Miami’s funkiest landmark celebrates a milestone

In the shadows of Brickell Avenue’s burgeoning cluster of angular, modern buildings sits one of Miami’s most welcoming joints. A bar where everyone wants to know your name, Tobacco Road is Miami’s most familiar hangout. And that is because all Miamians (natives and transplants alike) at some point have ventured in to the homey hole in the wall.

As the bar celebrates its 100th year next week with a bluesy bash that promises to be as funky as the thousands of other musical revivals held within its down home confines, it is a good time to reflect on what Tobacco Road has meant to multiple generations of South Floridians and to ponder what the future holds for this soulful watering hole amidst a seemingly unstoppable wave of gentrification — which, in my estimation, is tantamount to dehumanization.

A building’s historical value is not solely based on the structure or design of the brick and mortar but rather on the events that took place in a particular edifice and the people that so passionately lived them. If this principle serves as our litmus test, then Tobacco Road stands as Miami’s shrine to live music — uniquely serving as a magical repository for the increasingly endangered American roots music.

And all of this done without the “indignity of the velvet ropes,” as longtime music promoter Mark Weiser told me. Through the years, Tobacco Road has consistently provided Miamians with some of blues music’s greatest performers. John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Albert King, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy have all amped up at the Road.

Oski Gonzalez, who has been promoting at the Road for the past few years, completely vouches for the idea that “funkified spirits wander freely at the bar.” “I’m Cuban and I’m in tune with my spirits,” Oski explained, “And I can assure you that there is a houseful of good vibrations at the Road.”

Whether it’s the tasty chili they serve, the cold beer on tap, the unpretentious nature of the place or the intoxicating music, Tobacco Road is unquestionably an original Miami landmark. Perhaps no band is more synonymous with the bar than our home grown blues band Iko Iko. This week I had a chance to reminisce with the lead singer of Iko Iko, Graham Wood Drout, and get his impressions on the “clubhouse for the blues,” as he labeled Tobacco Road.

For many of us who have followed live music in South Florida for the last few decades, Iko Iko represents the gold standard for soul-nurturing music. Graham’s guttural voice and the band’s bluesy rockabilly repertoire are a stark difference from the tourist-trap, electronica-thumping, over-hyped and over-priced clubs that line the southern end of Miami Beach. “There are so many nights I can remember, when I walked into the place and sensed the glow of excitement in the air. The Road will forever be a special place for us. It is our home,” Iko Iko’s frontman shared.

And “home” is how most of us, frequent visitors, feel at the venue, and that is why it was so discouraging and worrisome to discover earlier this year that the land Tobacco Road sits on had been sold to a foreign investment group. Can it be that yet another Miami landmark is destroyed amid our apathy? One can only hope that we, the citizens and voters of this Magic City, would take steps to prevent such a travesty. The owners of the bar, who sold the land, signed a three year lease to keep the property grooving — after that, however, the future of the venue is up in the air.

For now, let us celebrate what we have while giving our elected officials fair notice, a groovy heads up that one of our most prized landmarks is in jeopardy of disappearing — surely something in the way of a historical designation can and should get done. Let’s cherish the history of the establishment beyond the brick and mortar and for goodness sakes let’s do what we’ve always done at the Road — let’s boogie our blues away.

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