’s been very helpful, they all said that they used to come here, so a lot of them are very excited,” Taft said.
But the Sidebar’s cultural legacy is as a punk club — the closest thing Baltimore has to a CBGB to call its own. Legendary punk vets such as The Queers and Agnostic Front played this room, which snugly fits less than 100 people, as did bands such as Thursday, Rilo Kiley and Baltimore’s own Turnstile before they graduated to larger venues. Literally hundreds of bands have left stickers on the walls or graffiti to memorialize the time they passed through Charm City.
The Sidebar’s original proprietor, Richard Ashburn, who died in 2013, built the bar into a staple of the East Coast punk touring circuit at a time when there were a few more like-minded clubs downtown. The original location of the Ottobar, which later became the Talking Head, was just a block away on Davis Street. Taft fondly remembers her days as an Annapolis teenager who’d drive to Baltimore to see bands in both spots. “Everyone would hang out and go to both shows and smoke in the parking lot.”
Taft has spent the last year raising money on GoFundMe and putting it into making the Sidebar sustainable for the foreseeable future, getting the building up to code and renovating it without changing the bar’s essential character.
“The thing that stinks is, like most renovations, all the money ends up going to things that you don’t really see — they’re not sexy,” she says as we tour the space, looking at the various changes she’s made: new bathrooms, a new HVAC system, remediating all the lead paint and black mold in the building. “I know some people are going to be like, ‘Well, it’s not gonna be as fun, because it’s gonna be not the dirty rathole that it was when I loved it.’ It’s still going to be the dirty rathole you loved — you’re just not going to get tetanus from touching anything here. It’s going to be brick and flat black paint, so everything will be ready for new graffiti and new stickers.” The merch area by the door will be one noticeable difference. Taft knocked down a wall and added a few square feet to the room.
The building that houses the Sidebar has been around since at least the 1880s, and Taft has been diligently researching to figure out exactly how long it’s been here. “The building survived the fire of 1904. At this point we don’t have an accurate idea of when it was built; a lot of the records were destroyed in that fire,” she says. “There is some rumor that this area or some part of this area was stables for horses.”
Taft points to a stained glass lamp that hung over the merch area for years, noting a strange coincidence she came across in her research. “I cleaned it off and looked it up, and it turns out the company that made the lamp, the guy was a World War II fighter pilot who was a prisoner of war and spent 14 months in a Luftwaffe prison camp. And it turns out his daughter went to high school and graduated with my mother in Fairlawn, New Jersey, in 1968.”
Taft has given touring bands a place to sleep and eat for over a decade with Feed The Scene. The nonprofit held its first fundraiser for the Sidebar when previous owner Travis Hunt was in danger of going out of business in 2019. And, when COVID-19 hit the following year, the bar was in an even more precipitous position, along with the rest of the live music industry, prompting Taft’s decision to offer to buy the tavern and personally keep it alive.
So far, Taft has hosted only one show at the Sidebar — in December, it presented a ska punk bill featuring The Skluttz and Joker’s Republic after another venue was double booked. “We got everything cleaned up, and our liquor license was still active and we hadn’t started any construction at that point and our insurance had come in, so we were logistically safe.” But, with the renovations still ongoing, Taft and the Sidebar’s longtime clientele are eager for the bar to get back up and running again six nights a week (it usually closes on Sunday).
One musician with a long history of playing the Sidebar is Shawna Potter, who fronts the feminist hardcore band War On Women and wrote the book “Making Spaces Safer,” a guide to confronting sexism and harassment in the indie music world. The cover photo of War On Women’s 2011 debut EP was taken at the Sidebar, and Potter will help train the staff of the rebooted venue to keep it as safe and inclusive as possible.
“I created the Safer Space Program so that anyone at risk of identity-based harassment and violence could find places where they felt safer, supported and free to express their authentic selves. My trainings offer a methodology for workers, or anyone representing a space, to respond to incidents in a victim-centered way,” Potter says. “If there’s one thing I know about Rachel, it’s that she puts her whole heart into the things she’s passionate about, and luckily for us she’s incredibly passionate about punk, not just as a music genre, but in the DIY sense. She wants music to be accessible, affordable, comfortable and fun — for everyone.”
Shawn Smallwood, a DJ and musician who is part of the extended family of volunteers helping Taft with the Sidebar revival effort, also has a lot of memories here. “I played my very first show at the Sidebar, actually,” he remembers, noting how many DIY music spaces in Baltimore have closed in recent years. “Every community, whether you’re gay, Black, punk, industrial, it don’t matter, we’re all losing spaces to do what we want to do. So I think it’s important that these places do keep their ethos about them.”
The underground music scene is full of self-styled renegades who relish their artistic freedom, but Smallwood sees the value in people like Taft laying the groundwork for something stable and permanent for the city. “Everybody always wants to steal a pirate ship and go loot and pillage, but nobody ever wants to keep a ship afloat.”
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.