Almost every weekend night since 1989, live music has emanated from the row of storefronts along Block Avenue outside local watering hole, JR’s Lightbulb Club.
The sounds that have escaped the cracks and crevices of that century-old building have been as diverse as the city of Fayetteville itself. From the funky groove of Punkinhead, to underground rock by The Faith Healers, to metal from Vore, or the southern sounds of The Tares or The Paper Hearts. Rap and indie rock. Songwriters. Bluegrass. Plenty of ear splitting karaoke (you know who you are, Sunday night crowd).
Over the course of that time, countless local bands playing original music have cut their teeth on the club’s modest stage – first inside the basement at 21 N. Block Ave. and later in the space next door.
Those bands built their followings at JR’s, from their first shows to their record release parties, as their friends and fans have nodded, sung, and danced along on the front row. Some packed the place, while others played only for the bartenders.
JR’s has hosted countless touring acts, some who were in their prime, some who later became nationally known, and plenty that never emerged from obscurity.
So many guitar solos, drum fills, and bass walks have happened on that stage. It’s seen more than its fair share of spilled beers.
This month, the club that at one time sold more Jagermeister than any bar in the South will celebrate 25 years as a live music venue in Fayetteville.
A bit of history
JR’s Lightbulb Club was opened by 26-year-old Fayetteville resident, Jimmy Rapert (the ‘JR’ behind the name). Rapert, who was a manager at the Old Post Office, had just finished college at the University of Arkansas and was looking for a career when the original JR’s building became available.
It had previously been home to a hole-in-the-wall called Buck’s Cellar Door, a business that Rapert had an affinity for from his nights in college.
“We had an lot of fun there when I was in school,” Rapert recalled. “I loved the live music aspect of it.”
Rapert said he did most of the work to renovate the space himself, and officially opened JR’s as a restaurant and bar in September 1989 on the weekend of the Arkansas-Texas football game.
The name, he said, came from one of Rapert’s managers who helped him open the place – an English major named Pat Barron, who later opened a popular Little Rock bike shop called Chain Wheel.
“When we first took over the place, we were downstairs and there weren’t any light fixtures,” Rapert said. “There were just bulbs hanging down there from the ceiling. I think that’s where the name is from. I think Pat actually came up with it.
“I never really liked it to be honest,” he said.
A second venue
For a while in the late-1990s and early-2000s, JR’s also operated a second location off Dickson Street called JR’s Ballroom, in an area where The Dickson currently sits.
The Ballroom was a much larger venue, capable of holding several hundred music fans, and as a result, was able to cater to some much larger touring acts from around the country.
Better Than Ezra, The Nixons, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, The Flaming Lips, and several others performed at the larger venue. The Ballroom eventually closed after its partners weren’t able to agree to terms on a new lease with the building’s owners.
A move next door
Water Liars / Photo: Anna Hutchison
In the mid-2000s, JR’s moved from its original location next door to the space where it operates today.
There had been a wain in support for the local music scene at the time, recalled Wade Ogle, who now co-owns the bar along with partner Benton Bandy. Ogle and Bandy made the difficult decision to briefly abandon live music at JR’s for a few years.
“We noticed that the upstairs portion of the bar was packed, but no one was going downstairs to see the music,” he said. “At the time, we thought, well, if people just want a place to lounge, we can create that next door and then do something that makes more sense in this space.”
The partners converted the original location to a concept called Tangerine, and JR’s became a jukebox bar.
The quiet didn’t last for long.
“Some bands came to us one night and asked if they could play at JR’s because the venue where they were scheduled had a power outage,” said Ogle.
The bands – Perpetual Werewolf, Fauxnz, The Counterlife, and Kilroy – set their equipment up on the floor next to the front door. The show was so successful that music returned to JR’s, where it reemerged as a mainstay of the bar ever since.
A legacy of live music
While the restaurant aspect of JR’s went through a few early changes, music was always part of the equation.
Rapert and Barron booked occasional bands on the weekends from the beginning, and eventually hired local promoter Chris King (now owner of successful Little Rock venues Stickyz Rock & Roll Chicken Shack and The Rev Room) to bring in bigger acts.
King took the ball and ran with it.
“When Chris came on, he started bringing in bands like The Faith Healers, and Punkinhead, some of the bigger local bands at the time that had been mostly underground,” said Ogle. “He brought a kind of – and I hate this word – but a hipper element to the music, and things kind of took off from there.”
