Three years of art, music and cocktails at The Bends

The always-happening St. Pete bar marks a milestone this Saturday. No drip feeds necessary.

click to enlarge The infamous Death Set at The Bends' one-year anniversary party. - Brian Mahar
Brian Mahar
The infamous Death Set at The Bends' one-year anniversary party.

The Bends has a very distinctive ebb and flow based on its positioning at the outskirts of downtown St. Pete; a blissfully subdued happy hour before it comes alive with people, many stopping through to have a first drink or a few on their way into downtown. As the night pushes toward last call, the people making their way out of downtown wash through in waves of merry drunkenness to end their cavorting here before heading home.

Despite its off-the-beaten-path location, the sophisticated dive attracts all walks of life. ‘Burg bar scene regulars that stray no deeper downtown than Central’s 500 Block usually drop in, as do the odd mix of music scensters, local artists and musicians, harmless hipster miscreants and even the odd hip-hop stars; Killer Mike and Yelawolf both nursed drinks at the bartop that was repurposed from a piece of the old John’s Pass Pier.

Overall, The Bends introduced fresh dynamism and creative vibrancy to an area of St. Pete that was pretty stagnant, and in the time since it opened (and the EDGE District was officially established), it has become a bona fide staple. And this Saturday, owners Matt and Victoria Kaye, Craig Dragoonis and Chris Stone mark its three-year anniversary with a big ol’ blowout.

Kaye, the driving force behind its conception, is a St. Pete native who’d moved to NYC to attend art school and threw himself into the service industry to pay for it. Amid managing bars, clubs and late night parties, promoting music, and meeting the woman who eventually became his wife and Bends partner, Kaye ended up shifting career gears. Opening a spot in NYC proved difficult, however, and he’d decided he was done with the place, anyway. “I just felt so disconnected from nature and the water. I always knew I was going to come back to Florida.”

He and Victoria scouted out a spot in his hometown, found a few willing partners, and they hit the ground running after settling here in February of 2012, pooling their respective talents and experience and getting help from friends and family to realize their vision of a dive bar that felt vibrant and vital and reflected all the things its owners cared about: art, music, and fine cocktails. “It’s me, it’s us, it’s just what we like.” The lively DIY creative vibe was inspired by random little NYC watering holes like Lit and Max Fish, which, he says, “were just so alive, I’d have stories to tell after leaving; it wasn’t just about going out for a drink.”

Everything in The Bends was made from recycled materials or found serendipitously on Craigslist, like the exquisite crystal chandelier salvaged from a mansion rehab. All the murals were done for cheap or free by artist friends; Bask painted the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill-inspired submarine on the back room wall, STOIC delivered the three-headed aliens looming behind the DJ booth, and the oversized disembodied hand with index finger pointing down at the entrance in lieu of a sign came courtesy of the Vitale Brothers.

The back room where the twinkling chandelier and shifting laser beams spray fragmented lights onto the gyrating denizen started as a dance spot, with DJs pumping jams every weekend that first year. Once Kaye became acquainted with the local scene, it became a live music spot, too.

Among his favorites is an early Bends supporter, Holiday, aka Ricky Seelbach. “When Holiday played here for the first time, it proved to me that there was amazing, forward-thinking music in St. Pete. He blew me the fuck away.” A New Year’s Eve performance was particularly memorable. “He played out of the back of a box truck, at the stroke of midnight, out in the dirt lot, and there’s smoke and lights and he’s greeting everyone on his reverbed-out mic, and he grabs this giant confetti cannon and boom, shoots it at himself, back into the truck.”

With an upgraded sound system, the music calendar has ramped up noticeably in 2015, and admission is mostly free. While it’s hard to budget paying for everything at such a small place, Kaye’s behind the bar more often than not, and rationalizes, “if I’m not doing interesting things, I’m bored. My problem is, I have so many events going on, I’m almost here too much. If I book it, it’s ‘cause I like it,” he laughs.

He’s always seeking fresh talent to bring into the place, pointing out exciting, energetic young bands emerging from Roser Park’s artistic hotbed like Sonic Graffiti and Archaic Interest. “I’m always about what’s next, just staying ahead of the curve.”

Three years deep, he says, “we’re just trying to stay original and be ourselves … All the cultural things, skateboarding, art, music, bartending, being a part of the community and being a street urchin, that’s just who I’ve always been, that’s just who we all are. That’s what represents us, that’s what inspires us. That’s what keeps us excited and growing.”

The Bends 3-Year Anniversary Party with UFO Sex Scene, Selectric, Booty & The Browns, Sat., Sept. 19, 9 p.m., 919 First Ave N., St. Petersburg. Also coming up at The Bends: Ol’ Dirty St. Pete with Scram Jones, Thurs., Sept. 17; Plastic Pinks with Sonic Graffiti, Part Time Models, Thurs., Sept. 24; Empress of with Abra Sat., Oct. 10. Admission is free for all.

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