The Mint: 70th Celebration
09/28 Beausoleil featuring Michael Doucet (Grammy Award Winner)
10/03 Robben Ford CD Release
10/04 Charlie Louvin (Country Music Hall of Fame)
10/12 Hacienda Brothers CD Release + The Mother Truckers
10/19 Lowen & Navarro 20th Anniversary
11/09 Tim Reynolds
11/16 JGB featuring original members Melvin Selas & David Kemper
11/23 Pancho Sanchez (Grammy Award Winner)
12/07 Charlie Hunter Trio (2nd performance added : 12/08)
The Mint: A Look Back
Yet The Mint has endured. Located at 6010 W. Pico just east of Crescent Heights Boulevard, it is celebrating its 70th year in business in 2007. The Mint’s early endeavors in music are lost to history. We do know that it played host to live acts as long ago as the 1950s; a vendor who sold janitorial supplies to the club back in the ’80s said one of his relatives, the noted blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton, performed there.
It wasn’t the joint that would be considered most likely to become a long-running Los Angeles musical institution. When musician Jed Ojeda started renting out the club for party gigs by his blues band the Drive-By Shooters in the mid-1980s, the Mint was a mere 1,000 square feet. It was a long shotgun-style room, with a bar lining the western wall and a narrow ledge on the eastern wall where customers could perch their drinks (and, sometimes, themselves). You had to maneuver around the crowded space in front of the small bandstand to get to the restrooms at the back of the club. For a time, a gigantic portrait of the venerated bluesman Big Joe Turner beamed down at from one wall.
But it was a comfy place, as down-home and funky as the music Ojeda brought in the room, and people dug it. In 1990, he acquired the club, outbidding another prospective owner who wanted to turn it into a lesbian bar. It quickly became a mid-city home for the blues performers who made the majority of their living playing the South Central club circuit. Smokey Wilson (whose band members included Ojeda), the King Brothers, Guitar Shorty, Arthur Adams, Louisiana Red, and the vocal team of Bobby King & Terry Evans (veterans of Ry Cooder’s group) all gigged regularly at the Mint, which booked live music seven nights a week.
The advent of The Mint as a blues venue coincided with a fresh burst of national interest in blues music; in the early ’90s, Robert Johnson became a household name, while young stars like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan ignited a sales rebirth for the genre. It wasn’t long before the Pico Boulevard club was playing host to national touring acts like William Clarke, Coco Montoya, and John Mayall.
A 1992 memorial date for the late Chicago blues songwriter and producer Willie Dixon (who lived for many years in Glendale) led to one of the first of many celebrity appearances at The Mint: Stevie Wonder made a surprise showing, sitting in on “Rock Me Baby” with a jam band led by harmonica ace Juke Logan. (The club would later mount benefits, featuring Koko Taylor and others, for the Dixon family’s charitable Blues Heaven Foundation.)
The Mint’s stature as a top L.A. blues venue was cemented with the 2000 release Shoutin’ in Key, recorded at the club in 1998 by Taj Mahal and his Phantom Band; the set won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album. Jimmy Witherspoon’s Live at The Mint, cut in 1994 with guitarist Robben Ford and released in 1996, received a Grammy nomination.
The club’s commitment to the blues never wavered, and young artists like Susan Tedeschi would receive valuable exposure there, but by the mid-’90s the market for the genre had grown oversaturated in Los Angeles, as high-end clubs like B.B. King’s and House of Blues opened local outlets. As a result, The Mint began to diversify its bookings with more eclectic acts.
Some important local performers broke out of the club: Ben Harper did some of his first shows there, while the Wallflowers played regularly on Sundays for a year. Among national artists, a then-unknown Jeff Buckley debuted at The Mint, drawing a meager crowd of 20; Macy Gray also played her first L.A. show on Pico, while Shelby Lynne appeared long before her Grammy-winning breakthrough.
One of The Mint’s most cherished regular performers was actor-musician Harry Dean Stanton, who played there like clockwork for more than two years. Given his stature as one of Hollywood’s finest character players, his shows drew a glittering crowd: Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn were among those who dropped in.
The Mint’s humble beginnings became a distant memory as the venue expanded and remodeled. In 1996, the club took on new partners and grew into adjacent space to the east, adding an additional 2,000 square feet. The venue now sported an expansive stage, upgraded sound, professional lighting, spacious booths, and, most importantly, plenty of room to move.
However, in 2003, The Mint hit a severe business bump, and the club was forced to close its doors for a time. But Todd Christiansen, who operated the like-minded venue 14 Below in Santa Monica, purchased The Mint in 2004, and Jed Ojeda, who had left day-to-day operations in 1998 to work as a label A&R executive, returned to the reopened club and took on booking responsibilities.
Within months, The Mint was again mounting top-drawer entertainment, and was drawing name talent for once-in-a-lifetime performances. A May 2004 benefit for engineer Terry Becker, who had manned the board for the Grammy-winning Taj Mahal album, featured unforgettable appearances by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.
The Mint has continued to diversify its offerings with a full complement of jazz acts and Sin City’s ongoing alternative country evenings. The club also now sports one of the best kitchens in town; Los Angeles CityBeat recently wrote, “The menu had promised a feast for the palate, the band the same for the ears, and The Mint had delivered.”
Typically, you can still see some staggering gigs there – 2007 has already seen striking shows by acts ranging from Americana legends Ray Wylie Hubbard and Alejandro Escovedo to rising neo-soul star Ryan Shaw and New Orleans’ favorite, The Rebirth Brass Band. And familiar Mint performers like Ian McLagan of the Small Faces and Leo Nocentelli of the Meters continue to gig there. Today, 70 years after its doors first opened, the Mint still prides itself on being – just as Jed Ojeda envisioned it back in 1990 — a place for music lovers.
-Chris Morris, August 2007
(Indie 103.1 / Rolling Stone / Billboard)