King also started bringing in touring acts like singer/songwriter Todd Snider, Paul Thorn, Pat Green, Better Than Ezra, Zoso, Dash Rip Rock, and others. JR’s eventually became known around the region as one of the premier music venues to play in Fayetteville, along with George’s Majestic Lounge and Chester’s Place.
“We had some great shows,” King said. “My favorite shows were from bands you never see any more. The New Duncan Imperials, Hagfish, MU330.
“I remember Jimmy would say he could tell how the bar was doing when he drove by and noticed that the windows were fogged up,” King said. “That’s when he knew the place was packed.”
King eventually partnered with Bandy, a former JR’s bartender, to open the popular upstairs pizzeria.
When King moved to Little Rock in 1999, Ogle took over booking, and has been responsible for most of the music at the venue ever since.
He mentioned some of the club’s recent shows as standouts in his mind.
“I think that Angel Olsen show a few months ago was a great get,” he said. “Also, Besnard Lakes, a really great psychedelic band that played recently. There have been too many over the years to remember them all.”
A different kind of scene
From pretty early on, JR’s established itself as somewhat of an alternative to Dickson Street.
Located on Block Avenue, and off the main drag of bars catering mainly to the Greek crowd at the University of Arkansas, the club cultivated a diverse audience of music lovers simply by booking a wide variety of genres.
And instead of booking a lot of cover bands, most of the music that has come from the JR’s stage has been written by the band that’s performing it.
Creating a home for original, experimental and underground music is still part of the venue’s unwritten mission statement.
“I think on Dickson Street, you’re going to get a more mainstream audience,” Ogle said. “(JR’s) is a little under the radar. It’s a smaller niche, but it’s really important to the people that come here.”
“The bands that play here – they’re probably never going to fill up the George’s back room, but if you can put 100 people in this room that are into it, that’s a huge success for us on every level,” he said.
Some unforgettable shows
Ask anyone, and you’ll probably get a different answer about specific shows that have been the most memorable at the venue.
We remember the White Stripes, Lucero, and The Greenhornes on 9/11. There was a Postal Service show there a few years later. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, The Dismemberment Plan, Man or Astroman, Jonathan Richman, Aqueduct, Low, Richard Buckner, Wolf Parade, Radish, Reverend Horton Heat, The American Princes, TV On The Radio, MU330, Jack Ingram, Drums & Tuba, and The Mountain Goats all played the venue back in the day. Recently, Angel Olsen, Water Liars, Pallbearer, The Besnard Lakes, Har Mar Superstar, El Ten Eleven, and King Tuff have performed there.
We can remember local bands like the aforementioned Punkinhead and The Faith Healers (Dali Automatic), but also Be, Hunkr Down, Furious George, G Force Cat, Star Sutra, Skirt, Gals Revenge, The Tares, The Tickle, Kings of New England, Woods Afire, Cars That Crash, Nancy, The Paper Hearts, Sigmond Blue, Tyko, Heads are Heavy, and Memphis Pencils playing the old room. Perpetual Werewolf, Voyageurs, Fauxnz, Teenagers, Sw/mm/ng, The Airplanes, The Thunderlizards, Shawn James & The Shapeshifters, High Magic, Dr. Nod, The Chads, Pagiins, Witchsister, Grim Creeper, LLinda have kept the tradition alive in recent years.
That’s just off the top of our heads. Please, jog our memories with memorable shows, and unforgettable bands in the comments.
25th Anniversary Celebration
JR’s will celebrate the legacy of the bar with two nights of music this month on Sept. 26-27.
The idea, Ogle said, is to bring together some good bands to celebrate 25 years of original music at the venue.
“We sort of handpicked eight of the best bands whose members have some history with JR’s,” Ogle said. “And we made it free, so there isn’t a barrier that you can’t afford the show. Basically, we’re just trying to throw a party. ”
Friday night, Sept. 26 will include performances by The Good Fear, High Magic, Doctor Nod, and Family History.
On Saturday, locals May the Peace of the Sea Be With You, The Airplanes, Pagiins, and Monsterheart will perform. Both shows are 18-and-up, and there’s no cover.
Ogle said he hopes to see some faces he hasn’t seen in a while out for the show.
“Personally, I hope we see some of the people that were paramount to the place succeeding,” he said. “Everybody knows when you get to a certain age, you stop going to bars, but I’m hoping to have some, ‘Oh man, I haven’t seen that guy in 10 years’ moments.
“Being here for so long, I’ve seen wave after wave of groups who say, ‘This is our bar,'” he said. “I hope to see some people from all of those groups of customers on that anniversary weekend.”