Nargile Turns One

Nargile’s One Year Anniversary this Saturday is more like Thanksgiving than the birthday party you’d expect. Not to say it won’t be a great party, but founder Garenne Bigby has a lot to be thankful for on Dec. 4.

Bigby dropped out of the University of Illinois in spring 2003. While he worked as a manager at Barfly, he made plans for his own place. On Dec. 5 last year, Nargile opened its doors for the first time. The amazing thing is that only five days before, the previous owners had closed Ruby’s, the local bar that Nargile replaced. With the help of community volunteers and the sponsorship of two major beverage companies, the large establishment was wired, furnished and decorated in record time. Not many businesses have that sort of community support before they open, but then again, Nargile isn’t your average bar.

Bigby emphasizes the social aspect of Nargile. “At a bar,” he says, “You and your friends get your drinks, then go off to do your own thing.” To counter that, plush furniture and hookahs are waiting in the large lounge to get people sitting together and talking. A comfy stage in another room is for some of the best local and national acts around, and speakers are located all around the building, allowing good hearing from any location. Downstairs, there’s another bar, and the possibility for more musicians on the same night.

Even that wasn’t social enough for Bigby’s style, though. To get started, booking agent Seth Fein focused on national independent rock acts. This caused two problems. Bigby is a great fan of indie rock (his group, Goldfronts, portrayed post-punk legends New Order at the Great Cover Up), but he felt the culture created a less-than-social atmosphere at the club. Also, it was necessary to charge at the door to help pay for these acts. “People hate paying cover!” says Bigby.

To reconcile these issues, the lounge began in spring 2004 to book more urban acts, particularly local talent, not only hip hop, but also reggae and salsa music. “The DJ has it easy: He can play what the people want to hear at any time,” Bigby notes. DJs also mean lower or no cover charges, so they are an obvious choice for Nargile. The result is a venue that’s not only social, but also inclusive; it’s one of the few places downtown where minorities are sometimes in the majority. It’s also one of the few places where you’ll see townies and college kids set down their plowshares and sometimes even share a table or bar. This change of focus has yielded a Nargile more in touch with Bigby’s vision, and he can honestly say that he’s “proud of all the changes Nargile has gone through.”

Local band The Apollo Project play every Wednesday at Nargile. Guitarist Billie Kirst praises the club, which combines “a punk-rock-like venue at a small, intimate scale.” Candles, wall hangings, paintings by local artist Chris Davis, and the red motif create the impression of a “mother’s womb.” Kirst tells the story of sitting in with local hip-hop group Melodic Scribes at a Nargile party, when, all of a sudden, all the power in the building went off. Except, that is, for his guitar amp. With no beats to follow, he and the crowd were able to keep the Scribes’ rhymes coming until the power came back on.

Phillip Bec works for Red Bull, which promotes Nargile. The club was an obvious choice because it puts a “different twist on the traditional nightlife” of beer monoculture. Nargile is not only the sort of place that can convince patrons to dress up in white or black formalwear (the White Affair and Black Affair, respectively), but also encourages people to try a new drink. Both Bec and Bigby have found that in business, image can be more important than volume.

Bigby notes, “Both bands and fans traditionally have had a bad relationship with the venues.” As dysfunctional as the record company and band partnership is, the venue has control over both musicians and fans. Getting booked is everything for young bands, and it’s the bouncers, not the label bigwigs, who throw out the rowdy fans at a show. Nargile provides a vision of the benevolent venue, and with the extensive merging of record companies and regional radio, this can be a revolutionary “new record label.”

This is all to say that there’s a lot to be thankful for. On Dec. 4, while musicians and fans can give thanks for all that Nargile provides, Bigby will be thanking the staff, musicians and patrons who helped Nargile survive its first eventful year.

The One Year Anniversary begins at 10 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Nargile in Champaign. Music will be provided by the Goldfronts, featuring DJ Bozak.

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