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Don Maher, Valerie Hewit hope support from local music community will help make new George Street bar a success
Perched at the end of the bar in the newly purchased Black Sheep club on George Street, scrolling through Facebook on his laptop, Don Maher looks right at home.
But it's no wonder.
For years in the early 2000s, Maher served customers from behind that same bar when it was the Fat Cat Blues Bar.
Before becoming a bartender, he would frequent the club as a lover of music, having little direct contact with the countless prominent musicians who stepped on the stage to display their talents at the decades-old establishment — from Denis Parker and Lori Cooper to Roger Howse, Colleen Power and the late, great Ron Hynes.
"The most I'd say to them would be, 'Nice set,' or, 'Great show,'" he said, smiling. "That was it. I'd never go out of my way to talk to them."
Today, as co-owner of that bar, Maher has become known as a huge supporter and friend to countless local musicians, as many of those same big names come to play at the Black Sheep bars.
It's that close relationship with the music community — along with a love of music — that has helped make the original Black Sheep bar — located on the east end of Water Street and co-owned by him, his partner Valerie Hewitt and Kim Brothers — so successful.
He hopes that mutual respect with musicians, along with some support from the public, will help carry that success over to the newly acquired bar.
"We’ve got the best music and the best music fans." — Don Maher
"We’ve got the best music and the best music fans," said Maher, who, along with Hewitt, on April 18 officially took ownership of the George Street bar — located in the middle of the nationally recognized, iconic entertainment strip — from previous owner Roxanne Murphy.
“I had someone ask me, ‘How are you guys getting all these top musicians?' I had to think about it, but I realized they’re all friends of ours."
Not bad, considering they never expected to own even one bar.
When they were offered to buy the original Black Sheep bar on Water Street in September 2014, Maher initially thought it was too small for anything bigger than a trio to play there. It turns out, many big bands play there, with its intimacy attracting numerous patrons.
"And the sound in that room is so good, with the brick and the drop ceilings. The music dissipates, so it’s not bouncing around," Maher said. "So, it worked and it’s still working. We’ve got the best of the best music around."
Hewitt admitted she had trepidations about them buying the Water Street bar. But when the opportunity came up to buy the George Street bar, Hewitt was on board, as she saw how their hard work had paid off with the first bar.
"I had faith. I knew we could do it," said Hewitt, who had banking and government jobs before focusing on the clubs. "I felt we could turn it around. This is a beautiful bar and people loved it for years. With a little revival and a little new music and new blood, we think we can do it. It's still scary. I still worry some days. But we're committed and we don’t give up easy."
"There’s an underlying optimism in St. John’s and across the province," said Maher, who adding that the clubs' early shows are a big hit with patrons. "Everyone is waiting for things to improve economically and the people, themselves, can help that by supporting small businesses like ours and local music."
"I felt we could turn it around. This is a beautiful bar and people loved it for years. With a little revival and a little new music and new blood, we think we can do it." — Valerie Hewitt
With the likes of well-known musicians, who include Mark Bragg, Sherry Ryan and Mick Davis and the Skinny Jims, Maher and Hewitt are confident the club will do well.
“Everybody wanted to see it succeed. It was like we worked together with the musicians to make that happen.
"Both (Black Sheep bars) have their charms and I think they complement each other," said Maher, adding that social media plays a big role in promotion. "We want people to walk in here, even if they don't know who's playing, because they'll be pleasantly surprised. It doesn’t really matter what’s playing, it’s always going to be good."
On Saturday, from 7-10 p.m., the George Street bar will feature Herd of Men, which includes John Hutton, Mac Furlong, Glen Tilley and Sean Harris.
On Sunday, from 3-5 p.m., a benefit for Strong Harbour Strings, a classical music show, is scheduled in aid of its program, which offers youth transformative learning experiences through music.
The complete schedule of events for this month for both bars can be found on the website, theblacksheep.ca.