Sean Kistler nods his head while tapping his foot to an imaginary beat as his left hand cradles the neck of his guitar. His right hand is prepared to strum as he leans forward, lips nearly touching the microphone as he begins to sing. Eyebrows pinched together with intense focus, he fills Fat Fish Pub with his blues music.
This is not uncommon for the small bar located on 158 N. Broad St. Fat Fish is known for being a popular venue for live bluegrass and blues music three to four nights a week. According to local blues artist and music teacher Charlie Hayes, a small-town bartender named Burl Varner had a vision for creating a new music venue in Galesburg.
“In 30 years, there’s been a lot of bars that’s come and went in this town. Back in the eighties, you used to have the Holiday Inn and stuff like that where they had music and you would stay there in the lounge and the hotels,” Hayes said, describing a music scene that has nearly disappeared since.
Varner’s initial plan was to have a music venue for all blues music. When he was the owner, Hayes said that there were many national blues acts that traveled to Galesburg to play at Fat Fish.
Hayes is not the only one who has witnessed a decline in live music venues in Galesburg over the years. Bob Jennings, from Abingdon, Ill. is a recreational musician who plays with Hayes occasionally. According to him, there are not as many live music venues as there used to be.
“In the eighties and nineties it was poppin’,” Jennings said. “Then you got all this here video equipment where people didn’t have to go out and do this [play and listen to live music]. It’s kind of dyin’ out really. It’s kind of sad.”
Due to health issues, Varner ended up having to selling Fat Fish Pub in 2016. However, wanting to keep the music venue alive and going was important to Varner and he was not interested in selling the business to just anyone. That’s when he met Neal Minella and his business partner John Trobe.
After their initial plan of renovating the former Galesburg Elks Club became too costly, Minella and Trobe purchased the bar from Varner. Since then, they have been bringing in local bluegrass and blues bands to perform Thursday, Friday, Saturday and even Sunday nights. Occasionally, Minella will bring in bigger bands from Chicago and other areas around the country.
“He wanted to keep music going here [at Fat Fish]. So, we kind of just scraped together the last little bit we had and bought in here because it was turnkey and ready to go and everything that we wanted … wanted and needed to do for live music in town,” Minella said.
As a local musician with a passion for bluegrass music himself, Minella stated that the transition from performing every night to owning and managing a live music venue was something that just made sense. Despite wanting to shift gears from performing to managing, Minella still finds time to play in a bluegrass band known as Frank F. Sidney’s Western Bandit Volunteers in between bar-tending and managing the music venue.
Today, the biggest challenges he faces when bringing new bands to town is finding a way to build a fan base around them.
“There are some bands that have been playing around here for ten or twelve years that do really well,” Minella said. “You bring a new band in and it’s always a roll of the dice of how many people are going to show up. All you can do is put all of the pieces in place.”
Anytime Minella finds a way to bring a new band into Galesburg he is running a risk. According to him, it is impossible to predict the public and he never knows how many people will show up.
“There’s been a couple of times where I have this band coming in, there’s a big guarantee I have to pay them, and nobody shows up until – I don’t see anybody all day until showtime,” Minella said. “Then they start filing in and it turns out to be alright. It’s a very scary, nerve wracking day when you have a huge bottom line to meet and it doesn’t happen until late in the night.”
Despite some of the risks and challenges he has faced when bringing in new bands to Galesburg and trying to keep the live music scene alive, Minella continues to open his doors to the public for shows.
“The most rewarding part of it is having that room full of your friends and members of the community that really enjoy a particular act,” Minella said. “There’s some people that come in just because they know I have music and they trust my judgment, you know, and just check it out.”