John Henry’s was a legend in downtown Eugene from its first iteration in 1992 until that era ended at the second location in 2013. The third iteration of the once-famous music venue is now in the works at 881 Willamette Street.
Opening sometime early March, John Henry’s returns with the permission of the venue’s first founders, according to Josh Rodriquez and Atom Bouris, two of the new John Henry’s owners.
The first show at the new venue will be Portland’s Amulets with Eugene band Glazier, Friday, March 4. Also confirmed are Detroit-based punk and rockabilly group The Koffin Kats with Brainiax and Bad Sex, Sunday, March 20, and Cincinnati’s Lung, Tuesday, March 29, with many more events planned.
For a decade, the original John Henry’s space was on the 100 block of East 11th Avenue in downtown Eugene. (In the mid-’90s my high school band from Corvallis played a new band night there in a brief heady moment when we thought we might be rock stars.) In 2002, John Henry’s was displaced along with several other businesses to make way for St. Vincent de Paul’s Oak Street Thrift Store and affordable housing. The club moved to 77 West Broadway before the name and nature changed in 2013 under new ownership. That location is now yet another bar, The Drake.
What the first John Henry’s provided Eugene was a place for both local and touring rock and punk bands to play, says Lucy Kerley, the first entertainment booker at the bar and music venue. And looking back, part of its success can be attributed to timing; the early 1990s saw an explosion of DIY punk, indie and alternative music, with Seattle grunge rock in the vanguard.
Cutting the ribbon on the brand-new John Henry’s in its first iteration in 1992 were The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, who were always a draw in the space. That show coincided with a two-night stand from legendary Seattle grunge rockers Alice in Chains at WOW Hall, according to Kerley. After their set, all the members of the band save the group’s late lead-singer Layne Staley dropped by John Henry’s to check out the spot, which Kerley describes as a wide-open box with picnic tables and a bar. Floater, Oswald Five-O and Poison Idea also played the venue.
Eugene was an even smaller entertainment market back then. Nevertheless, with wide-ranging options nearly every night of the week — including jazz, bluegrass and singer-songwriter performances — John Henry’s picked up cachet on the West Coast touring circuit, attracting big names like John Doe from the legendary L.A. punk band X, The Gun Club and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn, Kerley remembers.
“It was the start of something new for the town,” she says.
When John Henry’s moved to the Broadway location, live music continued; Portland’s world- famous folk rockers The Decemberists played there in June 2003, according the band’s online tour archive. Over time, though, emphasis shifted from live performance to themed DJ nights like the wildly popular “’80s Night,” now at Blairally Vintage Arcade in the Whiteaker, and drag and burlesque performances that dispersed to other venues around town when John Henry’s shuttered in 2013. Many of them continue elsewhere today.
Up until that point, though, John Henry’s remained a gathering place for all walks of life, and that’s what this version’s owners, Rodriquez, Bouris and Travis Holiday, hope to recapture, with a renewed emphasis on live music and popular theme nights like burlesque and drag. Rodriguez and Holiday co-own Slice Pizzeria & Bar in the Whiteaker, where Bouris also currently works as the bar manager.
Rodriquez and Bouris both lived elsewhere during John Henry’s first iteration, but they’ve heard the stories and have many fond memories of the Broadway location, as well as a close relationship with Tom Tracey, one of the original owners, who now owns The HorseHead Bar on Broadway.
They’re quick to explain that John Henry’s revival — complete with the original gray steam-train logo and signage, and open and spacious area with the popular stadium seating and some original art promised to return — has direct throughlines to what John Henry’s meant back in ’92.
“We’re excited,” Rodriguez says. “We’re happy to be in the downtown area to pay homage to the original John Henry’s.” That’s so that younger generations can experience it for themselves, while also giving back to the community, he adds.
Janys-Iren Faughn, who also books music at Old Nick’s in the Whiteaker, will be the primary entertainment booker at John Henry’s III. Faughn says bands and booking agents who still remember the original spot are also excited to see it come back.
“The reputation and legacy still stands,” Faughn says.
The March 4 show requires proof of vaccination or proof of negative test; 21-plus, $10 at the door. John Henry’s is at 881 Willamette Street in downtown Eugene. For more information search John Henry’s Eugene on Facebook.