When news broke of the imminent closing of the Volstead, its customers were caught by surprise. By all accounts and by all appearances, business has been just fine throughout its run on Adams Street Downtown, in the middle of a block famously epicentric to the city’s local music scene, across the street from De Real Ting Café, which was once The Milk Bar, and just a few yards away from what used to be the legendary Moto Lounge. The end of August will see the end of The Volstead, and with it the end of a brief but potent era—a passage worth noting for more reasons than one.
The Volstead did not pioneer the region’s speakeasy aesthetic—that distinction belongs to Dos Gatos, later followed by Sidecar and The Parlour, both in San Marco, then Prohibition Kitchen down in the Oldest City—but they certainly did it best. As you go through the whole experience, from the dapper door-dudes out front to the neo-flappers tending bar inside, and the older-than-old-school gangsters memorialized on its walls, stepping into The Volstead always felt like stepping backward in time, into a bygone era of sound and fury, frenetically paced and fabulously festooned. It was never a dive bar or a hipster haven. Patrons dressed to impress, drinking high-end cocktails from copper mugs, conversing over candlelight and nodding to one another, like insiders sharing a secret that could bring them all to ruin if discovered. The vibe felt vaguely illicit, but it was totally legal, which is quite the opposite of how a lot of bars operate these days.
From almost the start, a major part of that bar’s brand was the monthly Saturday sets by the Raisin Cake Orchestra, arguably the best small-group jazz band working the circuit today. After more than 40 nights navigating the concrete floor that serves as The Volstead stage, they’re making their last stand on that bandstand on Aug. 12. It is a must-see musical event for all who’ve seen them there before, either on the weekend or sometimes on First Wednesday Art Walk.
To be clear, Raisin Cake Orchestra is not really an orchestra; you couldn’t fit one in that space unless you put them on the roof. It’s actually a quartet, but more than two dozen musicians have played in it since its founding in 2014. This last Volstead gig will feature three of the four core members—Jim Snyder on saxophone and clarinet, John Chapman on the double-bass and the beast-like Ben Adkins on drums—joined by regular collaborator Larry Wilson, a Grammy nominee who plays keyboards and organ. (He’s also producing their album, recorded this month and available later this year.)
“The Volstead has some of the best atmosphere you’ll find,” says Chapman, who’s played there with RCO dozens of times. “The décor, the lighting, the sound. The staff is amazing, top to bottom.” Chapman, Snyder and guitarist Steve Gallatin all came together as students in University of North Florida’s fabled jazz program a decade ago, bonding over a shared love of small-group swing. Think John Kirby Sextet, Artie Shaw & his Gramercy Five, and especially The Benny Goodman Trio (which was, incidentally, the first integrated band in America). It’s a style built on speed and precision, sudden starts and false endings, classics like “Crazy Rhythm,” “Avalon” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
For his part, Chapman, being a bassist, is partial to ballads. “We do a ballad called ‘Willow Weep For Me’ that has a really nice, bluesy 12/8 feel, soulful harmony, and a melody that tells a great story even without the lyrics. It really encapsulates our flavor, and even though we have stuff that is played at a faster tempo or a funkier beat, this song has loads of emotion already written into it that brings out the best of who we are as a band and captivates listeners.”
“I’m so sad to see a great hangout that has become such an integral part of the Downtown landscape close,” says Chapman. “I hope it can be avoided.” Note also that RCO has four other gigs booked for August—they’ll be at Ragtime Aug. 20 , and Prohibition Kitchen on Aug. 11, 19 and 25. Ultimately, The Volstead was not undone by revenuers, or squads of ax-wielding blue-hairs; it was just business, and now it cruises along to its final days with the smooth dignity of bootlegger boats plucking contraband from the river at night. As the great Eddie Condon once said about Chicago jazz, “We don’t flat our fifths—we drink ’em!”