CHAMPAIGN — A quarter-century ago, the nighttime heart of Campustown was lit by two bright signs, the Co-Ed Theater marquee and Mabel's, now both gone.
But Mabel's, where there was music almost every day of the month, is coming back for one show Saturday night at Brothers Bar & Grill, which now occupies its former space in the top floor at 613 E. Green St., C, above Spicy Tang.
There were national and international acts like Alice In Chains, Cheap Trick, the Edgar Winter Group, Hum, Husker Du, Koko Taylor, Joan Jett, Sam and Dave, and Soul Asylum.
There were local acts that always seemed on the verge of making it big: B-Lovers, the Elvis Brothers, Last Gentlemen, Otis and the Elevators, Menthol, Poster Children, the Vertebrats ...
"There were 50 bands that could draw a large crowd back then," says Paul Faber, who became a co-owner "by accident" in 1981 when he thought he would be a silent partner.
Faber ended up working long hours, and was a familiar face, with thick hair piled up high in a pompadour.
He says people accused him of aping Buster Poindexter, who had a huge hit in the late '80s with "Hot Hot Hot."
But Faber notes that the man behind Poindexter, David Johansen, had played at Mabel's years before adopting that alter ego, after breaking up with the protopunk New York Dolls.
Besides the local and national acts, you could even see a local guy who was also a national act — Adrian Belew, who played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Tom Tom Club while making solo records for several years in Urbana.
Rob Arrol of local band dick justice loved rubbing shoulders with the big acts.
"The big revelation to me when opening for national acts was that bands with label backing and a tour bus were really not that different from the bands with no backing and slugging it out in the clubs," he says. "We were all in the same boat, essentially. I have great memories of Jim Ellison (of Material Issue) sitting through our sound check and giving us tips on how to better tweak our amps for the room."
After opening for the Goo Goo Dolls, Arrol shared a beer with bassist Robby Takac "while both of us waited to get paid."
"The Goo Goo Dolls were touring in support of their album 'A Boy Named Goo,' and their single 'Name' was climbing the charts. I was dumbfounded to learn they had similar challenges and obstacles that my band was facing, but on a somewhat larger scale," Arrol says.
Another local regular was Mark Rubel, who played in Captain Rat and recorded bands at Pogo Studio in Champaign.
He recalls his band's Christmas shows, as well as:
"The Cramps. The night John Lennon was assassinated that I ended up subbing for J.B. Hutto and the Hawks, opening for George Thorogood. All Vertebrats shows. John Lee Hooker. Adrian Belew. Elvis Brothers, Kool Ray and the Polaroidz. Cheap Trick. George Faber jams, always fun."
There was something almost every night.
"It was amazing how people would just go there to be part of the scene, no matter who was playing," Rubel says.
Among the scheduled bands for Saturday's reunion are Last Gentlemen, Nix '86, The Martyrs, Three Hour Tour (Darren Cooper/Parasol Records), The Jans Project (B-Lovers/Turning Curious), The Surly Bells (Ken Draznik, Jimmy Wald and special guests) and Charlie "The Quaker" Edwards, who will DJ between bands.
Wald stresses that it is not a Vertebrats reunion for him and Draznik.
"Kenny and I are really focused on The Surly Bells and the new songs that we have written, and we are excited about our musical collaboration circa 2016," he says.
Many of Wald's fondest memories "had mostly to do with our fans/friends, and the tremendous times we all had together."
"While we were proud of what we accomplished as a band, we were equally if not more proud of the path we helped to blaze for other groups that played contemporaneously with us, and those that were to follow in the years after we were no more," he says.
Lifelong friendships were made, he adds.
Draznik, too, loved the club.
"I will say that I always thought Mabel's was a nicer club than almost any that we ever played, anywhere," he says. "Jimmy and I could not pass up the opportunity to play music in that space, and we're thrilled that our good friends Nick Rudd, Steve Scariano, Todd Fletcher and Terry Wathen are helping us out by making us sound so much better than we really are."
Arrol says "everyone that worked there was what I'd call 'hardcore cool.'
"They were their own little family and seemed very protective of what they had built and supported. It was only after you played there a few times, were consistently friendly and established a connection that you started to feel welcome."
Memories of a former Mabel's regular
I drank my fair share of beer at Mabel's in the 1980s, and less so in the '90s. Some memories:
Went to almost every Vertebrats show there, and a lot of shows by Combo Audio, a Police-like trio, because a friend liked them.
Long lines for the bathrooms on the big nights, and the odor of vomit.
Christmas Eve 1983, so cold that even a huge crowd for George Faber couldn't warm up the place. The high that day was minus 12.
Husker Du ripping up my eardrums.
Eric Burdon of the Animals and an interminable rap during "Sky Pilot."
If you go
What: Mabel's reunion.
When: Doors open at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Brothers Bar & Grill, 613 E. Green St., C.
Tickets: $17 in advance, $20 at the door.