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Knuckle Down Saloon

in Madison, WI
by Mike Huberty - May 2015

Photo Caption: Spider John Koerner at Knuckle Down Saloon - photo by Terry Talbot

Spider John Koerner at Knuckle Down Saloon - photo by Terry Talbot

Taking up the mantle of music on Madison’s far east side, The Knucle Down Saloon took over from the old Area 51 bar and then became one of the city’s hubs for Blues music (along with other genres). Chris Kalmbach was a veteran of working in the bar business and wanted to set up his own shop in Madison. When the club known as Area 51 on Seiferth Road became available, he jumped on it and The Knuckle Down was born.

Chris picked the name because he’s always been into fighting sports, especially Thai Kickboxing, but he thought that might be a bit too much for the inspiration for the name. So, where did Knuckle Down come from? He says, “If you look at the pictures of John L. Sullivan or Gentleman Jim Corbit (old-school boxers, you know the type, like the one in that manly-man meme), they always have their knuckles down when they’re posing.” And the boxer that’s on their logo is a picture of John L. Sullivan, the last bare knuckle boxing champion of the world. And in true fighting fashion, when he’s talking about how the bar business can be tough, he says with a laugh, “I tell people my best asset in this business is a high-pain tolerance.”

Music, however, is in Chris’ blood. As the son of Minnesota’s other folk/blues hero, Spider John Koerner, Chris has made live music an essential part of the Knuckle Down’s entertainment. There’s four nights of music a week, there’s a weekly bluegrass and country jam, a Thursdays Blues jam, and Fridays and Saturdays it’s always a live show.

“Nostalgically”, Chris says, “I love it when my dad plays here and he’s an icon of the 60s folk blues era (and Spider John will be playing Knuckle Down in May!)”, but when I press him for his favorite artists, he says, “probably a draw between The Jimmys and The Cashbox Kings (who are having an upcoming CD release party as well), they always put on such a classy show.”

For acts that want to play the Knuckle Down Saloon, the best way to get in touch with Chris is through their Facebook page. He says, “Book electronically, let’s start talking on Facebook and then I can hear the links to your music and see what you’re all about.” The Knuckle Down has a full PA system and a lighting rig, so bands don’t have to bring their own. And he’s always open to touring acts if they make sense for the venue, they do have modern rock and hard rock acts sometimes as well, but they shy away from anything too scream-y or aggressive.

For the near future, Chris has plans to expand live music from just the inside of the club to a lot bigger events. “We’re doing a big push this year to make outdoor music a reality this summer”, he says. “My goal is to start out this year and actually have a music festival here, we’ve got a huge parking lot and we’ve got contractors squared away to help with staging. There’s nothing else I know of on the east side like that and being in an industrial park, we don’t have anyone around us to complain.”

And those kind of larger events will definitely make a big impact on the city’s music scene, especially on the underserved (when it comes to live music) far east side. And Chris says Madison is the perfect unique place for the Knuckle Down Saloon to make its mark. “I’ve lived on the east coast and down south and Madison is one of the very few genuine arts-friendly communities out there. There’s a lot of places that pay lip service to the arts, but Madison is one of the few where it’s really ingrained.”

With big plans for the future and a lot of great shows on the docket, Chris Kalmbach and his Knuckle Down Saloon are becoming a staple of live music in town, and even though he joked about a “high-pain tolerance”, he says it’s all worth it. “It feels good watching a roomful of people smiling and dancing and knowing that I’m making my living helping people have experiences like that.”

Knuckle Down Saloon
2513 Seiferth Rd
Madison, WI 53716 (608) 222-7800

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